Here’s why we’re suing Sheriff Regalado

The people deserve to know what their elected officials, including the newly-elected sheriff, are doing with their money.

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When I asked Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado for video showing how David Fulps wound up with a broken neck, back and pelvis in the jail, I already knew the answer.

“Jail surveillance video is not a law enforcement record subject to disclosure,” said the curt email on May 25 from Casey Roebuck, a Regalado spokeswoman and former KJRH reporter.

I knew the answer because that’s the same response I received May 2 from Regalado’s office.

That’s when The Frontier requested video of the jail pod where Nathan Bradshaw tried to hang himself. We wanted to see whether detention officers were checking on Nathan, a troubled young man who had struggled with drugs and stolen a textbook.

“As per your request regarding the Bradshaw case, jail surveillance video is not subject to open record requests per Oklahoma State Statutes,” Roebuck’s email states.

In both cases, we disagree with the sheriff. So we’re suing him today.

We’ve exchanged many emails with Roebuck, a former journalist who’s just doing what she’s told to do, and you can read them here. Some of the emails just go unanswered, as have many requests for records I’ve made of TCSO since last year.

We don’t take this action lightly at The Frontier.

Sure it would be cool in a Hollywood way to yell “I’ll see you in court!” and fling a stack of legal papers at someone. A few hearings later, the judge slams down a gavel. Score one for transparency!

Actually, filing an open records lawsuit isn’t like that at all. It’s usually a long, grinding process that can take months. And sometimes even though the law appears to be on your side, you lose anyway, which can make things worse.

Some suits — like the one the Tulsa World and I filed against Gov. Mary Fallin and DPS in 2014 — can even take years. Thanks to the smart folks at Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and attorney Bob Nelon for their continued tenacity in pursuing that case, which is still pending.

That suit seeks records related to the April 2014 botched execution of Clayton Lockett, a request the governor and the Department of Public Safety still have yet to fully comply with. (One funny note: The governor’s office redacted her address from some records. You know, the mansion that’s open for public tours each week?)

The last time I was part of a lawsuit against DPS, while I worked for the Tulsa World, the agency tried to claim its entire policy manual was top secret. Including the copy of the Bill of Rights that adorned the back cover. #irony (It took a decade, but we prevailed.)

When it comes to fighting for transparency, most journalists have a lot of patience, because public officials try to wear you down with delays. The people deserve to know what their elected officials, including newly-elected Sheriff Regalado, are doing with their money.

Are they exposing taxpayers to large judgments because they failed to train employees to deal with mentally ill prisoners?

Are they ignoring the suffering of mentally ill prisoners when they are gravely injured and transporting them in patrol cars to save EMSA the trouble?

Wouldn’t that just expose the taxpayers to more civil liability if the inmate ends up paralyzed as a result?

Does their official version of events match the video and records?

These are among the questions we would like answers to. But until the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office abides by the spirit and letter of the state’s Open Records Act we won’t know them and so neither will you.

It’s quite possible that despite detention officers’ regular checks and best efforts, Nathan managed to hang himself with a bed sheet. And it’s also possible that nothing could have prevented David from falling down stairs backward while handcuffed and diving off of a bunk (or was it a sink?), breaking his neck, back and pelvis.

Regalado and other sheriffs in this state do have a serious challenge coping with the influx of mentally ill prisoners since the state shut down inpatient centers,  promising to create community-based alternatives. That promise, which began under Gov. Frank Keating, remains largely unfulfilled.

However measures can be taken to screen incoming prisoners for mental health issues and prevent a tragic loss like the one Nathan’s family experienced. Or the anguish that David and his parents are going through.

David’s mother, Lynn Grimes, told me that when she learned her son had been arrested, she called the jail.

“I said listen, he’s acutely bipolar. I tried to talk to them and I knew him. They just laughed and said, ‘Yeah, everyone who comes in here says that.’ I said ‘no you don’t understand he is legally mentally disabled and has been on disability since he was 21.’ ”

Tulsa County taxpayers are paying for new mental health pods, which we’ve been told will help the jail deal with such issues. But if it’s cloaked behind a veil of secrecy, how will we know we are getting our money’s worth?

The state’s lawmakers and judges have made clear that the public deserves to see video captured by law enforcement cameras, with a few reasonable exceptions. Whether the camera sits on a dashboard, is affixed to the officer’s uniform or stationed in a jail’s hallway shouldn’t matter.

And it’s not just videos we have been denied. I recently requested incident reports and other records related to Nathan Bradshaw’s attempted suicide. The sheriff denied the request, saying the requests wouldn’t be fulfilled until the jail’s investigation is finished.

I sent his spokeswoman a link to the law that says you can’t place otherwise open records in an investigation file and refuse to release them. It’s a pretty short statute and not ambiguous but so far, no response on that.

Though Regalado promised transparency when he was running for office, TCSO’s stance on jail videos is new and more restrictive. If allowed to stand, it would establish a statewide precedent that what goes on behind the jail’s bars is none of our business.

Even after he was elected, Regalado discussed the need for transparency, saying he wanted to “create a culture of accountability.” 

Under former Sheriff Stanley Glanz, the sheriff’s office released jail video and even contracted with MSNBC’s “Lockup” for an entire season of video shot inside the same jail. That “Lockup” agreement involved income for the sheriff’s office and a starring role for administrators, including former Acting Sheriff Michelle Robinette.

That’s probably far more enticing than allowing citizens to make up their minds about treatment of prisoners, possibly leading to criticism, or even trouble in an upcoming election.

Or maybe the videos and records confirm both prisoners were treated with dignity, no policies were violated and detention officers did their best in a challenging situation. Wouldn’t the sheriff want people to know?

So we’ve asked for records including incident reports, emails and videos to find out what exactly happened in these two cases. We believe the law and the facts are on our side, and we hope the sheriff does the right thing and abides by the Open Records Act.

After all, that’s a major reason Glanz is no longer in office.

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