The winner of Oklahoma County’s sheriff race will oversee an agency mostly responsible for patrolling the county’s more rural corners. But urban voters will largely decide the race and the outcome could serve as an expression of how residents of Oklahoma City view the role of law enforcement in a year when policing tactics have been heavily scrutinized.
Democrat Wayland Cubit and Republican Tommie Johnson III, both Black men, not only disagree on some of the biggest policing issues of the day, but also have different opinions on what impact systemic racism has on law enforcement, which has become an issue of reckoning for the nation in light of recent police killings of unarmed Black men and women.
During a Thursday debate, Johnson, a five-year member of the Norman Police Department, defended a fellow officer who was disciplined this year for sending an email of racist images reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan.
Johnson said the image was from a movie and meant as a joke about recent mask mandates.
“The whole situation was way over blown,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he spoke with the officer who sent the email and told him “I understand you are not racist and you didn’t mean this racially.”
Cubit said the email was inappropriate and racially insensitive, regardless of the sender’s intent.
“Whether you mean it or not, conscious or unconscious, the impact on the people who have to deal with it is the same,” said Cubit, who added it could speak to a larger issue of that person incorporating unconscious bias into other policing procedures.
“It had an impact way up here in Oklahoma County. (Johnson) wouldn’t know that because he’s never made a traffic stop in Oklahoma County.”
Johnson acknowledged historic strife between police and the Black community. But he said his generation’s experience was much different from his parents’.
Today, “we are in a good place,” Johnson said.
Cubit, a youth mentor and 25-year member of the Oklahoma City Police Department, has built his campaign on a philosophy of community policing and sees a need for law enforcement to do a better job of self-reflection and become more mindful of the neighborhood-level challenges that can cause a person to end up in in the justice system.
Johnson has also called for some criminal justice reform measures but has focused more on financial transparency in the sheriff’s office and creating a department more supportive of officers.
Johnson secured the Republican nomination this summer after beating current sheriff P.D. Taylor in a primary race. The general election is Nov. 3.
“This race could be sort of a proxy on law enforcement in general when you see how different the candidates are,” said State Rep. Jason Dunnington, an Oklahoma City Democrat who has endorsed Cubit.
“Cubit talks about how important it is to reform the way that we do things and that the justice system needs to be more equitable. I’m hoping voters support that vision like I do.”
The sheriff’s office patrols unincorporated parts of the county, is responsible for county prisoner transport and serves civil documents, such as evictions.
As of this year the sheriff is no longer responsible for the county jail, which not only removes some significant responsibilities but also access to the jail’s budget.
The sheriff’s race isn’t as high profile as several others on the ballot and the result may be decided by the partisan leaning of Oklahoma County voters.
Some political observers view Oklahoma County as the only county President Donald Trump might not win in the state.
During Thursday’s debate, partisan differences were apparent between Cubit and Johnson.
While not a decision for the next sheriff, Johnson said he supported the presence of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in the county jail, which has become a hot button topic at recent jail trust meetings. Cubit said there was no reason for ICE to have a physical presence at the jail.
Both candidates agreed with the need to equip sheriff deputies with a body camera but disagreed on how much money it would take to accomplish it.
Johnson said a body camera program would take an initial investment of $150,000 and $65,000 each year after.
Cubit said those figures were “way off” because Johnson “has never managed a body camera program.”
Experience was a major theme brought up by Cubit during Thursday’s debate as the Oklahoma City police officer said his past work managing a staff, conducting sensitive investigations and building relationships with community leaders made him the most qualified.
But Johnson repeatedly disregarded Cubit’s experience and accused him on relying on “old tactics.”
“Policing of the yesterday is not getting it done today. I represent a fresh perspective,” Johnson said.
Further reading about the Oklahoma County sheriff’s race: