Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office Undersheriff George Brown is part of a group of deputies seeking to amend TCSO’s diversity training curriculum by “bringing personal experience to the table.” DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Years ago, Tressi Maybee found herself seeking something more from life, and that’s how she ended up becoming both a Buddhist and a detective at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.

If that seems like an unlikely combination, consider that more recently, Maybee  a 40-something white woman  saw the reaction among some law enforcement officers to Black Lives Matter protests that had sprung up across the nation and decided she wanted to help enact change.

And that’s how she found herself seated in a conference room in TCSO’s headquarters with a handful of other deputies, talking to the undersheriff about how they can best serve the community’s marginalized populations.

“I saw from the law enforcement point of view how cops generally can’t see any other viewpoint. They’re so defensive about themselves,” Maybee said following the meeting.

“No one can say Black Lives Matter, it has to be all lives matter, or cop lives matter. It just made me think that I need to improve myself and be able to teach other people how to do that as well. Because I shouldn’t be offended by a black person wanting to be treated equally.”

Maybee said law enforcement officers “have a tendency to separate ourselves, and that thin blue line, sometimes we can hide behind it, and I don’t want to be like that.”

The effort is part of an overhaul at the sheriff’s office that began in 2015 following the Robert Bates scandal.

Bates, a reserve deputy, and former Sheriff Stanley Glanz, accused of letting Bates run amok at TCSO, are both now convicted criminals. Bates is in prison after being convicted of second-degree manslaughter, and Glanz pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and no contest to another earlier this year.

Black Tulsans make up about 10 percent of Tulsa County’s population, though that figure varies outside of the city limits, where TCSO tends to patrol. Internal sheriff’s office figures state that eight percent of its staff are black, a figure that includes deputies, administration, and detention officers.

So as TCSO continues to reshape itself, its administration sought to update the diversity training that deputies, courthouse employees and jailers received. To accomplish that, they brought in new curriculum and are seeking to amend it by bringing in deputies of different races, genders, and beliefs, to encourage discussion and understanding.

tulsa county sheriff's office

The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Such training has taken on vital importance for law enforcement agencies across the nation in recent years, given the strife that has followed dozens of high-profile civil rights cases. But given the touchy subject matter, the training itself can be controversial.

And it’s questionable if the required training is sufficient, considering the nature of high-profile shooting deaths including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Philando Castile in Minneapolis, Minn., and locally with the Eric Harris and Terence Crutcher shootings.

At the Council For Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET) which trains law enforcement officers across the state, the entire subject matter is encapsulated in one four-hour class. The notes for that class state: “No recordings, video or audio will be allowed to ensure a non-judgmental environment.”

So any subsequent training is left up to the law enforcement agencies themselves.

“We’re working toward something … I’m really excited about that,” said TCSO Undersheriff George Brown, who hopes to have the curriculum finished by 2017.

Brown acts as a teacher during the deputy meetings, drawing up an outline on a whiteboard and taking input from his “students.” On this day, the meeting is staffed by Brown, Maybee, public information officer Justin Green, and deputies Latif Whitsett, and TJ Aguila. Green and Whitsett are black, and Aguila is from the Phillipines.

“This is kind of a no judgment zone here; we talk pretty openly,” Brown said. “Our purpose is not to agree, but just to understand and learn.”

The group promised not to dance around the issues they were seeking to address, but the notion of trying to identify issues faced by separate groups at times put the class in a difficult spot. At one point they all agreed that it was best to tailor your approach based on what part of town you’re in.

“I tell that to the cadets all the time,” Whitsett said. “Because you have to relate, you have to know your audience.”

But at the same time, the group preached the idea that everyone needed to be treated equally.

“It never bothered me working the north side, ever,” Brown told the class. “Other troopers from other areas were like ‘be careful, always have a partner.’ I was like ‘Why?’ My mindset is that’s exactly the same as any other area. One area isn’t any different than the other. If you have it in your mind that that’s a dangerous area, maybe we need to work on that? How can we do that?”

Brown believes socioeconomic class plays a large role in policing, and told the class that less-advantaged groups will often view police differently than wealthier groups. To illustrate, he told the class of memories of spending nights in the family car, then waking up and taking a bath in a park fountain.

“Dad was out of work, and we were living in the car for a few days,” Brown said.

So he’s determined to make training about more than race.

“There are so many ways we can do a better job,” he said. “That’s where we’re trying to get to. I may not agree with it 100 percent of the time, but if I can understand it, it helps me. It has to help, I believe that it does.”

The meeting this day is broken down into three categories — LGBT issues, racial issues, and “similar and distinctive issues” in various groups. A month prior, the group set goals of “ridding stereotypes,” “patience,” “commonalities,” and “understanding subcultures.”

George Brown

Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office undersheriff George Brown addresses the media at a press conference earlier this year. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Brown told the group an anecdote about an old friend from high-school. He said that after the two graduated, he learned his friend was gay. Later on, they had a falling out.

“We went through some things, but we overcame some differences,” Brown said. “He recently got married and I supported that.”

He wants to make sure the class understands there’s sexual assault within the LGBT community that goes unreported, and that the community may not feel that police take them seriously. Members of the LGBT community, he said, may feel a lack of acceptance from some in the public and may not feel like they’ll receive proper service from the responding officers.

“I think we’re in the perfect spot to make a change,” Aguila said. “It starts in the jail academy (where Aguila works.)

“Me myself, I know i was a lot different when i was 19-20 years old, I see it first hand with our fresh graduates, and there’s so many things I want … to tell them, to slow down and think more. But so much of that is time and learning on the job.”