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Protesters chant as Trump visits mass-shooting victims in Dayton, El Paso

EL PASO, Texas — Aiming to play the traditional role of healer during national tragedy, President Donald Trump paid visits Wednesday to cities reeling from mass shootings that left 31 dead and dozens more wounded. But his divisive words preceded him; large protests greeted him; and biting political attacks soon followed.

The president and first lady Melania Trump flew to El Paso late in the day after visiting the Dayton, Ohio, hospital where many of the victims of Sunday’s attack in that city were treated. For most of the day, the president was kept out of view of the reporters traveling with him, but the White House said the couple met with hospital staff and first responders and spent time with wounded survivors and their families.

Trump told them he was “with them,” said press secretary Stephanie Grisham. “Everybody received him very warmly. Everybody was very, very excited to see him.” Trump said the same about his reception in the few moments he spoke with the media at a 911 call center in El Paso.

But outside Dayton’s Miami Valley Hospital, at least 200 protesters gathered, blaming Trump’s incendiary rhetoric for inflaming political and racial tensions in the country and demanding action on gun control. Some said Trump was not welcome in their city. There were Trump supporters, as well.

In El Paso, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke spoke to several hundred people at a separate gathering. O’Rourke, a potential Democratic 2020 presidential rival, has blistered Trump as a racist instigator but also told those in his audience the open way the people of his home town treat each other could be “the example ot the United States of America.”

Emotions are still raw in both cities in the aftermath of the weekend shootings. Critics contend Trump’s own words have contributed to a combustible climate that has spawned death and other violence.

The vitriol continued Wednesday.

Trump’s motorcade passed El Paso protesters holding “Racist Go Home” signs. And Trump spent part of his flight between Ohio and Texas airing his grievances on Twitter, berating Democratic lawmakers, O’Rourke and the press. It was a remarkable split-screen appearance for TV viewers, with White House images of handshakes and selfies juxtaposed with angry tweets.

Trump and the White House have forcefully disputed the idea that he bears some responsibility for the nation’s divisions. And he continued to do so on Wednesday.

“My critics are political people,” Trump said as he left the White House, noting the apparent political leanings of the shooter in the Dayton killings. He also defended his rhetoric on issues including immigration, claiming instead that he “brings people together.”

Some 85% of U.S. adults believe the tone and nature of political debate has become more negative, with a majority saying Trump has changed things for the worse, according to recent Pew Research Center polling. And more than three quarters, 78%, say that elected officials who use heated or aggressive language to talk about certain people or groups make violence against those people more likely.

In Dayton, raw anger and pain were on display as protesters chanted “Ban those guns” and “Do something!” during Trump’s visit.

Holding a sign that said “Not Welcome Here,” Lynnell Graham said she thinks Trump’s response to the shootings has been insincere.

“To me, he comes off as fake,” she said.

Dorothee Bouquet stood in the bright sun with her 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son, tucked in a stroller. She told them they were going to a protest “to tell grownups to make better rules.”

But in El Paso, where more protests awaited, Raul Melendez, whose father-in-law, David Johnson, was killed in Saturday’s shooting, said the most appropriate thing Trump could do was to meet with relatives of the victims.

“It shows that he actually cares, if he talks to individual families,” said Melendez, who credits Johnson with helping his 9-year-old daughter survive the attack by pushing her under a counter. Melendez, an Army veteran and the son of Mexican immigrants, said he holds only the shooter responsible for the attack.

“That person had the intent to hurt people; he already had it,” he said. “No one’s words would have triggered that.”

Local Democratic lawmakers who’d expressed concern about the visit said Trump had nonetheless hit the right notes Wednesday.

“He was comforting. He did the right things, and Melania did the right things. It’s his job to comfort people,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, who nonetheless said he was “very concerned about a president that divides in his rhetoric and plays to race in his rhetoric.”

“I think the victims and the first responders were grateful that the president of the United States came to Dayton,” added Mayor Nan Whaley, who said she was glad Trump had not stopped at the site of the shooting.

“A lot of the time his talk can be very divisive, and that’s the last thing we need in Dayton,” she said.

Grisham, responding on Twitter from aboard Air Force One, sad it was “genuinely sad” to see the lawmakers “immediately hold such a dishonest press conference in the name of partisan politics.”

Despite protests in both cities, the White House insisted Trump had received positive receptions. One aide tweeted that Trump was a “rock star” at the Dayton hospital.

The White House did not allow reporters and photographers to watch as he talked with wounded victims, medical staff and law enforcement officers there but then quickly published its own photos on social media and released a video of his visit.

There was discord in El Paso, too. Rep. Veronica Escobar, the Democratic congresswoman who represents the city, declined to meet with Trump. “I refuse to be a prop,” she said in an interview on CNN.

Visits to the sites of mass shootings have become a regular pilgrimage for recent presidents, but Trump, who has sometimes struggled to project empathy during moments of national tragedy, has stirred unusual backlash.

Though he has been able to summon soothing words and connect one-on-one with victims, he often quickly lapses into divisive tweets and statements — just recently painting immigrants as “invaders,” suggesting four Democratic congresswoman of color should ”go back” to their home countries even though they’re U.S. citizens and deriding majority-black Baltimore as a rat-infested hell-hole.

As the presidential motorcade rolled up to a 911 center in El Paso, it passed a sign aimed at Trump that said “Racist go home.”

Elsewhere in the city, O’Rourke told several hundred people that his hometown “bore the brunt” of hatred from the shooting but could also hold an answer to the strife.

“The way that we welcome one another and see our differences not as disqualifying or dangerous but as the very source if our strength, as the foundation of our success — that needs to be the example of the United States of America,” O’Rourke said.

On the eve of his trip, Trump lashed out at O’Rourke, who had tweeted that Trump “helped create the hatred that made Saturday’s tragedy possible” and “should not come to El Paso.”

O’Rourke “should respect the victims & law enforcement — & be quiet!” Trump snapped back.

And on his flight between one scene of tragedy and the second, Trump said he turned in as another 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, excoriated him in a speech that slammed him as incapable of offering the moral leadership that has defined the presidency for generations and “fueling a literal carnage” in America.

Trump declared the speech “Sooo Boring!” and warned that, “The LameStream Media will die in the ratings and clicks” if Biden wins.

City Council hears complaints of lack of diversity in Tulsa Police Department

Tulsa Police Maj. Ryan Perkins listened Wednesday night as nine people stood before the City Council to lament the lack of diversity in the Police Department. As the department’s training director, it was important for him to be there.

“The problem becomes that we have been dealing with this for decades and decades and decades, and we come here and we act as if this is something new,” said state Rep. Regina Goodwin.

Alvin McDonald, a retired Tulsa police officer, pointed to the most recently graduated police academy class, which he said included no African Americans.

“The city deserves a lot better than that,” McDonald said.

Another retired Tulsa police officer, Keenan Meadors, said he grew up in north Tulsa and can remember a time when more minority officers patrolled the neighborhoods.

“When there was more minority police officers, especially black police officers there, the kids could look up to them and relate to them and give information,” he said. “It was just a different situation where normally the black officers live in their communities.”

Peggy Burgess suggested the police create an apprentice program to assist those people who don’t have the means or the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree, which all Tulsa Police Department candidates must have.

“I understand that there are many people of good character and intellect who lack the financial resources necessary to pursue a college degree full time,” Burgess said.

Perkins didn’t speak during the meeting. That will come next week, when the City Council explores the lack of diversity in the Police Department as part of its ongoing examination of the city’s Equality Indicators reports.

But he did have a few things to say after the meeting when questioned by the Tulsa World.

“It is absolutely the goal of the city of Tulsa Police Department — it has been our goal for years — to demographically represent the city,” he said.

The Police Department goes to great lengths to recruit diverse classes for its academy, including visits to historically African American colleges and trips to Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, Perkins said.

“We are significantly underrepresented in Hispanics much more than African Americans,” he said.

The average age of Hispanic residents of Tulsa is 19, resulting in a dearth of potential Hispanic applicants who have graduated from college, Perkins said. That is why the Police Department goes to west Texas, eastern New Mexico and Arizona to look for candidates.

“We find we have to go there because we have to find second- and third-generation Hispanics who are in college who see this as a potential profession,” Perkins said.

He acknowledged that the most recent academy class to graduate had no African Americans in it but said it did include a large number of Hispanics and several women, including a Hispanic woman.

He described the current academy class “as one of the most diverse that we have had in years.”

“So the idea that we don’t have any African Americans going through the academy is absolutely false,” Perkins said.

The Police Department has explored — or is exploring — every suggested remedy that was offered by speakers at Wednesday night’s meeting, including Peggy Burgess’ idea for an apprenticeship program, Perkins said.

“We are actively in discussion with a local university to try to see the feasibility of a degree-completion program where students who do not yet have a bachelor’s degree could finish their bachelor’s degree while they are in the police academy,” Perkins said. “We don’t know whether that program is going to come to fruition or not.”

But Perkins is confident that the city is on the right track when it comes to attracting a diverse workforce. Tulsa is caught up in a nationwide trend, he said, where law enforcement agencies large and small are having trouble recruiting not only minority candidates but candidates in general.

Still, Perkins said, “Compare us to Oklahoma City or the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. We have better current diversity numbers.”

Next week’s Equality Indicators special meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Liddy Doenges Theater at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

DA drops marijuana-trafficking case in Pawhuska amid ongoing questions about handling hemp in Oklahoma

PAWHUSKA — The contentious ordeal surrounding the seizure of a massive shipment of hemp and the arrests of its transporters came to a quiet conclusion Tuesday when the entire case was dismissed a day earlier than planned.

Prosecutors dropped the marijuana-trafficking charges against Andrew Ross and David Dirksen on Tuesday, seven months after the business partners were charged. Had they been convicted, they faced 15 years to life in prison.

A court appearance set for Wednesday morning didn’t take place despite a motion filed a month ago by the buyers to release some or all of the confiscated hemp.

Pawhuska police pulled over a tractor-trailer for allegedly failing to stop at a traffic light about 3 a.m. Jan. 9. The rig’s two drivers, as well as its security detail in a separate vehicle, were arrested several hours later despite the two security officers’ attempts to convince law officers that the cargo was legal industrial hemp.

Sarah Stewart, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol spokeswoman, said Tuesday that there still isn’t a field test to tell hemp from marijuana.

“Right now, if our troopers encounter someone carrying large amounts of what they claim to be industrial hemp, our suspicion alone is not enough for probable cause to make an arrest,” Stewart said.

District Attorney Mike Fisher released a statement a week ago saying he believes that the security guards were “duped” into participating in the illegal shipment of 4,300 pounds of marijuana in an approximately 18,000-pound load of mostly hemp. The statement was co-signed by defense attorneys.

The episode demonstrated how unprepared Oklahoma and possibly other states were after the 2018 Farm Bill on Dec. 20 made industrial hemp legal and forbade blocking its transport between states.

A Tulsa World reporter reached out this week to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry regarding how hemp is handled in the state after news of the Pawhuska arrests went national.

The Agriculture Department recommends that hemp transporters carry a current license, a certificate of analysis and — if possible — a copy of the license or contact information for the processor.

The Patriot Shield security guards said they went above and beyond those suggestions.

Ross said he had certificates of analysis of lab results listing the THC levels, licenses and registration for both the buyer and supplier, and certification from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

“It’s obviously pretty disappointing,” Ross said. “With the amount of paperwork we had, a reasonable action by law enforcement would have been to — even if intent on confiscating the product until they got test results back — there was absolutely no reason to hold us or charge us.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in late May issued a legal opinion reiterating that hemp is no longer a controlled substance and that neither states nor tribes may prohibit its interstate shipment.

The USDA noted that it expects to release regulations “implementing the new hemp production authorities” this year.

Gov. Kevin Stitt signed Senate Bill 868 in April to give the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry authority to establish rules for the transportation of hemp.

“ODAFF will begin work to develop those rules as soon as the USDA provides guidance under the national program,” the agency said in a statement.

Ross said the USDA memo tried to clarify murky matters, “but even then there’s still confusion.” Terms aren’t clearly defined, and states are interpreting rules in their own ways, he said.

“Basically, it’s left open too much to interpretation,” Ross said.

A prominent issue is whether hemp that doesn’t satisfy the 0.3% THC or less requirement is noncompliant hemp or illegal marijuana. Or, in the case of noncompliant hemp, at what point over the limit is it considered marijuana.

“That’s really kind of the big sticking point right now,” Ross said.

Matt Lyons, one of Patriot Shield’s defense attorneys, previously said medical marijuana typically isn’t lower than 10% THC. So medicines on the low end of the THC content spectrum have roughly 20 times more THC than what Lyons considers to be noncompliant hemp.

Of 11 samples from the seized cargo tested by the federal government, the highest sample measured 0.5% THC, with a margin of error of 0.1 percent, according to the results previously obtained by the Tulsa World.

Fisher later went on a local radio program to say further testing at Redlands Community College in El Reno found several samples that tested above 1% THC. Those results haven’t been released publicly.

Fisher previously has said federal law defines industrial hemp as 0.3% THC or less and that therefore any concentration above that is marijuana.

Kenny Naylor, ODAFF director of consumer protection services, said there is no such label as “noncompliant hemp.”

The product is either hemp at 0.3% or less THC or marijuana if the cannabis is above that threshold, Naylor said. Marijuana remains a federally controlled substance.

“If we perceive an intentional action by the grower, we will turn the case over to local law enforcement,” Naylor said.

Based on the 2018 Farm Bill, Naylor agreed that lawmakers never meant for hemp violations to become criminal matters.

The 2018 Farm Bill specifically states that “a hemp producer that negligently violates a State or Tribal plan … shall not as a result of that violation be subject to any criminal enforcement action” by federal, state, tribal or local governments.

Ross, 29, and his business partner, Dirksen, 31, spent six days in jail. Each posted a $40,000 bond Jan. 15, the same day prosecutors charged them with aggravated trafficking in marijuana.

Also charged were the two truck drivers — Tadesse Deneke, 51, and Farah Warsame, 33. All four live in different states. Deneke and Warsame spent nearly a month in jail, unable to pay the bond.

Fisher dropped the charges against Deneke and Warsame in March at the urging of defense attorneys. He said his office determined it was apparent that neither was aware of the trailer’s contents they were told to haul.

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With English as second language, hefty hemp shipment’s truck drivers unsure why they are jailed for doing their jobs

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Investigation nets charges against 19 Oklahomans suspected in child sex crimes

Correction: This story misstated the number of federal charges filed related to the operation. A headline misstated the type of charges. The story and headline have been corrected.

More than a dozen Oklahomans have been charged after a lengthy investigation related to child sex crimes that involved multiple agencies.

The effort, dubbed “Operation Independence Day,” prioritized locating missing minors believed to be at risk of sexual exploitation. The effort led to nine defendants being indicted in federal court related to the operation.

U.S. Attorney Trent Shores said during a news conference that four minors identified by state and local authorities were victims of enticement and sexual abuse.

Most of the nine defendants were indicted on allegations they attempted coercion or enticement of a minor. Three others were levied charges on various child pornography charges. Most of the defendants, said Shores, allegedly contacted their victims through social media.

“I think these cases are an important reminder of the ease with which child predators have access to our children, have access to our families,” Shores said. “Virtually any social media application, any website, any community gaming forum that your children may participate in could make them vulnerable, could give a child predator access.

“I don’t say this to strike fear, but I say this to ensure parents and children have that open line of communication.”

One defendant was indicted after it was discovered he allegedly had sex with a 14-year-old girl, according to court documents.

Indictment information was unavailable Wednesday morning for two others charged as a result of the operation.

Assistant District Attorney Erik Grayless revealed that the Tulsa County District Attorney's Office charged 10 individuals with 25 separate counts, including facilitating sexual contact with a minor, lewd proposals to a minor and child pornography charges.

“Criminal elements of Tulsa County should take a message, the feds and the state are working together in order to make our children safe from these type of offenses,” Grayless said.

The local efforts — which involved the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office along with Tulsa, Broken Arrow and Bixby police departments — were part of an ongoing national operation dating back to 2003.

Nationwide, the efforts resulted in the recovery of 82 minor victims, the identification of 21 others and the arrests of 67 suspected traffickers, according to the FBI.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in a prepared statement that the two primary goals of the efforts were saving minors and prosecuting sex traffickers.

“Child sex trafficking is a heinous crime that preys on the most vulnerable in our society,” Barr said. “Perpetrators victimize children in communities throughout the country, and we are determined to find and rescue them.”

The FBI-led task forces leveraged resources and intelligence from its federal, state, local and tribal partners. In 2003, federal officials launched the Innocence Lost National Initiative to address “the growing problem of domestic sex trafficking of children,” according to an FBI release. Through that work, more than 6,600 child victims have either been identified or recovered. The initiative has also resulted in more than 2,700 convictions, authorities said.