‘This is just the start’: The push to change policing in Oklahoma City

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Oklahoma City councilman James Cooper has proposed six programs as alternatives to traditional policing in the city, especially in marginalized communities. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

It was a call from dispatch the young police officer had heard many times, a family in north Oklahoma City was struggling with their teenage son who was battling a mental illness and needed outside help. The officer, who that day had a city councilman riding along, pulled into the apartment complex and explained to the family their two options: either they could take him to a mental health facility or he could. 

“You have this officer who was trying like the dickens to do the right thing but we as a state government, city government and a federal government haven’t given him the real reinforcements he needs to be effective at his job,” said James Cooper, the Ward 2 councilman who was with the officer. 

In the near future, Cooper would like to see trained mental health professionals responding to a call like this, rather than an armed police officer. 

It is one of six proposals Cooper made this week on ways to change some of the fundamental elements of policing and how the city responds to some of its greatest challenges, including mental health, homelessness and domestic violence. 

In addition to removing police officers as first responders for many mental health-related calls, Cooper would also like to see the creation of a neighborhood safety and violence interruption program where trained staff respond to some 911 calls. 

“This is the start,” Cooper said. “For decades too many levels of government didn’t address mental health, domestic violence, generational poverty and cyclical violence, so these proposals are just the start of the conversation about how we right those wrongs.”

City staff will perform a benefit-cost analysis study for each proposal if a majority of the council votes to move forward next Tuesday.  

Cooper’s push to change local policing follows weeks of nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism within the justice system. 

Initially sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the protests in Oklahoma City have centered on local issues.

The protests have also led to calls to “defund the police,” which can mean redirecting some of the police budget to other programs. 

Cooper said some funding currently earmarked for police could be used to fund his proposals. 

“I don’t want to wait on this because the crisis is now,” Cooper said. 

Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon, who said she supports Cooper’s proposals, believes the Oklahoma City police department’s current budget of $226 million is not actually making the city safer, especially in some black communities where social services have been neglected. 

“When we aren’t investing in those supports like mental health systems, education, parks, transit, the things that connect people both to opportunity but also to community and even just social and emotional support, then it’s like you are not actually helping the people who have been harmed in communities and you are not doing anything to fix why the harm is happening,” Hamon said. 

“When communities have resources like parks, like recreational opportunities outside of school, like a good education, they are often the communities that are not relying on police or given police as the solution to the ills that exist in their community.”

But the perspective on the effectiveness of local policing varies depending on which neighborhood a person lives. 

Oklahoma City Councilman David Greenwell said residents from his mostly suburban ward on the city’s south end are largely in support of the police. 

Through emails and phone calls to his city council office, he estimated the ratio of support at 20 to 1 in favor of the current work of the Oklahoma City Police Department, Greenwell told his fellow council members at a meeting this week. 

An Oklahoma City police officer watches a protest on May 30, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Just a few minutes later, Councilwoman Nikki Nice, the representative of northeast Oklahoma City, shared a different experience for many of her black constituents she said have been ignored for years. 

“We have to continue to say we are over policed, we have to continue to say that we are getting stopped (by police) at alarming rates, we have to continue to say we are getting tickets at an increasing rate, we have to continue to say on and on and on,” Nice said.

In recent years discussions about the police budget have centered on the need for more money to hire more officers and voters have supported those efforts through tax increases. 

“We are way understaffed and I think the citizens know that because they voted to increase the size of the department a few years back,” said John George, president of the Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing police officers. 

In 2017, Oklahoma City voters approved a sales tax increase to add police and firefighters. The measure narrowly passed, but its largest support came in the city’s northwest suburban communities, while many of the precincts that rejected the proposition were in Nice’s ward, according to an analysis of precincts. 

“It is really a question of do the police make you feel safe?” said Brooke Young, a resident of Ward 7 who participated in a Black Lives Matter march last week in downtown Oklahoma City. “They don’t make me feel safe, so that’s a problem. The problem is systemic racism and that is seen in the numbers.”

Since 2013, Oklahoma City police have killed 48 people, the majority of whom were not white, according to data compiled by MappingPoliceViolence.org

Statewide, black Oklahomans are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white Oklahomans. 

Oklahoma City Police Chief Wade Gourley, who has rejected calls by the local chapter of Black Lives Matter to resign, said he doesn’t see systemic problems among his department. 

“I just don’t want folks making the assumption there are systemic problems here because there are not,” Gourley said in an interview last week. 

John George, president of the Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

George, the president of the police union, said he isn’t sure what people want to see changed. 

“A lot of things they are concerned about (locally) seems to be what they are concerned about nationally, and if they really look at what we do here it’s already been banned here or we don’t do it here,” said George, specifically referring to the practice of chokeholds. 

George rejects the idea of reducing police funding and believes it should actually be increased. 

“We are way understaffed still,” George said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at how to fund mental health and other things, but I don’t think taking the money from the police department is the appropriate way to do it. I don’t know what the exact number (of police officers) needs to be but I do know that we need more than we have now.”

Council members Cooper, Hamon and Nice have expressed interest in funding additional community programs while also making significant changes to police policy. 

But it will take more members of the eight-person council, and the mayor, to approve funding changes. 

Ward 1 Councilman James Greiner, who represents northwest Oklahoma City, said he is open to reducing the workload of police, especially concerning mental health calls, but he isn’t supportive of reducing the police budget to do it.

I think we are still understaffed on the police department,” Greiner said. 

“My constituents that have communicated with me personally they wholeheartedly want to properly fund the police department, they want law and order, they want their neighborhoods to be safe places to live and right now most of them think that the police department is the best way to do that and I agree with them.”

But Cooper said his proposals were not just a product of recent protests but are rooted in what he heard from citizens when he first campaigned for office two years ago. 

Cooper said the increased focus on social services in the last version of the city’s voter-approved MAPS program is also a product of the city increasing its focus on addressing systemic issues, rather than policing its way out of the problem. 

“My proposals are the tip of the iceberg, MAPS 4 was just the tip of the iceberg because for decades too many levels of government didn’t address these problems,” Cooper said. 

“This moment cannot be the end of the conversation because there is too much hard work to do.”

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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