The year was 2001, and tensions between some black Tulsans, including black police officers, and the Tulsa Police Department were running high.
Some of the Tulsa World’s headlines that year tell the story: “TPD Investigation: Federal inquiry may be lengthy.” “Councilor backs police inquiry.” “City’s police officers told to keep mum” and “Saga a long time brewing.”
At the time, a federal lawsuit against the city by 19 black police officers alleging bias in promotion, training and discipline remained unsettled after four years. Another federal lawsuit was filed after officers handcuffed a 15-year-old boy and pepper-sprayed his mother, the wife of a police officer, after mistaking their car for one reported stolen earlier.
The Department of Justice was investigating whether the department had a pattern of policing that deprived citizens of constitutional rights. The NAACP and two other groups asked the City Council to investigate the department.
The tensions could have sparked angry protests or even outbursts of violence similar to those seen recently in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting death of an unarmed black teen by a white officer.
But in the years that followed, city leaders quietly focused on addressing citizens’ underlying concerns, even though some officials did so only under a court order.
DOJ officials closed their inquiry without need for further action. The city agreed to a federal consent decree that led to changes in how black officers were treated. The department also agreed to collect data on officers’ interactions with citizens, including use of force, and to install cameras in police cars.
Today, community leaders say the city has made progress in how police relate to blacks, Hispanics and others who may distrust law enforcement. But even the city’s top cop acknowledges: “We’re not there yet.”
With national attention focused on events in Ferguson, the World interviewed community leaders on their thoughts about race and law enforcement in Tulsa. Here are excerpts of their comments.
Steven Williams, student at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa
Williams, a pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Bartlesville, was among the speakers at a “Ferguson Vigil for Healing” in John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park last week.
“The issues that came to a head exist throughout the U.S. There is no U.S. city that is exempt from these issues, including Tulsa, and I would say in many ways especially Tulsa. We could have just as easily been Ferguson. We have a history of racial strife … that has not been addressed and healed appropriately.”
“This park is a wonderful step in that process. There’s been dialogue in recent years, but the hard conversations … are remaining resentful, and the white community in particular is unwilling to listen to the depth of the grief and the pain and the fear that people of color experience on a daily basis. … The divides that were here before the race riots and here after the race riots have not been healed.”
Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan
Jordan began working as an officer at the Tulsa Police Department in 1969 and left in 2005 to join the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. He returned as Tulsa’s police chief five years ago under Mayor Dewey Bartlett.
“We are not there yet. We are not where we want to be. I am very resolutely going to continue to chip away at problems I see, … but I think we’re not there.”
“Race relations is all about trust. … The fact remains that these stories get passed down, and so when you look at race relations and the success of it being about trust, there’s an underlying mistrust there because of what happened in the past. I think we have to be very out in the open when we talk about those things.”
“I grew up in Indiana and lived in Chicago and in the Milwaukee-Indianapolis area. There were protests for a lot of different reasons, everything from anti-war and civil rights. … We’ve achieved more racial equality in this country because of protests. … (Not) all protests are … good. However, all protests are certainly protected constitutionally. That’s a right we should cherish.”
“We are between 10 and 11 percent (black officers on the department’s force of 762), which, again, we are not there yet. We are just now exploring some new initiatives to try to get minorities from the city of Tulsa. I’d really like to hire people who have a vested interest in Tulsa. … Hispanic officers, that’s probably our biggest challenge just because of the sudden growth of the Hispanic community.”
“There’s a lot of meetings we go to, and some of them are not the most exciting meetings, and some of them, people vent on you. But I ask my division commanders, I ask my officers to go and listen to what people have to say. The very fact that you were there means something. … I’m not a big believer in a community relations unit. I think every cop on the street should be an ambassador for us.”
Mana Tahaie, director of racial justice initiatives for YWCA Tulsa
Tahaie has led the YWCA’s racial justice initiatives since 2008, expanding the department to include training, consulting, dialogue groups, special events and an advocacy committee. The first in her Iranian family to be born in the United States, Tahaie has lived in Oklahoma most of her life.
“We need to remember that Ferguson isn’t over there. It’s not some place that has nothing to do with us. It’s not like that isn’t our truth. … Ferguson is Tulsa, and I think that we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we don’t have very serious issues here.”
“It’s easy to hide behind what is legal. … An unjust law is no law at all. When you have the byproduct of bad laws and bad policy resulting in tension, … then you need to look at laws and policies and change them. I have also heard anecdotally a lot of issues around response times, how long it takes just to get someone to arrive on the site of, you know, a disturbance.”
“We know in the aftermath of (House Bill) 1804, our immigrant community, especially our Latino community, had serious distrust, a very understandable earned distrust against law enforcement. We know that after Michael Brown’s shooting the Police Department here in Tulsa put out a collection box to raise money for the officer who did it. … That is yet another signal that law enforcement is not for public safety; it’s for the safety of certain parts of the public, so I think we still have a lot to work on.”
Dominic Durant, founder of Booker T. Washington High School’s Men of Power program
Durant, 24, graduated from Booker T. Washington High School six years ago after founding the “Men of Power” program to promote empowerment through education. Durant spent several years in the Navy before returning to Tulsa. He is currently helping develop a program called “Emerging Leaders of America” for middle and high school students.
“Everyone needs to have some sort of accountability when you are talking race relations. The accountability on both sides is definitely needed. You can’t go to a store and steal. You can’t break the law and not hold yourself accountable. You also cannot hit a police officer. … With that said, there are things that drive police officers. … There’s definitely some kind of fear factor, whether that drives you to shoot someone or Tase someone. The accountability lies with the man and not necessarily his race.”
“In Tulsa there seems to be some sort of tension between Caucasian police officers and African-American males that’s probably because of a predetermined disposition. … There’s a negative connotation automatically associated with African-American males. That’s in the back of his mind. … Some Caucasians think, ‘This guy is probably a gangster; he’s rough; he’s wearing baggy pants.’ When I’m wearing a suit, there’s this norm. Stereotypes exist for a reason, because they are partially true.”
The Rev. Ray Owens, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church
Owens has been pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church since 2005. He is active in many community efforts, including serving on the Leadership Council for ImpactTulsa, a partnership to improve education. Owens received a doctorate of philosophy in religion and society from Princeton Theological Seminary.
“I’ve only been here nine years but historically, there’s been an antagonistic relationship between law enforcement and African-American men, especially those that are concentrated in north Tulsa. That is a theme that continues to permeate the African-American community in Tulsa. I do sense that we hear about encounters less often than we once did and that’s good news.”
“We still have a culture in Tulsa where police officers driving down the street do not feel like protection in the African-American community; they pose a threat. ... The fact that that’s a pervasive perception tells me and I think it should tell all of us is that we have a lot of work to do.”
“There’s the idea of community policing. At one time we were discussing this option more and trying to ask what it means and what that would look like. For me it means police officers being intentional about building relationships with people in the African-American community.”
“In 1990 I was part of the Teach for America corps. I was in south central L.A. and actually lived through and taught through the 1992 L.A. race riot that was in response to the Rodney King verdict. This (Ferguson) reminds me so much of that experience. ... I remember watching the city where I lived burn and just angry people and when I look back at L.A. today, so many of those buildings and businesses have not been rebuilt. … I’m not sure the lesson that we all hoped we would learn was realized.”
“We’ve got to do a better job of creating humane interactions between African-American males and police officers. The work has to happen on both sides. Let me be clear. There’s a lot that black men need to learn about what it means to be a police officer. We’ve got to understand each other.”