State grants intended to target violent criminals swept up low-level offenders

State "Safe Oklahoma" grants were supposed to target violent criminals. Instead, they are often used to arrest small-time drug users and shoplifters.

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A video of the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office drug task force shows a deputy throwing a woman out of a car after an undercover drug buy.
A video of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office drug task force shows a deputy throwing a woman out of a car after an undercover drug buy.

By the end of the 40-hour operation that stretched across several days in east Tulsa, the Sheriff’s Office had arrested 37 people.

In early 2015, with support from a state-funded grant, Tulsa County Sheriff’s deputies conducted a project called “Operation Lights Out” that resulted in dozens of arrests. The operation focused on an area that had seen an increase in crime and three recent homicides.

Those arrested that day were charged with crimes related to bogus checks, impersonation, obstructing officers, drug possession, retail larceny, traffic citations, prostitution and contributing to the delinquency of minors.

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A Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office grant progress report from 2015.

Many of those arrested during the operation were just the type of low-level offenders state lawmakers hoped to keep out of the state’s prisons when they passed a package of reform laws four years ago known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, or JRI.

An investigation by The Frontier has found that the state’s “Safe Oklahoma” law enforcement grants — made possible by the JRI law aimed at slowing Oklahoma’s prison population — are often used to target misdemeanor crimes. Instead of keeping people accused of relatively minor crimes out of prison as the law intended, the state doled out the funds to local law enforcement agencies, which have rounded up people on charges of drug possession, shoplifting and outstanding traffic warrants.

One Oklahoma law enforcement agency used the funds for a project focused on catching shoplifters during the holiday season. Another agency arrested dozens of people during an operation for crimes such as bogus checks, retail larceny and traffic citations.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative was initially intended to slow the growth of Oklahoma’s prison population by keeping non-violent offenders out of prison through sentencing alternatives, which would save taxpayers hundreds of millions in corrections spending. It required post-release supervision for inmates sentenced after the law took effect in 2012, intermediate facilities for inmates who violated probation or drug court requirements and drug and mental health screenings for offenders.

Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill, but it was never entirely funded or implemented.

Many key parts of the law weren’t funded, such as hiring additional parole and probation officers.

Two high-ranking officials resigned from a panel charged with implementing the law, saying Fallin had done an about face in her support for it. Emails showed the Governor’s office was concerned supporting the law would make Fallin appear soft on crime.

Without the law, Oklahoma continues to face a growing prison population. The population has grown by 11.5 percent since JRI passed through the state Legislature and most prisons are over capacity.

At the same time, the state’s corrections spending remained mostly steady since 2012. The funds are just enough to keep crumbling facilities at minimal staffing levels.

The Safe Oklahoma Grant program is one of a handful of measures in the original package that made it past the chopping block of proposed JRI measures.

Originally called the Justice Reinvestment Grant, the grants are awarded to local law enforcement agencies through Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office with the goal of reducing violent crime and improving public safety. They are funded through an annual appropriation from the state Legislature.

The Frontier requested an interview with Pruitt but that request was not granted.

In an email, Pruitt spokesman Lincoln Ferguson said the Attorney General’s Office considers three factors when choosing which law enforcement agencies will receive the grants.  The office looks at the overall quality of the application; high historical violent crime rates, and demonstration of need, with reducing violent crime as a top priority, he said.

Agencies are required to send quarterly reports to the Attorney General’s Office to ensure they’re in compliance with spending requirements.

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Grants awarded by department for 2012 through Oct. 5, 2016.

Since the program’s implementation in 2012, the AG’s office has awarded about $6.6 million in Safe Oklahoma Grants to 30 agencies.

Though reducing violent crime may have been the grant program’s goal, many agencies targeted people who weren’t involved in violent crimes. The FBI defines violent crimes as murder and nonnegligent homicide, rape, robbery or aggravated assault.

Ferguson said misdemeanors can be uncovered as part of a larger investigation into various types of crimes.

“The Legislature also provided the grant program to reduce and prevent violent crimes, regardless of how the crime is labeled,” he said in an email.

Former House Speaker Kris Steele pushed for JRI and ushered it through the Legislature. He said the original vision of JRI’s law enforcement grants was to help local agencies develop smarter, more effective policing policies geared toward prevention and improving community relations.

“The original hope would be that these policies, proposals and initiatives that were funded through the original safety grants would be monitored, evaluated and ultimately tweaked, improved and built upon as time goes on,” Steele said during an interview with The Frontier.

“Because it might be that new research causes them to believe that there might be better use for resources for local law enforcement to strengthen communities to prevent additional crimes from being committed.”

Steele was also on the committee tasked with implementing the JRI reforms. He resigned in 2013 out of frustration over how the Governor’s Office handled the initiative.

Steele is now leading an effort to encourage passage of two state questions, 780 and 781, that reclassify some minor drug and property offenses as misdemeanors to reduce the state’s prison population. The state questions will be among those on the ballot in November’s general election.

‘Armed to the teeth’

In addition to sweeping up misdemeanor offenders, some of the Safe Oklahoma grant money went to buy high-tech toys.

In 2014, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office spent $7,325 on surveillance equipment, including a video/audio transmitter and receiver.

The devices were used to record people during undercover operations such as drug buys, said Casey Roebuck, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office. Roebuck declined to comment on how many times the surveillance equipment was used and whether the Sheriff’s Office obtained warrants to use it.

The state Legislature provided for multiple uses for the grant, such as buying new technology for crime prevention and criminal justice problem solving, Ferguson said in an email.

Increased technological capabilities can support intervention and enforcement, he said.

In 2014, TCSO spent an additional $10,116 on personnel costs, such as wages and benefits for patrolling officers working overtime hours. That year, the grant also helped finance overtime for deputies who worked with TCSO’s drug and violent crime task force.

In April 2015, the task force carried out an operation in which an undercover officer sold a gun to a felon named Eric Harris. When Harris saw law enforcement moving in to arrest him, he ran and was tackled by several members of the task force. Then-reserve deputy Robert Bates shot and killed Harris.

Robert Bates, shown in this screen capture from a video recorded March 12, 2015, points his Taser at a handcuffed man. Courtesy
Robert Bates, shown in this screen capture from a video recorded March 12, 2015, points his Taser at a handcuffed man. Courtesy

Bates was convicted on a second-degree manslaughter charge earlier this year and sentenced to four years, the maximum punishment under the law.

Harris’ death sparked a torrent of revelations about problems within TCSO under former Sheriff Stanley Glanz, including that 72-year-old Bates was allowed to serve on the drug task force without proper training.

A 15-minute video depicting operations of the task force, obtained by The Frontier, raises questions about how the state’s grant money is being spent and overseen.

The video shows members of the drug task force serving no-knock warrants and throwing citizens to the ground during several operations. The video is set to four songs: Guns n’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone,” the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and “Bad Boys” by Inner Circle, used as the theme music for “Cops” in the 1990s.

The Frontier requested the video under the Open Records Act from the Sheriff’s Office. The footage of task force operations in 2014 or early 2015 was apparently compiled and set to music for personal use by one or more of the officers involved.

The video shows task force members using battering rams to break down doors without knocking; throwing an unarmed man to the ground in front of a convenience store; and throwing a woman out of a car and onto the pavement during an undercover drug deal.

The video also shows the task force deputies pulling an older woman out of a car as she tries to take off her seat belt. A deputy holds her arms behind her back so Bates can handcuff her. However, Bates can’t operate the handcuffs properly and another officer cuffs the woman.

None of the arrests depict large hauls of drugs and instead show arrests of people after buying or selling what appear to be small amounts from an undercover officer.

The Frontier asked the Sheriff’s Office for comment on the video and whether any policy changes had been made that apply to the task force since. But TCSO declined to comment.

“The TCSO will not be offering The Frontier comment on operations (or videos) that occurred prior to the current administration,” Roebuck said in an email.

The drug task force no longer exists, she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma said the video raises serious concerns.

“I think the video is reprehensible and disturbing,” said ACLU Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel.

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ACLU executive director Randy Kiesel said the video demonstrates at least some members of TCSO saw themselves are players in a first-person shooter video game.

“The actions by the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office resemble more of an occupying military force of some foreign country than the types of police actions and procedures that we would expect from a domestic law enforcement agency,” he said.

The images alone are troubling, but when combined with the music, the montage is transformed into a “hype video” that demonstrates at least some members of the Sheriff’s Office see themselves as actors in a first-person shooter video game, Kiesel said.

Brady Henderson, ACLU Oklahoma’s legal director, said what stood out to him is that the only aggressive behavior seen in the video was from the deputies.

“I find that interesting that here’s this task force that’s armed to the teeth. … They are using these very aggressive tactics and the people they are using them against are incredibly docile.”

The Sheriff’s Office also formed the violent crime task force in 2014, often partnered with the drug task force. It was designed to target areas with high crime in Tulsa County.

In reports to the AG’s Office about its use of grant funds, the Sheriff’s Office noted it had made 11 felony arrests, 29 misdemeanor arrests and seized 29 grams of marijuana (barely over an ounce) during a three-month period in 2014. The agency also conducted several dozen field interviews.

Additional reports stated the agency seized three guns, various illegal drugs and aided the Tulsa Police Department as well as the Rogers County Sheriff’s Office during two operations that year.

In a grant progress report from 2014, the Sheriff’s Office noted it saw a drop in homicides — from one to zero — a 41 percent increase in aggravated assaults reports, no difference in robberies and an increase in reported rapes, from two to seven.

The Sheriff’s Office was awarded another Safe Oklahoma Grant in 2016 for $121,432. Some of the grant will go toward mapping software, used for crime analysis and predictive policing.

The remaining amount will be spent on overtime for deputies serving warrants in high-crime areas of Tulsa County, said Terry Simonson, director of governmental affairs for the Sheriff’s Office. (Simonson wrote the grant.)

It’s too early to say which areas will be targeted or how many overtime hours the grant will finance, Simonson said.

Deputies have not yet been assigned to the warrants group, Roebuck said.

Since the Safe Oklahoma Grant program started in 2012, Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office has received a total of $196,432.

Targeting shoplifters 

In Shawnee, the police department conducted a sting operation in 2014 targeting shoplifters during the holiday season.

The agency put GPS tracking devices inside electronics that were “openly” placed in hopes someone would steal them, then be located and arrested. No one took the bait either time the operation was conducted. However, several people were arrested for shoplifting during that same period.

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A Shawnee Police Department Safe Oklahoma Grant progress report goes over projects conducted during the 2014 holiday season.

Through use of the Safe Oklahoma grants, the department reported arrests that were, for the most part, related to misdemeanor crimes.

In a three-month timespan, Shawnee police doled out 12 traffic citations, made 15 misdemeanor arrests and three felony arrests, grant progress reports show.

During the following three-month grant reporting period, the department noted it made two felony and 29 misdemeanor arrests, handed out 30 traffic citations and made more than 1,500 contacts with citizens.

That year, the Shawnee Police Department also used its funds to strengthen community relations. It started its grant activities by making 1,500 door hangers and explaining the grant to residents.

During that time, the agency also focused on assisting the city’s code enforcement officers and conducting field interviews. Code enforcement focuses on property maintenance and code violations that experts say can affect public safety and quality of life in cities. Police are rarely involved in enforcing violations of property codes.

In a grant progress report from 2015, the agency noted it had seen an increase in activity in the target area due to a higher saturation of police officers. However, reported crime “in fact went down,” the report states.

Shawnee’s police department has received $107,000 in Safe Oklahoma grants since the program started.

‘Proactive instead of reactive’ 

The Tulsa Police Department has received five Safe Oklahoma grants since 2013, totaling more than $1.5 million.

Grants were spent on equipment and overtime for officers, said Tulsa Police Department spokesman Leland Ashley. The money financed units targeting issues including gangs, sex offenders and human trafficking, he said.

Through the grant, the agency formed a warrants unit in 2013 and arrested people for crimes such as kidnapping, failing to register as a sex offender and false impersonation.

Working with several federal agencies, the department conducted project “Battlefield” to conduct investigations on people involved in crimes, some violent.

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Courtesy NewsOn6

It resulted in several indictments, arrests, as well as seizures of illegal drugs, gun and money.

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In a grant progress report, the department notes it made 47 felony arrests during an operation.

The agency also conducted an operation called “Operation Safe Tulsa” in which officers patrolled high-crime areas. During the project, it reported 47 felony and two misdemeanor arrests, seized 24 guns and filed 41 drug charges, according to grant progress reports.

During the operation, the grant was also used for officers to assist in the search of homicide suspects and other violent crime cases, the report states.

From November 2013 to December 2014, the department reported 237 felony and 451 misdemeanor arrests, several dozen gang contacts and arrests, and hundreds of walk-through patrols in high-crime areas.

In 2015, officers conducted sex and violent offender compliance checks to ensure people were registered as offenders.

In its 2015 grant progress report, the department noted it saw an overall 2 percent decrease in violent crime, including 30 percent fewer robberies and a 12 percent reduction in aggravated assaults.

The Oklahoma City Police Department has spent its grants largely on overtime for patrolling officers. The department also hired a code enforcement specialist, two part-time multi-family housing specialists and financed a data-sharing system with law enforcement agencies in nearby cities to analyze and map crime.

In late 2013 through early 2014, the agency reported it focused on community outreach to identify issues contributing to criminal activity and raising awareness of how to report criminal and suspicious activity.

At the end of the grant period in 2015, the agency reported crime in the targeted area had fluctuated slightly but consistently stayed higher in the area than in other parts of the city.

However, compared to the when the grant program began in 2013, the high-crime area saw a 5.7 percent decrease in violent crime.

Most law enforcement agencies spent the majority of their grants on overtime. Several allocated the funds to analytical systems or surveillance equipment.

Last week, Pruitt announced the AG’s Office is awarding another round of $1.4 million in Safe Oklahoma grants to 16 law enforcement agencies.

Whether the program is helping to achieve the original goal of JRI — reducing the number of low-level offenders in state prisons — is debatable.

Steele said the Safe Oklahoma grants were envisioned to allow agencies to gain better technology and analytical capabilities. The grants weren’t supposed to be aimed at people committing misdemeanor crimes, but were meant to reduce violent crime, he said.

“If you have better relationships within the community, oftentimes that’s achieved through having a better presence and being proactive instead of reactive and then seeing a decrease in crime,” Steele said.

Ziva Branstetter contributed to this story.

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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