Fearing lawsuits, police to scale back on rules enforcement at the Gathering Place

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“Our guidance has morphed,” city of Tulsa Litigation Division Manager Gerry Bender said. “The more legal thought about it, the more we feared we were opening up individual officers to liability for false arrest.” DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier
Acting on new guidance from city attorneys, Tulsa Police officers will not respond to “rules violations” at the Gathering Place indefinitely — and it may take a court ruling for that to change.

Gerry Bender, city of Tulsa Litigation Division Manager, told The Frontier that although officers were originally told to respond to the park for rules violations — such as smoking, or having a dog on the premises — attorneys for the city have determined they are “not comfortable” with the park’s status as a private facility.

When the park opened in September, police officers were told to respond to any report of a possible crime, as well as “trespass” violations that occurred there. The park has multiple ground rules, such as no smoking, no dogs, no bikes and no guns.

Someone found by park staff to be in violation of one of these rules would be asked to stop or leave. If the person breaking the rules refused, an officer would be summoned to remove the person for trespassing.

This all came to a head when Second Amendment activists entered the park while openly carrying a firearm and were ushered out by uniformed police officers. As a private park, Gathering Place officials have maintained that they have the authority to place rules like any privately-operated business.

But the Second Amendment group — Oklahoma Second Amendment Association — has questioned whether the park, which is privately operated but was gifted to Tulsa’s River Parks Authority, is truly private. They have also threatened to get the courts involved, something that led city attorneys to re-evaluate their stance on the park.

“Our guidance has morphed,” Bender said. “The more legal thought about it, the more we feared we were opening up individual officers to liability for false arrest.”

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Tulsa Police Department Sgt. Shane Tuell has said that TPD has had officers at the Gathering Place every day since it opened in early September and will always have a “continuous presence” at the park in order to be able to quickly respond if a crime is reported. But since the Sept. 8 grand opening, Tuell said multiple officers have questioned why they were only removing park-goers who were carrying firearms, and not those breaking other rules.

The fear is, Bender said, that if an officer removed someone carrying a firearm, and a court later decided that the Gathering Place’s “no guns allowed” policy was unconstitutional, the person who was removed could sue the officer directly for a civil rights violation.

“The statute would allow for an individual officer to be named,” Bender said. “I don’t feel right about asking (an officer) making $50,000 a year to put themselves on the line like that.

“We cannot give our client, the police department, the solid opinion that they’re basically going to be OK if they continue to remove people. Until we get that cleared up, we’re going to basically abstain from getting involved.”

OK2A
The group that started the furor, the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association, held a rally outside the Gathering Place earlier this month to advocate for more open gun rights inside the park.

Perhaps it was partly due to the dreary weather (and relative lack of parking spaces at the park) but the rally went off with more of a whimper than a bang.

Still, a few dozen firearm advocates stood in the rain and listened to OK2A president Don Spencer, and state Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, for a short time. Then a few supporters, including Tim Harpe — the man who was recorded being kicked out of the park for open carrying a firearm during the grand opening — walked unbothered through the Gathering Place.

Allegations of violent past follow ‘peaceful gun owner’ at heart of rally outside Gathering Place

The group then dispersed and left quietly.

“The folks had their little rally and then a few of them walked through the park, even I believe openly carrying firearms at one point,” Bender said. “Everyone I think kind of just ignored them and they went away.”

Prior to the rally, park officials sent a statement that said parks such as the Gathering place “routinely prohibit firearms and the courts have routinely upheld such prohibitions.”

“We have, however, made it clear that our policy is lawful and that any entry into Gathering Place with firearms, whether concealed or unconcealed, will constitute an actionable trespass,” Katie Bullock, Director of Marketing, said in a statement.

But who would conduct that trespass removal is unclear. Bender again referenced “the uncertainty” surrounding the park, saying “there’s a difference of opinion between park officials and city officials over whether it’s truly private.

“Gathering Place attorneys say (they) have the absolute right and the self defense statute has no impact on us because we’re private, and we’re just not sure over here (at City Hall),” Bender said. “If it’s going to come down to any concrete enforcement whatsoever it’s going to probably come down to the courts.”

Police have a Gathering Place playbook, but won’t disclose what’s in it
Prior to the decision by city officials to pull back from some police involvement at the Gathering Place, an internal guidebook to the park was sent to police officers.

The guide would dictate when officers should get involved in incidents at the park, what discretion they had at their disposal, and what the Gathering Place expected them to do.

But as for what’s in the book — and just how much of it is no longer applicable in the wake of the city’s “morphing advice” to Tulsa Police Department officers — they won’t say.

A sign at the Gathering Place displays park rules. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

The discovery of the playbook was purely accidental. While The Frontier was reporting on the Second Amendment rally outside the park, a police officer read off a portion of the guidebook before realizing it came with fine print instructing them not to disseminate the guide outside of the police department.

When The Frontier initially requested the guide, Bender said that no such guide existed. A few days later he said he had discovered he was wrong — a “tactical guide” existed and had been pushed out to officers.

“The release of the contents of the document that was read to you was in violation of the directive that clearly and specifically advised personnel that the document contained information about tactics for law enforcement operations; was for internal distribution only; and that release to or use by any person or organization outside the TPD was not authorized,” Bender said in an email.

The portion which was read off to The Frontier dealt mainly with the park’s firearms rules and included a portion on “free speech” inside the park.

The guide instructed officers that a park-goer who was asked to leave for carrying a firearm could be cited or arrested for trespassing, and that officers could demand an “armed individual” present a license for their firearm.

“(Officers) may not disarm (a park-goer) unless (the park-goer) fails to present a firearm license or is expected of a crime other than unlicensed carry,” the guide stated.

The Gathering Place. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

It also instructed officers that park-goers “do not have the right to engage in speech that would be protected on public property.”

“The Gathering Place may request a person leave the property even if the person is engaged in protected speech,” according to the guide. “If they fail they are committing trespass.”

It’s unclear what else might be in the guide. Bender said the city was not required to release the document under Oklahoma’s Open Records Act, saying it was not specifically “enumerated” in the law as being an open record.

“These tactical guidelines are, essentially, the TPD playbook and for the sake of the safety of officers and the general public we don’t want to advertise/forewarn how we will approach a particular situation,” Bender said in the email.

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Dylan Goforth

Editor in Chief/Staff Writer

Dylan has two kids, three dogs, and no time to himself. He's fueled by QuikTrip and Twitter. Contact: dylan@readfrontier.com or 918-931-9405.
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