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Sen. James Lankford Speaks With KWGS On Police Reform, Juneteenth, And The President's Tulsa Rally

Sen. James Lankford
Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) in an undated photo posted to his U.S. Senate webpage.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) spoke with KWGS News' Chris Polansky on Monday, June 15th, about police reform following last month's killing of George Floyd, Black Tulsans' outrage over President Trump's initial Juneteenth date for a Tulsa rally (and his role in getting it changed), whether he thinks the rally should continue despite warnings from local and federal public health experts, and whether he intends to wear a mask to the rally.

Full transcript:

KWGS: We're joined today by Oklahoma's junior U.S. Senator, James Lankford. Senator, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.

SEN. LANKFORD: Absolutely, glad to be able to do it.

KWGS: So, you're one of the Republican senators currently on a task force working on criminal justice reform legislation. What's sort of the rundown, or the executive summary, of the kinds of reforms you're looking at?

SEN. LANKFORD: So we're focused on transparency: What can be done that will actually make a difference? Racism is not something you can solve with a piece of legislation. It is a heart issue and a family issue. But there are areas of transparency that can both help law enforcement be able to identify someone who's hurting their department rather than helping, and hurting the community rather than helping, and we can also provide greater transparency to the community.

So things like, if there's a use of force that leads to significant bodily injury, or the death of someone that's in custody, getting all of those records out. About 40% of the departments around the country contribute those records already, but that means 60% do not. So we've got to be able to get that out.

Greater use of body cameras, especially body cameras with better technology so they actually turn on faster. We've had several situations where something has occurred and the body camera was mysteriously off. We need to make sure that doesn't happen, and that we continue to make sure that those body cameras are used.

Personnel records are another one. If someone moves from one department to another one, we want to make sure that those individuals, all their personnel files move with them, and before the hiring actually occurs, the hiring department gets the good and the bad for an individual to be able to find out more about them.

So there are many other areas that are just basic information. Even things like dealing with chokeholds. Most departments don't allow chokeholds, don't train for that. Some still do. There's a consensus document from 2017, where major law enforcement came together and banned certain uses of force, including chokeholds. We want to try to be able to multiply that consensus document out there.

So for us, it's process changes, it's transparency, it's making sure that we put things in place to be able to help the process.

KWGS: And now I know you're working at the federal level, but I would like to ask you about the local level here in Tulsa. The police department has come under, really, international scrutiny in the last week. A high-ranking officer said that, according to research, police shoot African Americans "less than we probably ought to be." And then there was the footage that went viral of TPD officers handcuffing two Black children for jaywalking. Do you have reactions to those incidents, and would any of what you're working on address those types of incidents?

SEN. LANKFORD: So the first thing that happens in every situation is local communities step up and address what's happening locally. So, Tulsa Police Department has actively engaged in a couple of ways. One is, publicly stating there is no way any of us would align with a public statement of someone saying we're not shooting people as much as we should be. That is an absurd statement to make. And so they're dealing with that internally, to be able to go through the process.

The other thing is the very rapid, clear process that's as transparent as you possibly can on the investigation when someone is arrested for jaywalking, and handcuffed for jaywalking: what is the rest of the story, what happened, and to be able to get those details out as fast as possible. I was proud of the Tulsa Police Department. They put out the body camera footage very quickly, which reinforces, again, why we need body camera footage out there. It helps the officer, it helps the community, so you're having a conversation about a same set of facts. So, we'll allow that investigation to move forward.

What we have proposed are a couple things: increased use of body cameras, increased transparency with those body cameras. Also, if someone files a false report, that there would be a consequence for filing a false report, if there's some kind of significant bodily injury that occurs during that time period. So, as much as we can to be able to build the transparency, build the community, so the good officers get encouraged, and bad officers, we help them find another job somewhere else.

KWGS: I would like to ask you: I've seen reports that you were in dialogue with some Black leaders in Oklahoma, and that you then spoke with President Trump regarding the significance of Juneteenth. And I know quite a few people are very happy that the date was moved. At the same time, I have been speaking with a lot of leaders in the Black community here in Tulsa over the last week, and the overwhelming feeling that I'm getting is that they believe that the original announcement, and that date, was a deliberate provocation or an insult from the president to Black Americans. I take it you disagree with that?

SEN. LANKFORD: I adamantly disagree with that, and it's from a personal conversation with the president. That was by no means any intention to be able to be a provocative date. During this time period, everyone is especially sensitive of all things race in conversation. It was just as simple as, what are the dates that are open, what's a good date to be able to have a rally, what is a state that has low COVID-19 numbers. That was absolutely not intended to be a provocative date, and, again, if we were in any other year, in any other time period, I don't think that accusation would be made. There's been lots of public events on June 19th of other dates, in other years, at other times. But right now it's just so politically charged that I think it's easy to be able to put that out there. But again, I personally spoke with the president. I absolutely do not believe this was intended to be intentional provocation.

KWGS: And on the same subject of the rally. The head of the Tulsa Health Department here, Dr. Bruce Dart, he says that he wishes the rally would be postponed because we're in the middle of a major increase in COVID-19 cases. And when he says that, he says he's not worried just about Tulsans, but he's also worried because he can't guarantee the president's safety from contracting the virus. Dr. Fauci also called campaign rallies "risky" and "a danger" this weekend. Are you comfortable with this rally taking place while public health experts are making comments like that?

SEN. LANKFORD: So, public health experts made the same comments about the protests, for instance, on the murder of George Floyd. There was a lot of concern this many people protesting all in one spot, gathering, that there would be an increase in numbers. And then some people have said, well, those are outdoors, this is indoors, it's totally different. The issue is really close proximity and keeping people healthy. The main thing that I have said to people is, if you're an individual that is high-risk, you should not be out right now. We should continue to be able to help guard you, and to be able to make sure that you're not having to be able to connect with people. So I discourage people that are high-risk from medical issues from being at any event, whether it's a protest, whether it's a political rally, whether it's any gathering, even attending church. You know, my church is meeting again. We're skipping every other row, but we still have a lot of individuals that are older individuals that are watching church online, that are not attending anymore because they're trying to be attentive to that. That's a wise thing to be able to do.

KWGS: I think that is wise for people with high risk to stay away. I do want to push back, because I think what people would say is that those folks who do end up attending a rally, or a protest, or any other large gathering, will then go back into their communities. Do you see anything in there?

SEN. LANKFORD: I do, but it's the same thing we see at every restaurant, at every department store, at every small business. This is the nature of trying to be able to transition out of a time of, where there's a virus. As a state, we have gone through phase one, phase two, and phase three. We've seen the predictable spike on the backside of phase three as we finish that out, especially with all that's occurring right now. We haven't seen an increase in hospitalizations. We haven't seen an increase in deaths. So that's been very, very positive to be able to see that, but we've seen an increase in positive numbers. So that just reminds us all again, no matter where you are, in a restaurant, or in a rally, or in a protest, we need to be attentive, and we need to continue to be able to pay attention for that.

So getting tested to find out if you have the virus, so that you won't spread that to someone else if you have the slightest symptoms. Wearing a mask if you don't know, but also trying to be able to keep social distancing. It's one of the hardest things that I do right now, is that when people greet me at different places, because I do wear a mask in restaurants, and shopping, and anywhere that I go, is that people want to walk up and shake my hand, and I just can't. At this point I have to be very, very attentive to that.

KWGS: And my last question here is: I believe it was on CNN with Jake Tapper, you said you hadn't yet decided whether you would be wearing a mask when attending the rally. And, again, Dr. Fauci, the CDC, and the Tulsa Health Department here all say masks are important. Have you made up your mind there?

SEN. LANKFORD: So, masks are exceptionally important in being able to transmit it, if you have the virus, to another person. Everyone needs to continue to keep in perspective. A mask does not protect you if the person you're talking to has the virus. You're protecting other people. And so what I'm trying to figure out is, what's the best way to be able to do this. In a larger gathering, as you know, it's hard to be able to hear at time and to try to be able to communicate.

I have been amazed. About four or five different media folks are all very intrigued with this question. I don't remember the same question being pummeled of people if they were attending a protest, if they're also going to wear a mask all the time. A lot of people did, a lot of people did not. But this has become an interesting political conversation, as well, to try to figure out if each person's going to wear a mask in that location. I'll try to make the best decision. I wear a mask all the time right now when I'm in public places, whether that be in an airport, a restaurant, or a store. So I'll continue to be able to practice what I think is best to be able to do that, but I need to be able to hear people, and people need to be able to hear me as well. So we'll balance that out.

KWGS: United States Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma. Senator, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.

SEN. LANKFORD: You bet. Glad to. Thank you.

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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