This article was produced as a collaboration between Bolts and The Frontier

The next top prosecutor in Oklahoma’s largest county will play a key role in holding law enforcement accountable in a district with a high number of police shootings and an overcrowded jail where dozens have died. 

Oklahoma City police have shot at least 20 people in the last two years, killing at least 41 people since 2015. But few officers have faced criminal charges. 

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater broke that pattern in 2021 when he charged five officers with first-degree manslaughter for killing 15-year-old Stavian Rodriguez outside a convenience store. Rodriguez had allegedly tried to rob the store before police intervened and surrounded the building. When Rodriguez exited, he raised his hands in the air, then dropped his handgun. He then reached for his back pocket, which held a cell phone. He was shot more than a dozen times by five officers and died at a local hospital later that night.

But Prater’s impending retirement, which will bring a new top prosecutor for the first time since 2007, is set to reshuffle the district attorney’s office and its relationship with local law enforcement in this county of nearly 800,000. 

Republican nominee Kevin Calvey, in announcing his run for district attorney last year, said he would “support the police, not persecute them,” and vowed that same day to drop the charges against the officers involved in Rodriguez’s death. He told The Frontier and Bolts he had not looked at the case beyond seeing news reports that the Oklahoma City Police Department investigated the shooting and found it was justified.

“I would have shot him myself,” he said during a primary forum last year

During another debate this month, Democratic nominee Vicki Behenna accused Calvey of trying to appease law enforcement when he vowed to drop charges against the five officers. Calvey responded by accusing Behenna of pandering “to those anti-police people.”

The candidates

Calvey’s only past experience as a prosecutor was between 2007 and 2008 while serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq.  But as a Republican, the odds are in his favor. Having an R next to your name goes a long way in this bright-red state where Donald Trump won every county in the 2020 election. But Oklahoma County is more purple and increasingly competitive — it only voted for Trump by one percentage point in 2020. 

In contrast, Behenna is a former a federal prosecutor who served on the team that prosecuted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. She has also worked as a criminal defense attorney; she says she worked as the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Innocence Project after she noticed “mistakes we made on the DA side at times.”

It’s that experience, she says, that makes her the right person for the job. She told The Frontier and Bolts that she entered the race because of Calvey’s lack of experience. 

Vicki Behenna. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

“When I saw (Calvey) was running, I was concerned,” she said. “It’s just not a job for a career politician or a lobbyist, it’s a job for someone with experience, who understands how the system works. I’ve been in this my whole career, I know what it’s about and what the DA does.”

But Calvey said he believes the top prosecutor job is more of an “an administrative position.” 

“Experience is important, but let’s look at the right kind of experience,” Calvey told The Frontier and Bolts. “What does this job entail? How many cases is the district attorney himself or herself actually prosecuting? In an urban DA office, it’s virtually none.”

In his current role as one of three elected commissioners for Oklahoma County, Calvey oversees county finances. He says this has provided him with the experience he needs to manage the district attorney’s office.

“What the DA does in a large urban office is work with stakeholders, law enforcement and lawmakers,” he said. “And I know all of them.”

Calvey is no stranger to controversy. He was known as one of most conservative members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives during his 12 years as a lawmaker and threatened to set himself on fire in 2015 over a bill that proposed a pay raise to state Supreme Court justices. Calvey said the court wasn’t doing enough to prevent women in Oklahoma from obtaining abortions.

“If I weren’t a Christian and didn’t have a prohibition against suicide, I’d walk across the street and douse myself in gasoline and set myself on fire,” he said, pumping his fist angrily during a debate on the House floor.

As a county commissioner, Calvey pushed in 2020 to send more than $30 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to renovate the jail instead of spending it on rental assistance and other programs. The vote sparked anger as it was rushed before a commissioner who opposed the measure could even sit down

Relationship with law enforcement

Calvey has centered his campaign on criticizing Prater’s record. He described the current office’s relationship with law enforcement, particularly the Oklahoma City Police Department, as “poisonous.” He told The Frontier and Bolts that he believed the “No. 1 problem” between the DA’s office and police is the “wrongful prosecution of police officers.”

Behenna said that she agrees with Calvey that the district attorney’s office under Prater has a strained relationship with other agencies, including the police. 

“What I hear from most stakeholders is that there’s a breakdown in communication with the DA’s office,” she told The Frontier and Bolts. “On the surface, that’s where I have to start. I’m hearing from chiefs of police, telling me they haven’t heard from the DA’s office in years. If they can’t chat with an ADA or understand what an ADA needs done, it’s going to be hard to prosecute that case.”

Kevin Calvey. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

But Behenna rejects Calvey’s promise to drop criminal charges against the police officers who killed Rodriguez.

She said she spoke with Oklahoma City’s Fraternal Order of Police and was asked if she, too, would commit to dropping those charges.

“I told them I can not promise you that, I just can’t,” she said. “I told them … if they stay within their training and meet force with appropriate force, they are fine. But it is completely inappropriate to prejudge facts of a case just because of a person’s occupation.” 

Alternative courts

Looming over the race are the dismal conditions in the Oklahoma County Detention Center, which has been well above its intended capacity throughout Prater’s tenure as district attorney. At least 14 people have died this year, and dozens more over the past decade

Prosecutors play a major role in the size of the jail population, based on what they decide to prosecute and bond amounts they recommend. Calvey sits on the trust that manages the Oklahoma County jail.

Calvey does not intend to push for a major reduction in the jail population. He claims some of those reforms have already happened thanks to voter-led criminal justice initiatives in the state  in recent years that reclassified some felony and misdemeanor crimes.

“Most of the people who are in jail probably do belong there, even the people being held pre-trial,” he said. “But still, putting some people in jail for basically being too poor to pay fines and fees is a problem.”

Calvey said he would seek to “do something” about people being held in beleaguered jail for not paying fines and fees. For some people, he said, the jail has become a debtor’s prison.

“That is neither fiscally conservative or humane or Christian,” he said. “We’re only collecting about 30% of those fees under the current system.”

He said using tax intercepts to collect those fees, which are used in part to help fund the district attorney’s office, might be one potential fix.

Calvey and Behenna both told The Frontier and Bolts they want to expand the use of alternative courts. In Oklahoma County, there are a number of alternative courts that seek to divert people from incarceration through treatment, including programs for people with mental health issues, drug or driving under the influence charges and one aimed at military veterans. The county’s alternative court program says it has graduated more than 900 people since 2016. 

Behenna told The Frontier and Bolts she believes the county jail is “inhumane.” 

“There’s no question it’s a disaster,” she said. 

But  Behenna said she believes her role as district attorney would not be to lessen the jail’s population, but rather speed up the process of getting people into alternative court programs. 

This would lessen the burden on the jail by being “smart on crime,” she said.

“It’s not just being tough on crime, it’s being smart on crime,” she told The Frontier and Bolts. “I believe in separating dangerous people from the community, but also in helping people who need help, like a veteran who has returned and faces mental health trauma.”

Calvey told The Frontier and Bolts he doesn’t mind having a “tough on crime” reputation, but that a “different method” of getting a person to the point of not being a threat to the public “would be better.”