The scene was shocking: A mentally ill man carrying two butcher knives in one hand was shot to death by law enforcement as the man walked into a north Tulsa convenience store.
Of course, the events that led up to the fatal shooting of 29-year-old Joshua Barre on June 9, 2017, didn’t begin there.
It started as an untreated mental illness and a judicial order for a mental health assessment, followed by law enforcement aborting attempts to take Barre in for treatment, as well as failed Taser deployments on him.
Etta Lowe-Barre knows she can’t change the past, but three years after the death of her son, she said she is still waiting for change so that other families can avoid a similar calamity.
That’s why, amid the protests due to the killing of George Floyd, the Barre family opted to host a peaceful rally Tuesday to honor Barre’s memory. They drew attention to Black Lives Matter and also what they called Mental Health Matters.
“Our message is that we don’t want this to happen again to anybody, because this has been so devastating for our families and it touched everybody,” said Lowe-Barre.
“We just want everyone to get training so they know how to deal with mental health issues,” she said.
Three years after the fatal shooting of her son, Lowe-Barre said she believes little has changed to prevent another occurrence similar to what her son and family experienced.
As evidence of her belief, she tells of Joshua Harvey, who died in 2018 after police officers used their Tasers 25 times on the unarmed black man after he broke a glass door and went inside a downtown Tulsa bank.
“We have to speak out to help the public understand,” Lowe-Barre said.
Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado declined to talk about specifics of Barre’s death, citing an ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit filed against him, his deputies and the Tulsa County Commission on behalf of Barre’s estate. Spokeswoman Casey Roebuck said no TCSO policies were changed as a result of the deadly shooting.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing linked to the matter.
The federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Barre’s estate cites a lack of adequate training and supervision of the mental health unit.
Other claims: Deputies failed to protect Barre when he suffered from severe psychosis, they failed to intervene to protect Barre during this same time period, and policies failed to train deputies on how to properly assist citizens under court order with severe or complex mental conditions.
Tulsa attorney Dan Smolen, who is representing the Barre estate in the lawsuit, said law enforcement had “numerous opportunities” to subdue Barre with less-lethal force prior to fatally shooting him.
“When law enforcement officers are tasked with supervising citizens with a severe mental illness, the consequences can be — and often are — disastrous,” Smolen said in a written statement.
The county, Regalado and the deputies, in their legal response to the lawsuit, all denied any wrongdoing.
A jury trial is set for February 2021.
In court papers filed on their behalf, the three deputies and Regalado all deny that any constitutional violations took place, which they claim eliminates any liability for the sheriff or the deputies.
The sheriff in a court filing claims the three deputies’ actions were “objectively reasonable and in good faith, under the totality of the circumstances” and that they are entitled to qualified immunity, which protects officers from personal liability while on the job so long as their actions don’t violate clearly established federal law.
Qualified immunity for law enforcement has come under scrutiny in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
U.S. House Democrats this week unveiled a criminal justice reform measure that aims to end qualified immunity for law enforcement.
President Donald Trump said he is opposed to ending qualified immunity for officers.
Regalado speaks proudly about the mental health programs and training his office provides the public and its deputies.
“I don’t know if another county has a unit dedicated to mental health,” Regalado said, referring to the squad by the same name. He described the mental health unit as a five- or six-member squad that issues summons to individuals to appear in court and picks up individuals who are the subject of judicial civil detention orders for mental health assessment.
The unit handles about 700 civil pickup orders each year, Regalado said.
Members of the unit all receive Crisis Intervention Team training, named for a nationally known program developed in Memphis to aid law enforcement in dealing with those in a mental health crisis, Regalado said.
The unit also regularly attends de-escalation classes and otherwise works hand in hand with the mental health system, Regalado said.
Michael Brose, chief empowerment officer with the Mental Health Association Oklahoma, spoke about mental health-related calls involving law enforcement officers after Barre’s death.
“I think we’ve made progress here in the community since then,” he said, adding the agency is still not satisfied.
“I would argue that if you spend money on the front end, then you have a better chance for better outcomes to save money and heartache on the back end.”
Brose lauded the city of Tulsa’s efforts to launch its Community Response Team program around the same time Barre died.
The program, which has been in a pilot mode for the past three years, teams a police officer with a licensed mental health professional and a fire department paramedic to respond to mental health calls.
Initially offered just two days a week, the Community Response Team now operates 30 hours a week on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Brose said the hope is to secure funding to expand the program to two shifts per day, seven days a week.
“I think sometimes these innovative ideas are dismissed or they are mitigated or sort of strung along because we feel like we don’t have enough money,” Brose said. “But I think it is more than that. It’s about looking at how we are allocating and how we are employing resources.
“I’ve always said, and I stick by this, that it is not fair to send our law enforcement people into situations where they don’t have the training that they need. Any mental health professional would be taxed to their very max by some of the situations that law enforcement runs into with untreated mental illness every day.
“But that’s all the more reason why we need to look for all kinds of ways to better collaborate with mental health professionals,” Brose said.
The city of Tulsa is trying out another program that integrates mental health professionals in the city 911 dispatch center.
Capt. Shellie Seibert, TPD mental health coordinator, said the department was on track to embed a crisis counselor in the city’s 911 dispatch center prior to COVID-19 hitting here.
The program would utilize members of Tulsa’s Family & Children’s Services’ Community Outreach Psychiatric Emergency Services unit to take calls that meet certain criteria, rather than dispatch an officer.
“That should prevent some unnecessary contacts with police for those in a mental health crisis,” Seibert said.
Program training is scheduled to resume in July, she said.
All Tulsa Police officers, Seibert said, otherwise receive about 60 hours of mental health training during their 26-week academy. They are also required to participate in two hours of in-service training every year, Seibert said.
The classes include topics such as dealing with autism patients, use-of-force and de-escalation skills, she said.
The department also has operated a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program of its own since 2002, Seibert said.
About 160 officers on the force, two chaplains and seven dispatchers have gone through voluntary CIT training, Seibert said.
“What we’ve seen is more utilization, more officers asking for CIT training,” Seibert said.
When officers “sign up for this job,” Seibert said of new recruits, “they do so with the belief they will be hunting down homicide and rape suspects rather than deciding on whether to use force in dealing with someone who is mentally ill.”
“So we really want officers to have the tools they need and the community to trust in that so we don’t those tragic incidents, which we’ve seen recently,” Seibert said.
Regalado, meanwhile, places much of the blame for poor mental health treatment funding on policymakers, asking “What have they done in terms of getting true treatment and facilities in which to treat those with mental health and substance abuse issues?”
He said the county has yet to see any windfall from the 2016 voter approval of State Question 781 — a measure that, along with SQ 780, would reduce simple drug possession crimes and some property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
SQ 781 called for the state to determine how much money was saved from the diversion of the former felony crimes and return that windfall to local communities for substance-abuse treatment.
“Well, that hasn’t come to fruition,” Regalado said. “From the top to the bottom, we haven’t done what we said should be done by policymakers, yet law enforcement continues to meet the demands placed upon us in regards to mental health and substance abuse.”
Meanwhile, TCSO continues to operate groups of cells at the Tulsa County jail that are dedicated to housing those with mental health issues, the sheriff said.
“We continue to meet the challenges, but it is time for elected officials to step up to the plate and do the things that they had told the people they were going to do and do in a way that has long-lasting effects and not just quick, run-of the mill decisions that later fall apart and have no substance to them,” Regalado said.
After Barre died, Regalado said at the time that he hoped that he didn’t “die in vain,” a reference to a need to dedicate more resources on mental health issues in the state.
Last week, Regalado echoed that sentiment from three years ago.
“I hope that Joshua didn’t die in vain,” Regalado said again. “I hope that our policymakers will start paying attention to the needs of the people, that we will give meaningful and appropriate resolutions to a very complex issue that will be lasting and again not put it all on law enforcement like we have historically done.”
State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, attended the rally Tuesday. He told the 100 or so present that the state has yet to properly fund mental health treatment. Had it, Matthews told the group, Barre would likely “be alive today.”
He called on law enforcement to continue looking at less-lethal means to subdue individuals who present a threat to themselves or others.
Matthews told the Tulsa World that the state could save $1 billion over the next 10 years in deferred corrections costs if it would adopt more health care and substance abuse treatment options.
“I’ve long been an advocate for more funding for mental health and substance abuse because I feel that contributes to us being the No. 1 incarcerator in the world,” Matthews said.
So, what will it take to keep it from another Joshua Barre case from happening again?
“Us demanding that our elected officials and leaders be accountable for prioritizing those things that we believe are important,” Matthews said. “And today, at this rally, we’re saying that mental health care and substance abuse needs to be a priority.”
Tulsans walk to Joshua Barre’s home during Mental Illness Matters service
When President Donald Trump arrives in Tulsa next weekend for his first rally in 125 days, he will be entangled in a partisan and social ideological struggle.
As America is currently embroiled in a strengthening pandemic, caught in the grips of historic unemployment and awakened by citizen-led protests of police brutality, Trump is scheduled to hold a campaign event in a city that recently acknowledged the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Trump’s rally is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, a day after the annual Juneteenth commemoration of the emancipation of black slaves. The president’s BOK Center appearance — less than a mile from Black Wall Street — sparked strong responses from local citizens and political figures who believed the president deliberately disregarded the historical significance of the race massacre and Juneteenth to spite black Americans.
Tulsa’s Juneteenth event is typically one of the biggest in the country but was canceled this year because of COVID-19 risks.
Then late Friday — after the Trump campaign received criticism from national leaders, late-night talk show hosts and political observers — the president had a surprising about-face.
“We had previously scheduled our #MAGA Rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for June 19th — a big deal,” he wrote on Twitter. “Unfortunately, however, this would fall on the Juneteenth Holiday.”
Saying he was influenced by “African American friends and supporters” who wanted him to not distract from observation of Juneteeth, Trump moved the rally to June 20.
“I am thankful President Trump recognizes the significance of June 19 and has chosen to move his campaign rally out of respect to Oklahomans and the important Juneteenth celebrations,” Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a statement after Trump reversed course.
Regardless of progressive push back within the last week, Oklahoma is a conservative stronghold. And Trump — even with all the controversy that surrounds the office he holds — draws tremendous support in the state.
But the president’s olive branch — regardless of his newfound recognition for the holiday — is unlikely to sway some Tulsans who planned rallies and counterprotest demonstrations after learning of a Trump visit.
Mareo Johnson, pastor at Seeking the Kingdom Ministries, denounced Trump’s rally due to its insensitive timing.
In response to the BOK Center event, Johnson, a member of Black Lives Matter in Tulsa, scheduled what is being billed on the group’s Facebook page as a “Trump Protest” along John Hope Franklin Boulevard on Friday before, like Trump, changing the event to Saturday.
“Even though he changed the day, it is still around that moment (Juneteenth),” he said. “At least now it’s not that date, but it still has an effect on me.”
The goal of the event, Johnson said, is to not necessarily protest the president or the thousands of Trump supporters who will descend on Johnson’s hometown.
The demonstration is expected to be one that encourages community camaraderie, still celebrate Juneteenth and allow speakers to freely express themselves about current events and openly condemn racism — something Johnson fears could be associated with the Trump campaign rally.
“What follows him (Trump) is a spirit of hate,” Johnson said. “Even if he doesn’t have those intentions, that’s what people get from him. With him coming, it will fuel hate in people.”
Johnson talked about “creating an atmosphere of love” and orchestrating practical discussions concerning race relations that have once again come to the forefront amid the death of George Floyd in late May to counterbalance whatever vitriolic sentiments might be present.
The Black Lives Matter event is one of several alternative gatherings to be held either Friday or Saturday upon the president’s arrival.
Eli J. Guerrero, who lives in the heart of the Greenwood District, is organizing a “Trump Campaign Trail Counter Protest.”
According to an online description of the protest, participants are encouraged “to be prepared to tackle issues faced by the multitude of others” they say have been impacted by the Trump administration.
The grievances, said Guerrero, lie along the race, gender, sexuality and immigration spectrum.
The plan for the protest is to have demonstrators representing various backgrounds line street corners with signs and be a “visual representation” as a show of solidarity.
“... It’s that he would strip people like me of health care rights four years to the day when 49 people lost their lives,” said Guerrero, who identifies as a two-spirit activist. Guerrero referenced Trump rolling back Obama-era health care protections for people who are transgender on the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
“His presence here is offensive to anyone who is part of any marginalized community,” Guerrero said. “That’s a lot of Tulsa. There are a lot of queer people here. There are a lot of non-Christian people here. There are a lot of indigenous people here. He’s insulting every single person, and he’s voted against our right to exist.”
While some displays of peaceful civil disobedience are rooted in vilifying the nature of a Trump event, others like “Rally Against Hate” promote a positive interaction for diverse audiences.
“I’m glad he changed it so we wouldn’t have to worry about holding three different rallies,” said organizer Tykebrean Cheshier about a rally that will take place at Veterans Park on Saturday. “We are gathering in solidarity with those who have been oppressed.”
The event, moved to the same day when Trump is expected in town, will feature a voter registration area, provide snacks for participants and collect items for a canned food drive.
“We can just celebrate Juneteenth by itself and do our rally the next day,” she said.
A Trump stop in Tulsa for the second time in the last two presidential campaign cycles only affirms the state as a consistent conservative advocate.
“The fact that he picked Tulsa, I think that we should be proud that our U.S. president is coming to the middle of the country to bring his message to talk to everybody,” said Don Burdick, CEO of Tulsa-based Olifant Energy.
Burdick explained that hosting a valued Trump rally — combined with Tulsa going all out to court Elon Musk and Tesla — is something to celebrate and “not cause division.”
What he has not agreed with is assessments that Trump rallies encourage or attract extremist behavior by the president’s allies.
“It’s scary,” Burdick said of the accusatory rhetoric that such events are a breeding ground for supporters to project racial animus. “I hope that message is condemned, because it’s horribly out of line to the sitting president of the United States. Oklahomans aren’t like that.”
Burdick is joined by some of Oklahoma’s conservative political leaders who share his enthusiasm. In his message late Friday, Gov. Stitt said he’s “excited to host the president.”
Featured Gallery: Tulsa Race Massacre ... This is what happened in Tulsa in 1921
The goal behind Mayor G.T. Bynum’s proposal to create an Office of the Independent Monitor has always been a simple one: improve trust between the police and the public through transparency, accountability and outreach.
But there has been nothing simple or easy about getting the program implemented.
In the year and a half since Bynum pitched the idea at a City Council/Mayor Retreat, the police union has consistently opposed it, city councilors and citizen advocates have failed to reach a consensus, and the mayor, seeing the handwriting on the wall, has pulled the plan from consideration.
In March, a proposal from Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper to put the issue to a vote of the people through a city charter amendment died when just three of nine councilors voted in favor of sending it to the City Attorney’s Office for review.
The charter amendment would have given the OIM more authority than Bynum had proposed, including subpoena power. Hall-Harper initially had the support of Councilors Lori Decter Wright, Jeannie Cue, Crista Patrick and Kara Joy McKee. But Cue and Patrick pulled their support in the days leading up to the vote.
Also opposing the measure were Councilors Phil Lakin, Ben Kimbro and Connie Dodson. Councilor Cass Fahler was not present for the vote.
Now comes another chance. Bynum and advocates for the program announced earlier this month that they would work together to bring the proposal back to the City Council.
“What I committed today to is going through that ordinance process (to create the OIM) and then, if the council adopts that ordinance and establishes it, then we would go to collective bargaining with the additional responsibilities that would require contractual agreement,” the mayor said.
In that one sentence, Bynum encapsulated the simple but incredibly difficult process of establishing a police oversight program. To get the OIM program he wants — one modeled after the Denver OIM — the mayor doesn’t only need the City Council’s support, he needs cooperation from the police union.
Bynum’s proposal has always called for giving the OIM three primary responsibilities: to follow up on citizen complaints about police and review Tulsa Police Department Internal Affairs’ investigations of use-of-force incidents; review best practices for police and make policy recommendations; and conduct community outreach.
Only one has stood in the way of the program being implemented: review of use-of-force investigations.
“Internal Affairs investigations are conducted confidentially, and citizens don’t have a means of verifying results,” Bynum said in announcing his proposal in January 2019. “I think we owe it to the citizens and to the officers to do better.”
But who would do the reviews? How much authority would they have? And which use-of-force incidents would be reviewed?
Bynum’s intent was to give Tulsa’s OIM powers similar to those granted to the Denver OIM. Those would include being present for internal affairs investigations and providing recommendations on how investigations into use-of-force or other serious incidents should proceed.
The Denver OIM can also give public recommendations on policies, discipline and training.
“Just from a pure policy standpoint, I would love to just do exactly what they do in Denver,” Bynum said Thursday. “That was the goal.”
It didn’t work out that way because Tulsa is not Denver. It has a different form of government, different state laws it must abide by, and a collective bargaining agreement with the police union that requires that changes to working conditions be negotiated through the collective bargaining process.
“We asked our legal department to take their ordinance that they have in Denver that created their independent monitor, their citizens oversight board, and then apply it to Tulsa with the legal realities of what we have here,” Bynum said.
What came back was a proposed ordinance that gave the OIM 10 working days to review Internal Affairs investigations into use-of-force and other incidents involving Police Department personnel to ensure that they were conducted properly.
Only after the Internal Affairs investigation was completed would the OIM have access to investigative reports, interviews and evidence.
The OIM would have no authority to discipline an officer or to recommend discipline.
Bynum blames himself for not making it clear to city councilors and OIM advocates last year that his goal all along has been to implement as much of the Denver OIM model in Tulsa as possible.
“The key difference between now and where we were last year is, I think there was a breakdown in communication in understanding that there would be follow up if the council established the office by ordinance to work through those other issues in collective bargaining,” he said.
That work will begin anew this week when the mayor, joined by Hall-Harper and other OIM advocates, sits down with the city legal department to discuss what powers Tulsa can grant its OIM and what powers it cannot.
“You want to take the Denver model and basically split it up into two things,” Bynum said. “... Here are all the things we can do legally under our contract that we can do through an ordinance, and I think that is almost entirely what I proposed last year.
“And then list two is here’s all the things that would fall under the Denver model but need to be collectively bargained — they can’t be done through ordinance.”
Given that the mayor’s next proposal will likely look much the same as the one he presented last year, there is bound to be pushback.
Dodson said Thursday that she can’t support the creation of a new government entity at a time when the city is furloughing employees because sales tax collections have plummeted. Bynum’s original OIM proposal called for spending $500,000 a year on the program. The Police Department’s annual budget is approximately $120 million.
“I would not be comfortable allowing additional funds for a new department to be created when we don’t know how long we’re going to have to work on recovering from this pandemic and the economic hit that we have had,” Dodson said.
Jerad Lindsey, chairman of the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police, has said previously that the union opposes the latest effort to establish an OIM in Tulsa. On Friday he added another reason why — a proposal by State Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, to establish a state Office of the Independent Monitor within the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office.
“In light of recent developments with a leadership plan from the state of Oklahoma, I think it is premature for us to talk about spending precious city tax dollars in an economic crisis when it appears the state of Oklahoma is willing to provide this function for us,” Lindsey said.
Gallery: Tulsans walk to Joshua Barre's home during Mental Illness Matters service