Recent analyses by two national publications, including The Washington Post, of fatal encounters with United States law enforcement in 2015 have concluded Oklahoma has the highest amount of such incidents per capita and is a top 5 state in police-involved fatalities this year.
A Tulsa World database of fatal shootings dating to 2007 indicates the state has had 19 cases so far this year, which equates to a rate of 4.9 per 1 million people in Oklahoma — beating the Post’s estimate of 4.4 shooting deaths per capita.
Only the April 2 shooting of Eric Harris by then-Tulsa County reserve deputy Robert Bates has resulted in criminal charges, with Bates facing one count of second-degree manslaughter after shooting Harris during an undercover gun buy. He said he thought he was using his Taser in the incident.
The Tulsa World, Post and The Guardian databases all project that Oklahoma will likely eclipse past records by the end of 2015, and World archives show the fatal shooting rate per capita nearly quadrupled from 2009 — at seven — to 2014, which had a record 25 incidents.
But when asked why these incidents continue to rise in the state, attorneys and law enforcement agencies don’t have a clear answer. While race of victims is often discussed in national media, Oklahoma authorities do not offer opinions on the issue, despite several cases occurring in Oklahoma that involve both white and black people receiving widespread coverage.
According to the World’s database, white men account for 12 of the 19 shooting cases this year, while black men account for five, or just less than a quarter, which is in comparison to blacks making up about 8 percent of Oklahoma’s population.
“We know we have been seeing more,” said Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Jessica Brown, whose office handles inquiries into fatal altercations involving officers in primarily rural counties. “But (reasoning) would be speculation, and I’m not going to speculate on that. It really would depend on how you look at it.”
The Oklahoma City Police Department and Oklahoma Highway Patrol have each investigated four fatal shootings, two of 19 agencies the Post alleges had officers involved in at least three fatalities so far. Those departments and Tulsa police typically do their own investigations into those homicides due to their size, but the OSBI has had to investigate shooting incidents this year involving officers in Sand Springs, Bunch, Chickasha, Kellyville, Muskogee, Rufe and Stillwater. (Tulsa police officers have not fatally shot anyone this year.)
Three people, who were not counted in the World’s shootings database, have died after officers used Tasers this year, World archives show.
“Just from my own personal practice, a crisis we’re having that not a lot of people are talking about is mental health,” said Tulsa-based attorney Scott Wood, who has worked on multiple law enforcement-involved shooting cases of shooting victims who have mental health episodes. “Police officers’ training on use of force has remained the same as far as what the criteria is for use of daily force.
“But since about the ’80s, there are a lot of other tools that have become available, primarily pepper spray and the Taser. But it seems like the Taser is best used when you’re in a controlled setting and you’re relatively certain that the person does not have a weapon.”
Wood also said people, often under the influence of narcotics, opt not to submit to arrest and engage officers in physical altercations, which may contribute to the fatality increase. One of the men who died after a Taser was used had cocaine in his system and another had recently used PCP, according to news reports.
Most of those who died had a weapon at the time of the incident, records show.
“I think there’s an acute need for young people to get instructions on how to conduct themselves during a police encounter,” Wood said. “Which includes that if you are mistreated or have a violation of civil rights, a fight on the streets is not where you vindicate those wrongs.”
Gary James, an Oklahoma City-area attorney who often represents law enforcement in use-of-force investigations, conceded that there are social issues, including mental health, poor academic education and drug use, that play a role in negative encounters with officers. But he also said there is more of “a lack of respect” for people in uniform.
“There’s no respect for what these guys do day in and day out,” James said. “I don’t think anyone understands. The law is not completely clear in every state and federal jurisdiction ... you’re asking a police officer to make a judgment call in seconds.”
James said the public and media often downplay the danger that comes with being an officer, adding that more than 50 officers have been fatally shot in the U.S. this year.
“The Washington Post said the controversy surrounding this incident was ‘swirling like an Oklahoma tornado’,” he said of coverage of Friday’s fatal shooting of Nehemiah Fischer by two OHP troopers in Okmulgee County. “What controversy? You have a man attacking a state trooper and he had a gun on him.”
Brown said this year’s cases have caused constraints on her office’s resources but that an independent investigation into such a shooting for smaller areas is the best way for them to determine whether it is justified.
“The public wants to know, and the public has a right to know,” Brown said of information about police shootings. “But the ones we investigate typically are small police and sheriff’s offices, so taking one of (those officers) off the street (for administrative leave) is a disservice to the public there ... We try to get them all done as quickly as possible so the (district attorney) can decide.”