A group of local activists is calling for the city to reconsider its community policing practices in the wake of a Tulsa Police Gang Unit operation at the Towne Square Apartments last week.
In an open letter released Monday, an organization called Demanding a JUSTulsa said the police presence at the apartments exacerbated the African-American community’s “existing fears and distrust of the police” rather than help build relationships.
“The TPD unit — referred to as the ‘gang task force’ by community members — engages in this type of behavior so routinely that Towne Square residents call TPD’s weekly visits ‘Task Force Tuesdays,’” the letter states. “Residents reported feeling ‘terrorized’ by task force officers.”
Demanding a JUSTulsa is a campaign by local residents to hold police accountable for their actions. The group includes Kristi Williams, Gregory Robinson II, Nate Morris and others.
Several members of the group were among a handful of people who painted a similar picture of officers’ actions at the apartment complex at a City Council meeting last week. The comments were made as councilors received public comments on use-of-force figures detailed in the city’s Equality Indicators reports.
The 2018 and 2019 reports state that black Tulsans are more likely to experience use of force by police officers than other Tulsans, a contention disputed by the Tulsa Police Department and the police union.
After the speakers were finished Wednesday night, Mayor G.T. Bynum said he had been at the apartment complex the night before on a police ride-along. Bynum defended the officers’ actions while at the same time acknowledging that his perception of the incident would be different than the perceptions of those living in the complex.
“I recognize that being the mayor of Tulsa, I have a different vantage point than kids in that apartment complex last night,” the mayor said.
In a statement released Monday, Bynum said the city is committed to addressing the big difference between how some members of the community view police practices and officers’ actual motives.
“But it will take time, and it will take dialogue,” he said.
The JUSTulsa letter accuses the mayor of speaking up for the sole purpose of defending Tulsa police officers.
“City leaders should be concerned by the Mayor’s attempt to discredit local activists and community leaders,” the letter states.
But speaking to a large group of people after the meeting, the mayor said that was not his intent.
“What everyone else was voicing in my opinion was not being fair to the officers that were there last night,” Bynum said.
Nor, he said, was he making a blanket statement about all police interactions with the public.
“I’m not here to say that that is the way it always goes down,” Bynum said. “I’m just giving my side of what I saw.”
The JUSTulsa letter states that rather than having discussions with residents of the apartment complex, officers jumped out of unmarked cars and began to harass “young residents who were simply sitting in a parked car.”
“On the (body cam) footage, you can clearly see or hear one of the TPD officers taking the following actions: asking for names; demanding identification; pulling out a flashlight to look in the car; … and intimidating one young man about his ankle monitor,” the letter states.
In addition, the letter states, officers’ repeatedly dismissed or discounted the answers they were receiving from the young people they were questioning.
“One of the core tenets of procedural justice is a mandate that officers give citizens voice during encounters,” the letter states.
According to the police footage, in at least two instances an officer explained to those with whom he is interacting why the police were at the apartments and why they are there often.
“Like I said, we come through here at least once or twice a day because we get a ridiculous amount of shootings, robberies, stabbings out here — a lot,” the officer says.
He added: “Because of that, we’ve gotten numerous guns off of certified gangsters, felons, quite frequently, actually.”
Bynum said Monday that the community dialogue he is encouraging should look at multiple issues, including what proactive policing should look like and what causes crime to be concentrated in some neighborhoods and not others.
“These are questions I hope every Tulsan will join in addressing,” the mayor said.
In 2019 alone, Bynum noted, the police have received more than 260 911 calls for service from Towne Square Apartments.
“We have a responsibility to be proactive in trying to make victims’ neighborhoods safer, and I am grateful for the men and women of the Tulsa Police Department who risk their lives every day in their service,” the mayor said.
The JUSTulsa letter also takes issue with the mayor’s contention — made after Wednesday night’s council meeting — that although he believes the Equality Indicators reports show racial disparities in outcomes such as use of force by police officers, he does not believe the report shows racial bias in policing.
“If I am wrong, (City) Council, have your panelists tell me why that’s wrong,” Bynum said.
In its open letter, JUSTulsa states it doesn’t agree with Bynum’s assessment of what the reports show about racial bias in police practices.
“The racial disparities in the Mayor’s own Equality Indicators report and the very real and legitimate experiences and perspectives of Black residents say otherwise and cannot be ignored,” the letter states.