Luke Sherman was in a car recently, driving to an event with a member of his campaign, when he had an epiphany.
“I started thinking ‘Woah, if I’m elected sheriff, I’ll be the only black sheriff in Oklahoma,” Sherman told The Frontier during a recent interview. “I don’t know, I guess I never really thought of it before that moment.”
While Sherman’s bid is anything but a sure bet — as of this publishing date at least seven people have declared interest in running for sheriff — if he were to be elected next year, he would be a rarity in the state.
According to 2010 U.S. Census data, 7.4 percent of the state is black, and Hispanics make up nearly 9 percent of the state’s 3,751,351 residents.
Yet across the state, the position of sheriff is seemingly homogenous: Of the 77 counties in Oklahoma, nearly all have white male county sheriffs.
Law enforcement agencies across the country are under pressure to diversify their workforces, but this process has not reached the highest level of county law enforcement. The Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association database shows the state is policed by 75 male sheriffs, most of whom are caucasian. Only two counties, Hughes and Blaine, have female sheriffs (both of whom are also white).
“I know I’d be the first black sheriff attending things in skinny jeans and a v-neck,” Sherman said, laughing. “It will be something new, but people will get used to it.”
This impromptu sheriff’s race — Gov. Mary Fallin was forced to call for the special election after Stanley Glanz resigned after being charged with two misdemeanors in September— comes at a crossroads for both Tulsa and law enforcement.
Andre Harris, Eric Harris’ brother was careful to say in interviews that the shooting was not “a race thing, but an evil thing.”
We The People Oklahoma, the group that pushed for Glanz to be investigated by a grand jury, has at times been referred to as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, though they consider themselves a group of socially-conscious individuals. When they collected signatures to empanel the grand jury, a number of the volunteers were white. And the protests they staged following the April 2 shooting of Eric Harris were attended by men and women of different ages and races.
With a push nationally for law enforcement agencies to more resemble the communities they serve, there are two candidates (Sherman and fellow TPD Sgt. Vic Regalado) here running for sheriff who could potentially be mold-breakers.
But can she wrestle drunks?
When Margarett Parman was running for sheriff of Blaine County in 2012, she had just one question for herself.
“All I asked myself was ‘Am I the most qualified candidate?’” Parman said. “I felt that I was. There was a lot of prayer involved, but I knew that I had the qualifications.”
A longtime member of the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office, Parman was elected in 2013, beating democratic candidate Tony Almaguer. She took the place of Rick Ainsworth, who retired after being sheriff there for 16 years.
There are only two female Sheriffs in the state (Hughes County Sheriff Marcia Maxwell is the other,) and Parman said while she didn’t face a lot of resistance during her campaign, there were some memorable moments.
“There were some people that would say, ‘Well is she going to be able to go out in the middle of the night and wrestle a drunk?’” Parman said. “You know, as sheriff, we do a lot of administrative duties, but I do go on calls, too. I had been at the sheriff’s office for a long time so I knew that I had the support of the public when I ran. If you don’t have that support, well, you shouldn’t be running.”
Parman said that although there’s a notable lack of diversity amongst Oklahoma sheriffs, she feels like ultimately it’s each candidate’s qualifications that matter most.
“If I didn’t know that I was the better qualified candidate, I wouldn’t have run. And this goes for male, female, color of skin,” she said. “People want someone who can do the job.”
‘Hey, that person is like me’
Vic Regalado has been an officer in Tulsa for more than 20 years, closing more than 80 homicide cases during his time in that department, before later transitioning to TPD’s gang unit.
Regalado’s father immigrated legally to the United States and later earned his citizenship. Regaldo grew up in San Antonio, before moving to Phoenix and eventually Tulsa.
“I grew up in poor neighborhoods, and in neighborhoods that were predominantly Hispanic,” Regalado said. “That can open up doors. It does open up doors. You see kids look at you like ‘Hey, that person is like me, he’s running for sheriff.’ It says to the kids, you can do this, too.”
The focus, nationally, has been on interactions between law enforcement officers and blacks. But the Hispanic population in Tulsa County is booming and often has an icy relationship with law enforcement, particularly with the sheriff’s office, who has a contract with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE.)
“I can see how having a representative of their community would be a positive thing,” Regalado said. “That’s a positive thing if handled correctly.
“I have strong ties in the African-American community and in the Hispanic community. I think everyone running for sheriff represents a different part of the community.”
During the 11 years Regalado worked in homicide, he was the lead investigator on many high-profile cases, including the Good Friday killings that had many Tulsans fearful to leave their homes. He spent a decade working with TPD’s SWAT unit and currently is an evening supervisor with the department’s Gang Unit.
“I know I have had a diversified career,” he said. “And I know I bring a diversified experience to the sheriff’s office. I tell people that if none of this (the Harris shooting and ensuing fallout) had happened, I don’t know if I would be as passionate for running as I am now.
“I see a wonderful opportunity, there’s a group group of core people at TCSO that have remained committed.”
‘Change is good’
Sherman knows he would be an outlier amongst the state’s sheriff group, and he plays it up. It’s not just the self-effacing jokes about his wardrobe, when he picked a place to be interviewed, he chose the trendy Hodge’s Bend in downtown Tulsa’s East Village.
“I guess when you think about the county, you think cowboy hats,” Sherman said. “It doesn’t take too long to figure out that’s not my style.”
Like the other candidates, he views the turmoil at TCSO as a potential positive. Sometimes, he said, something has to be messy before someone cleans it up.
“The image of the sheriff’s office right now is not good, they’re going to have to change gears,” he said. “They’re really going to have to let the public in for a while.”
Public input is not always desired or listened to, Sherman said, but he knows it will be an integral part of rehabilitating TCSO’s image. To illustrate, he asked to picture a stereotypical police officer.
“Stern face, old Oakleys (sunglasses,) maybe a mustache, right? Maybe not that approachable,” he said. “Well, whoever is in this job (Tulsa County Sheriff) is going to have to be approachable. The public is who we protect and serve, we answer to them.
“Think of it like a boss. If I was non-approachable to my boss, I wouldn’t have a job.”
Sherman joined the Tulsa Police Department in 1992, and currently is assigned to TPD’s Detective Division. Like Regalado, he played a key role in the Good Friday case, as well as other high-profile homicide cases.
He’s also an instructor and director for the National Tactical Officer’s Association and supervises TPD’s Fugitive Warrants Task Force.
“With SWAT teams and task force units, you’re talking about guys that are always on the edge of potential civil rights violations, and when you conduct those operations, you owe it to the public to do it right and do it safely,” Sherman said. “And I have thousands of hours of training all around the world in making sure that’s done correctly.”
Sherman also mentioned the lack of cooperation currently between TCSO and TPD.
As an example, during the April 2 shooting of Eric Harris, a previously convicted felon who was selling a gun to an undercover deputy, TCSO ran the operation in city limits without TPD’s knowledge. When Harris was shot and killed, TPD detectives, who work ten times as many homicides per year as TCSO, were not called to the scene.
“Our fugitive group, since 2008, has made about 7,000 arrests. What I’m getting at is my group is diverse,” Sherman said. “What’s TCSO doing? They have a violent crimes task force on their own and they’re running fugitive stuff we don’t know about. That’s asinine.”
Now, Sherman said, upheaval is headed to the sheriff’s office, whether they want it or not.
“Change is good if it has substantive purpose,” he said. “You look at the situation here and you say this is broken and it needs fixed, it needs to be fine-tuned.”