The teenager’s shoulders slumped and his voice began to crack as he contemplated the challenges awaiting him outside of prison. Speaking into a computer camera from a juvenile detention center 45 miles from his home, the young man slowly shook his head in doubt as he discussed the need to support a child, find a job and avoid the same Oklahoma City streets he came from once he was released.
Looking back at him on the computer screen was Wayland Cubit, whose posture was the exact opposite; He leaned forward on the edge of his chair, focused an intense stare into the computer camera and shook his head up and down as he began to speak.
“You’ve got to make a decision that I am not going back and I don’t care what I got to do to keep from going back,” said Cubit, his voice rising like a charismatic preacher at the pulpit.
“We need you because you are the solution to somebody else’s problem. You exist to solve somebody else’s problem.”
For nearly a quarter century Cubit has viewed his own existence through that ethos.
As an Oklahoma City police officer and leader of a youth mentoring organization, Cubit’s professional and personal life has centered on saving children growing up in northeast Oklahoma City, the community where he was raised and still lives.
For those young men who do fall through the cracks, Cubit hasn’t given up. He regularly meets with boys in juvenile detention as part of a mentoring program, which is being held virtually because of the pandemic.
The father to four biological kids, Cubit and his wife fostered or adopted another eight children, not because that was part of their family plan, but because, “We were in a place to help when they needed it the most,” Cubit said.
Sitting in his cinderblock-wall office in a northeast Oklahoma City community center, Cubit’s phone constantly dings with texts from young men in need of help – someone is contemplating suicide, another is living in their car and a former mentee Cubit hasn’t heard from in years is running from the police but wants help turning himself in.
“These guys don’t necessarily trust the police but they trust me, a police officer,” Cubit said.
“What if people could trust us?”
It’s a level of community policing that Cubit wants to see adopted by the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Department, the law enforcement agency he is running to lead in this year’s election.
Current sheriff P.D. Taylor lost his Republican primary last month to Tommie Johnson, a Norman police officer who Cubit, a Democrat, will face on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Both are Black men, meaning the election will result in the county’s first Black sheriff.
Cubit launched his campaign last year, but a summer of civil unrest in response to police brutality, which has involved clashes between demonstrators and local law enforcement, has only confirmed his belief that effective policing starts with a trusting relationship between police and the public they vowed to protect.
“Law enforcement is very good at doing the first-mile stuff, like when we have to put up barricades or we have to protect the property or we have to go to the 911 call,” Cubit said. “But I’m focused on second-mile stuff. Sitting down with faith-based organizations, talking with people, building relationships and trust, that’s second-mile stuff and I want us to have a second-mile mentality at the sheriff’s department.”
A second-mile mentality leads to a deeper understanding of what causes crime, Cubit said.
“To do justice you not only have to look at what is happening now but what is always happening,” Cubit said. “You have to put things in context to be able to achieve justice. I think a lot of times police officers are not able to put things into context because they look at things at face value. Yes they stole, but why did they steal? Yes, someone hurt somebody, but we know that hurt people hurt people.”
A proactive agency
In 2010, Cubit had been called into the police chief’s office, unfamiliar territory for most officers of the Oklahoma City Police Department. More than 14 years into his career, Cubit was working undercover targeting drug dealers and gang members, an assignment he excelled at.
A few nights earlier, Police Chief Bill Citty had attended a youth event at the invitation of Cubit. The town hall setting at Cubit’s church gave teenagers in northeast Oklahoma City a chance to ask the police chief questions.
Citty didn’t know much about Cubit, but at the event he saw a police officer who had a connection to his community and the kids who were presented few opportunities beyond drugs and gangs. Citty saw untapped potential and offered Cubit a new assignment.
“I quickly recognized his personal commitment to quality policing and the passion for the community he served,” Citty said this month when he announced his endorsement of Cubit in the sheriff’s race.
Cubit was tasked with building a mentorship unit in the police department. Given a staff of four officers, Cubit’s unit used metrics like truancy to identify students who are most at risk.
“His ability to connect with those kids, identify with their story, and be able to challenge them, I always thought it was amazing,” said Jonathan Middlebrooks, the lead pastor of Skyline Church, which has worked with Cubit’s mentoring program.
Many law enforcement agencies across the company have launched community policing programs and the concept has gained some momentum amid calls for systemic changes within law enforcement agencies.
But Cubit said he viewed community policing as more than just a single program within an agency.
“I want to create an agency where the community policing model is true all the way through,” Cubit said. “Not just for one unit and not just for one person’s job. This needs to be a proactive agency, not a reactive agency.”
Typically the face of the county’s decrepit jail, the sheriff’s position is in the process of transition after county commissioners voted last year to remove the Oklahoma County Jail from sheriff control, although the sheriff does sit on the jail trust.
Cubit believes that shift has created the capacity to alter the agency to be more community-oriented and achieve a deeper presence in marginalized neighborhoods where there is still a battle to save kids from a life of incarceration or early death.
“I see the transition as perfect timing,” Cubit said.
November’s sheriff election will bring change regardless of the result without an incumbent on the ballot.
Cubit or Johnson will become Oklahoma County’s first black sheriff at a time when systemic racism within law enforcement has received increased attention in recent years.
Cubit grew up wanting to be a police officer, but kept that dream a secret because of the stigma police had in his community.
“I call it dual citizenship,” Cubit said about his identity as a Black police officer.
Cubit said he often feels like a bridge between the two communities.
“I am able to articulate how I feel as a black man to coworkers without being offensive or combative,” Cubit said. “At the same time I am able to bring a point of view and perspective into my community and family that they don’t have.”
It’s not uncommon for Cubit to speak with his fellow officers about the difference in the behavior of a guilty person who is scared of getting caught and an innocent person who is just afraid of an interaction with law enforcement.
In weekly videos on Facebook, Cubit has addressed the controversial shootings of Black men and women by police, but also the shooting of police officers.
“There is a real disdain for police right now, I get that, but they are still people,” Cubit said during a recent video addressing the shooting of two Los Angeles police officers.
Cubit called out those who were for justice when it comes to police shootings, saying they should also call for justice when there is violence against law enforcement officers.
Cubit hasn’t been too detailed on specific policies of the sheriff operations that he might change, although he has called for more mental health training.
Instead, he has presented his candidacy as a way to use the position of the sheriff to be a voice for change and understanding.
“This isn’t about politics, this is about justice,” Cubit told a crowd last month, during a marched to the state Capitol to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington.
If elected, Cubit said the first thing he would focus on is being honest and transparent.
“When some officer in LA or New York goes in and displays what many officers display, which is selfless sacrifice, bravery, heroism, we all celebrate that together,” Cubit said. “Even though it happened in another city, it’s easy for us here to identify with that and take that free cup of coffee. It’s easy to own that heroism even though you weren’t there.
“But we don’t have an equal response when someone who wears our uniform acts inappropriately. I think our community wants us to own it all, the good and the bad.”
Further reading about the other candidate in the Oklahoma County sheriff’s race: