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Facing the divide

Tulsa City Council aims to repair decades of distrust in policing

D’Marria Monday speaks to the Tulsa City Council at a meeting addressing the Equality Indicators report.

Greg Bollinger

On July 9, multiple officers from the Tulsa Police Gang Unit swarmed the North Tulsa Town Square Apartments in unmarked cars. The officers converged on the apartment complex and began questioning its predominantly black residents in the parking lot, demanding identification and searching an occupied vehicle despite the fact that no crime was being committed.   

When body cam footage of the incident was released, it became—like so many police camera clips—a sort of Rorschach test, revealing individual perceptions of race and policing in America. Everyone saw something different. 

Some people saw police officers simply doing their jobs, trying to keep a neighborhood with disproportionate 911 calls safe. Others saw a black neighborhood threatened by racial profiling and over policing. “The same actions that, from the community’s perspective, exacerbated existing fears and distrust of the police, were described by the Mayor as the type of proactive policing ‘we want our officers to do,’” representatives from Demanding a JUSTulsa wrote in a public statement. 

Whatever the interpretation of the footage in question, there is no denying the numbers on racial disparities in policing from the 2018 Tulsa Equality Indicators report are sobering. Black juveniles in Tulsa are arrested at more than three times the rate of white juveniles. Black adults in Tulsa are arrested more than twice as often as white adults, and they are also more than twice as likely to experience police violence than their white counterparts. 

Policing disparities break down along gender lines as well. Women in Tulsa are arrested at a rate more than twice the national average, and in 2018 women were one of the fastest-growing populations at the Tulsa County Jail. 

What does a community do with these facts, and how do these numbers impact people’s lives every day? These questions are at the heart of a recent series of listening sessions and City Council meetings exploring the Tulsa Equality Indicators Report. On Sept. 25, the City Council will use the questions and comments they’ve gathered from concerned Tulsans to ask a panel of community experts for recommendations to improve Tulsa policing. 

The series of City Council meetings seeking public comments on the racial policing disparities outlined in the Equality Indicators report have grown heated at times. There have been plenty of tears and tense moments, with Tulsans—mostly from communities of color—describing in stark detail years of perceived abuse from police. Some members of the community simply stood and turned their backs on the Council as a physical expression of the emotions many in the North Tulsa community feel. 

Several people expressed a sense that they’d been abandoned by their own city government. Some described years of hurt and distrust perpetuated by negative interactions with police. “If you can be shot with a cell phone in your hand, if you can be shot with your hands up—it’s a state of war, a police state,” said North Tulsa community advocate Chief Egunwale Fagbenro Amusan. 

Despite opening these painful wounds, several City Councilors have expressed gratitude for this process. “We don’t need to have a conversation about who’s right. We need to have a conversation about a variety of perspectives. We need to honor them and listen to them,” City Councilor Lori Decter Wright said. “I’ve always reminded people to set our expectations. In four meetings we’re not going to undo a century of systemic institutionalized racism. We’ve started a process that I hope will continue long after these meetings.”  

At the Sept. 25 meeting, a panel of local experts will discuss strategies to create more trust between communities of color and law enforcement. A key component of this discussion involves creating an office of independent monitoring with citizen oversight to create better officer accountability. One goal is to improve the justice outcomes in places like North Tulsa. Another goal is partially healing the wounds of Tulsa’s profound legacy of racial segregation and distrust. 

Mana Tahaie, a racial equity consultant who participated in the community meetings that started this process, remains hopeful about the potential for positive change. “As a community, I’d like Tulsa to be more literate and fluent on issues of race,” Tahaie said. “I would love to see a better understanding among Tulsa’s leadership about the root causes of racial disparities—a recognition that bias lives within all of us by default, and that owning that isn’t an admission of a character flaw or malice, but just an honest assessment of how our culture shapes us.”  

But Tahaie says real change will take more than a cultural shift. “I would like to see more robust data systems put in place at TPD so they have the tools they need to identify and mitigate bias, a more comprehensive use of force policy and a transparent citizen oversight authority,” Tahaie said. “These are some initial steps to get us moving in the right direction.” 

*  *  *

Special Council Meeting: 
Race/Gender Disparities 
in Adult Arrest
Tulsa PAC (Liddy Doenges Theatre), 
110 E. 2nd St. 
Wednesday, Sept. 25, 5:30 p.m.

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