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61st and Peoria: Positive progress dominoes in long-troubled neighborhood thanks to community resource officer

Donnie Johnson lofted a spiral skyward, and young Errick Yance reached out in anticipation.

The Tulsa police officer told the 8-year-old the pass would be a tough one to catch. The football bounced off Errick’s hands and tumbled to the pavement at the Savanna Landing apartment complex near 61st Street and Peoria Avenue.

“That was your fault,” Errick told Johnson, a former University of Tulsa wide receiver.

“No, that was your fault,” the 34-year-old retorted with a laugh.

Johnson did turn up the difficulty level on the youngster with that throw, but the community resource officer is positioned to make Errick’s life — and those of others in Hope Valley — better. Seven months ago, Johnson replaced Amley “Popsey” Floyd in Hope Valley as its community resource officer.

“I play football, basketball — in my trunk right now I have a volleyball,” Johnson said in a recent interview with the Tulsa World. “If they want a meal, I have coupons from QuikTrip to give to them to get a free meal at the QuikTrip kitchen.

“Overall, as a community resource officer, I feel like that’s my role is to provide for the community. If I have it, or if I have the means to get it, I will.”

A valley finding hope

Hope Valley, with boundaries from 56th Street to 65th Street between Riverside Drive and Yorktown Avenue, is the target of a $503,000 Community-Based Crime Reduction Program federal grant that Tulsa was awarded in late 2016.

Since the 1990s, the 61st and Peoria area has been seen as synonymous with crime in Tulsa. The notorious execution-style quadruple homicide at Fairmont Terrace (now Savanna Landing) in 2013 served as a catalyst for the latest intense push for action.

Two grant research consultants on Tuesday provided the community with an update on efforts, which primarily focus on Savanna Landing and the nearby Kwick Stop. They suggested that changes atSavanna Landing, including 24-hour security and zero-tolerance policies on tenants fighting and illegal activities, might provide a lesson in how to reclaim a neighborhood from crime.

In Hope Valley, burglaries have dropped nearly 30% and robberies about 20% — both percentages greater than in the city as a whole, according to Police Department statistics. At Savanna Landing, formerly Fairmont Terrace, assaults are down 20% to 25% since the changes were made. Burglaries there have declined about 15%.

Recent Savanna Landing resident surveys found that nearly 70% now feel safe at night. Only about 40% did in 2018 and 30% in 2017.

The grant period ends in September, although the city has requested a brief extension that would run into January. The grant initially was for two years, but the city later gained approval for a third year.

“It’s going to take the community to step up and volunteer and do group activities together as a whole and just love on each other,” Johnson said. “To me, that’s what has to be done to be sustainable moving forward.

“I see that in Savanna Landing. I wouldn’t say I see that in other places outside of Savanna Landing.”

Stealing a chance

Community buy-in outside of Savanna Landing is like a fresh flower peeking through a sidewalk crack.

In Johnson’s first two weeks as community resource officer, he visited many businesses in Hope Valley that he suspected might often experience petty crimes. Larceny. Trespassing. Disturbances.

He asked managers to call him if he could possibly help. They alerted him of a man who routinely walked along Peoria Avenue, openly stealing items.

Johnson said he came across the man the next day.

“I walked up to him, and I said, ‘Hey, today it’s gonna stop. We’re not gonna have this anymore,’ ” Johnson recalled. “He looked at my shirt and he said, ‘Thank you, Officer Johnson. I needed that.’

“And since then I have not seen him. The dollar stores have not called me and told me he’s in their stores.”

A store manager called him once to report that two teenagers had run out with several items. Johnson quickly spotted them and beckoned them over.

He made them return the stolen goods and apologize before having a chat about their actions. One said he was just being a knucklehead. The other had fallen on hard times as a convicted felon unable to find work.

Johnson handed the stunned teen a lengthy list of resources that could help him. Consider this a blessing, he said, cautioning that another officer might not handle it similarly.

Six months later, Johnson was approached by a person he didn’t recognize as he set up for a community event.

“‘I’m the guy who was stealing from the dollar store,’ ” Johnson recounted. “I said, ‘Oh, OK. I remember you. How’s life now?’ And he said, ‘I want to let you know that — and I appreciate what you did for me that day — since that day I have rededicated my life to Christ. And I have a job now.’ ”

A need for mentors

Johnson patrols Hope Valley. That’s his grant-based mission.

The Police Department wants him to improve community relations as an avenue toward crime reduction and to bolster trust in officers.

He makes it a point to stop by apartment complexes, businesses and Johnson Park to interact with people. He intends to start doing that more with those who live in houses, too.

Apartment managers have him speak with tenants who get a bit rowdy and disturb neighbors. Parents ask him to talk to children who are acting out. After all, he has three kids of his own and another on the way.

He wants to see more male mentors step up in Hope Valley for directionless youths.

For example, Johnson Park was littered with trash after Fourth of July celebrations. So he knocked on a neighbor’s door to ask for a broom and rake to clean up the formidable mess.

That person’s child offered to help. Before long, a dozen more had come over to help the pair, and the job was finished in 2½ hours.

“You wouldn’t see a lot of kids do that,” Johnson said. “But if they see me out here working hard, they’re probably thinking to themselves, ‘Well, why not?’ … I don’t stay on this side of town. They live here. So if Officer Johnson is out here working hard, why aren’t we?”

Johnson also coordinated a trip to the Gathering Place. He brought in an ex-gang member to talk with youths about bullying and gangs, afterward hosting a community barbecue.

‘I used to be scared’

During the grant update Tuesday, City Councilor Jeannie Cue said Johnson is doing a “fantastic job.”

Kimberly Owen, vice president of the Savanna Landing Apartment Tenants Association, has lived there for nearly a decade. She credited Johnson with helping change her attitude toward police — that she needed to avoid them — into a relationship.

“If you watch the news, a lot is portrayed that the police aren’t on our side, that … they just want to lock us up,” Owen said. “But that’s not true. I used to be scared.”

At the grant’s end, Johnson is expected to retain his role. The city will take over paying his salary.

“I don’t anticipate that we will give him specific boundaries after the grant expires, and his work will be in areas that we identify as we go along and where needs exist,” said Capt. Thom Bell, his supervisor. “Hope Valley will continue to be an area that he works in, and I don’t see any change to that occurring.”

Dealing in dominoes

The first month or two in Hope Valley brought some chilly receptions for Johnson.

His predecessor had earned trust and support. Johnson was an unknown and potentially unwelcome cop.

Early on, he hung out in Savanna Landing’s community room with a set of dominoes on a table. He had developed a reputation as a domino man on his beats in north Tulsa, using his passion as a fun ice-breaker to interact with residents.

“When I would introduce myself, some people would just keep walking because they don’t know who you are,” Johnson said of Savanna Landing. “They’ve never seen you on this side of town.”

But during the grant researchers’ presentations, Johnson highlighted his 47-2 record in Hope Valley — an illustration of the community warming toward him.

The following day, a Tulsa World reporter sat with Johnson for a conversation over a game of dominoes in Johnson Park. A woman walked over halfway through to ask Johnson who was leading.

“He’s beating me right now. It’s OK. I’m gonna get him,” Johnson quipped.

“I bet you will,” she responded with a hearty laugh, knowing what fate likely was to befall the journalist. Johnson did ultimately improve his record to 48-2.

“You don’t see people just walking up to the police and laughing and giggling and having a good time,” Johnson explained. “You normally don’t see that. But if they trust you, they’ll feel more open and more prone to come up and have that interaction with you.”

A fatal shooting

A lukewarm welcome in Hope Valley isn’t his first experience with uncomfortable conversations.

Johnson and two Tulsa County deputies fatally shot Joshua Barre in June 2017 as he carried two knives into a north Tulsa convenience store during an episode of psychosis. A stun gun had failed to work, and Barre didn’t comply with commands.

A large and restless crowd gathered at the scene, prompting law enforcement to break out riot gear. A riot failed to manifest, and the tense situation eventually cooled off.

The District Attorney’s Office later cleared the three of any criminal wrongdoing.

Afterward, Johnson said he wanted to work in that area to show his love for the community and that he wouldn’t run away from what transpired. He did so when the next shift change opportunity came around.

Counseling, prayer and being around his spiritual leaders help him cope, he said.

“There were people who know I was involved in the incident,” Johnson said. “But the good thing about that is I wanted to tell my story the way I saw it happening in my eyes. And a lot of people understand. And there were some people who didn’t understand.”

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Trump says director of national intelligence is resigning

WASHINGTON — Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats is leaving his job next month, ending a two-year tenure marked by President Donald Trump’s clashes with intelligence officials.

Trump announced Coats’ departure on Aug. 15 in a tweet Sunday that thanked Coats for his service. He said he will nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, to the post and that he will name an acting official in the coming days. Ratcliffe is a frequent Trump defender who fiercely questioned former special counsel Robert Mueller last week during a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Coats often appeared out of step with Trump and disclosed to prosecutors how he was urged by the president to publicly deny any link between Russia and the Trump campaign. The frayed relationship reflected broader divisions between the president and the government’s intelligence agencies.

Coats’ public, and sometimes personal, disagreements with Trump over policy and intelligence included Russian election interference and North Korean nuclear capabilities. Trump had long been skeptical of the nation’s intelligence agencies, which provoked his ire by concluding that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the goal of getting him elected.

A former Republican senator from Indiana, Coats was appointed director of National Intelligence in March 2017, becoming the fifth person to hold the post since it was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to oversee and coordinate the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies.

Coats had been among the last of the seasoned foreign policy hands brought to surround the president after his 2016 victory, of whom the president steadily grew tired as he gained more personal confidence in the Oval Office, officials said. That roster included Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and later national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

Coats developed a reputation inside the administration for sober presentations to the president of intelligence conclusions that occasionally contradicted Trump’s policy aims.

His departure had been rumored for months, and intelligence officials had been expecting him to leave before the 2020 presidential campaign season reached its peak.

Trump’s announcement that Coats would be leaving came days after Mueller’s public testimony on his two-year investigation into Russian election interference and potential obstruction of justice by Trump, which officials said both emboldened and infuriated the president.

Coats had been among the least visible of the president’s senior administration officials but, in his limited public appearances, repeatedly seemed at odds with the administration, including about Russia.

For instance, he revealed to Mueller’s investigators how Trump, angry over investigations into links between his campaign and Russia, tried unsuccessfully in March 2017 to get him to make a public statement refuting any connection.

“Coats responded that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has nothing to do with investigations and it was not his role to make a public statement on the Russia investigation,” Mueller’s report said.

Trump later called Coats to complain about the investigation and how it was affecting the government’s foreign policy. Coats told prosecutors he responded that the best thing to do was to let the investigation take its course.

In February, he publicly cast doubt on the prospects of persuading North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program despite the diplomatic efforts of the administration, which has touted its outreach to the isolated country as one of its most important foreign policy achievements.

Coats, in testimony to Congress as part of annual national intelligence assessment, said North Korea would be “unlikely” to give up its nuclear weapons or its ability to produce them because “its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.”

Trump publicly bristled at the testimony of Coats, the head of the CIA and other officials who contradicted his own positions on Iran, Afghanistan and the Islamic State group as well as North Korea. The intelligence officials were “passive and naive,” he said in a tweet.

Last July, Coats and the president appeared at odds following Trump’s widely panned news conference in Helsinki alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump said he saw no reason to believe Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, drawing bipartisan criticism and a rebuttal from his intelligence chief.

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security,” Coats said.

The president later said he misspoke in Helsinki.

That same month, Coats appeared to scoff when told in an interview that Trump had invited Putin to Washington.

“Say that again,” Coats said, cupping his hand over his ear on live television. He took a deep breath and continued: “OK. That’s going to be special.”

He later said his comments at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado were “in no way meant to be disrespectful or criticize the actions of the president.”

In December, Coats said he was “deeply saddened” when Mattis resigned in protest of Trump’s foreign policy, including the decision to withdraw American troops from Syria. Coats called Mattis a “national treasure” who “will be sorely missed.”

Coats, 76, served in Congress from 1981 to 1999 as a member of the House and in the Senate. He served as ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2005 and returned to the Senate in 2011. He decided not to seek re-election and retired from Congress in January 2017.

In a tweet, Trump praised Ratcliffe: “A former U.S. Attorney, John will lead and inspire greatness for the Country he loves.”

Legal expert says Stitt mistaken on tribal gaming fees assessment

OKLAHOMA CITY — An American Indian law expert says Gov. Kevin Stitt is using incorrect figures to make a case for renegotiating the state’s tribal gaming compacts.

In a recent opinion piece, Stitt said “most” tribal compacts nationwide include gaming exclusivity fees that pay states 20% to 25%, compared to the 4% to 6% that Oklahoma gets from its compacts which were agreed upon more than a decade ago.

“This statement is simply not true,” said Stephen Greetham, Chickasaw Nation general counsel.

Greetham said that as of June 2015, only 14 out of 276, or 5% of the tribal-state gaming compacts across the country, provided rates that high.

The most common tribal-state gaming compact rate is zero, Greetham said. Some 107 of the 276 compacts, or 39%, have a payment of zero, he said.

The majority of compacts, 56%, have a rate of less than 10%, Greetham said.

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Donelle Harder, a Stitt spokeswoman, was asked about the discrepancies.

Of the 169 compacts around the nation (five years ago) that included revenue-sharing provisions, 164 involved payments tied to gaming revenues and a large majority of those had maximum rates higher than Oklahoma’s Class III machines, Harder said.

Tribes operate 131 gaming facilities in Oklahoma. Tribal gaming has generated more than $1.6 billion for the state from Class III gaming, which includes slot machines, roulette and craps.

Stitt believes the compacts expire on Jan. 1, 2020, and must be renegotiated.

Several tribes are under the impression the compacts are evergreen, with an opportunity to renegotiate certain terms.

Many tribes first got notice of the governor’s desire to renegotiate through a Tulsa World opinion piece published in early July before also sending letters regarding the matter.

Greetham called Stitt’s handling of the matter “unfortunate.”

Tribes have operated in good faith and abided by the compacts for 15 years, he said.

“The way we look at it, the state of Oklahoma has derived enormous benefit,” Greetham said.

Stitt’s comments, said Greetham, implied that tribes were not doing their fair share, which came across as offensive.

But Harder expressed that Stitt is proud of the various ways in which tribes are growing Oklahoma and contributing to the state’s success.

“He wants to expand that opportunity for them with a compact that reflects market practices,” she said.

She quoted Stitt as saying, “As your governor, I am absolutely committed to reaching new agreements with our tribal partners that recognize their historic and significant economic contributions to Oklahoma and provide a framework for them to have even more continued economic growth in the years ahead.”

Greetham said Stitt is treating the situation like there is an adversarial relationship between the tribes and state government, which is not true.

He said Stitt has ambushed the tribes in an apparent effort to manufacture a crisis where none exists.

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