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State House Committee Holds Studies On How Best To Support, Reform Police

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Oklahoma House of Representatives
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The Oklahoma State Capitol.

The Oklahoma House of Representatives Public Safety Committee spent most of Tuesday hearing from witnesses in two separate policing-related interim studies with two separate focal points: how best to support law enforcement, and how best to reform it.

Rep. Justin Humphrey (R-Lane), who chairs the committee, said his study was meant to identify ways in which the legislature can best support law enforcement officers and agencies.

“There are so many narratives in the public right now about how our police, sheriffs or other law enforcement agencies need to be reformed,” Humphrey said. “Combine that with outright attacks on our law enforcement officers, and it becomes a toxic mix. And yet, the majority of legislators and I believe the public at large value and support our police and other law enforcement and want to do all we can to protect them.”

Chief Todd Gibson of the Moore Police Department said negative messaging can take a heavy toll on his officers, who often experience traumatic events and pick up "mental scars" in the course of their work.

"When they don't get that rallying call, when they don't get that support on media outlets, when they don't get that support from their communities, it really starts to take a psychological toll and provide a lower quality of service to the communities," Gibson said.

Jerad Lindsey, chairman of Tulsa's Fraternal Order of Police, opened his testimony with a swipe against the city.

"A lot of this anti-police rhetoric that you're hearing is coming from Tulsa. I apologize. Your artsy little brother down the highway is doing weird stuff. We've got some politicians down there that have got some weird ideas in their head about policing and where this country needs to go," Lindsey said.

Lindsey recounted a conversation he said he had with TPD Sgt. Craig Johnson just days before Johnson was fatally shot during a traffic stop in June.

"He said, 'Jerad, I know that the guys I supervise are going to hesitate out in the field because of the national narrative that's going on with policing.' And I said, 'Well, Craig, you can't know that. How do you know that?' And he said, 'I know it because I'm going to hesitate. I know that I hesitate because I don't want to end up like the guy in the Wendy's drive-through in Atlanta. I don't want to end up like those people where it destroys your life. I'm not going to draw my gun until the other guy's drawing his. I'm going to wait 'til the very last second,'" Lindsey said. 

"And now, due to some court maneuverings, the video of his death is out there for commercial review and public entertainment. And if you watch it, you'll watch my friend deescalate himself to death," he said.

In the second half of the day, the committee heard a study brought by Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa) focused on policing reform and disproportionate enforcement against communities of color.

"Systemic racism is an issue not only in Oklahoma but in America, and I hope that's not a point that we have to debate," Goodwin said.

Kris Steele, former Speaker of the Oklahoma House (R-Shawnee) and criminal justice reform advocate, testified that data was clear that disproportionate policing against people of color exists in Oklahoma. 

Rep. David Hardin (R-Stilwell), prefacing a question to Steele about the deterrence effect of fines, said, "Having 40 years in law enforcement myself, I want to take race completely out of this. It doesn't matter to me what ethnic blood you have in you. People are people."

"According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Oklahoma, unfortunately, has one of the highest, if not the highest, incarceration rates for African-Americans per capita of any state in the nation," Steele responded. "The last statistic that I saw indicates that a person who is Black or brown in Oklahoma is, like, five times more likely to be incarcerated than if you're white. So I think we have to at least acknowledge that there are racial disparities that do exist within our criminal justice system."

Former Tulsa police chief Drew Diamond also testified to the existence of racial disparity in police work.

"The studies show that racially biased policing is real," Diamond said. "Experientially we know it, that it's real, that these things are happening."

"We, by God's grace, have to collectively and collaboratively work in this House and in this building for real, substantial law enforcement reform," Goodwin said to conclude the day.

"I agree," Humphrey replied. 

"I believe that we all have to work together, even though we disagree quite a bit," he said.

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