For good or for ill, many a political leader is known for One Big Thing by which history will always identify him or her. Abraham Lincoln is best known for abolishing slavery, while Strom Thurman's name is synonymous with segregation. FDR struck The New Deal, while Dubya's career-defining issue is the Iraq War. Sen. Joseph McCarthy even got an "ism" named after him to sum up his grand cause.
Closer to home, Tulsa's own state Rep. Lucky Lamons also has his One Big Thing, and that is agency consolidation.
The Democrat from House District 66 has other causes on his career-long legislative agenda, but none is as high a priority nor nearly as controversial as his ongoing quest to consolidate the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control into a single agency under the umbrella of the Department of Public Safety.
This year, for the fourth consecutive legislative session, Lamons has proposed a bill to that effect. Like previous attempts, his proposal was defeated with its assignment to the House Rules Committee, which lawmakers have long recognized as the graveyard for ill-fated bills.
Lamons then tried to get his proposal through as an amendment on another piece of legislation, but was again shut down by House leadership.
This year's round of struggles on the issue is over for the most part, but if Lamons is true to form, his ongoing quest to consolidate Oklahoma's law enforcement agencies is far from over. He's made it clear that he plans to do so every year hence until he either accomplishes his goal or is prevented from doing so by term limits or an election defeat.
"I've got seven more years in the Legislature, and it may take me seven more years to accomplish this," he said.
Lamons said the issue had been on his mind for a long time, but the need to consolidate the two agencies was apparent to him early in his career when he served as vice-chair for the House Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.
When the heads of each agency appeared before the committee to speak on pending legislation, he said, each came with an identical entourage of attorneys, public information officers and administrative personnel.
As a retired member of the Tulsa Police Department, Lamons said he knows from experience that the respective missions of the OSBI and OBN are similar enough that they could be streamlined into a single agency, thereby eliminating duplicated efforts and administrative personnel and saving taxpayers $3.2 million per year, which could be used to hire more law enforcement officers.
He also said combining the two agencies would strengthen law enforcement efforts because agents could investigate crimes more quickly and succinctly without repeating efforts.
"In my 22 years in law enforcement, you cannot find criminal action without narcotics. That is why all over the nation narcotics teams and investigative teams are combined into one agency. No other state besides Oklahoma has separate narcotics agencies," he said. "When investigating shootings, robberies, homicides or any criminal activity, narcotics usually play a part."
"If Wal-Mart ran their offices like we are running these two agencies, you would have sporting goods on one block, auto parts five blocks down followed by clothing 10 more blocks, then groceries in a building 10 blocks farther. They would have their own separate buildings, separate policies and procedures, separate pay staff and separate ways of doing business," Lamons has often said.
Another of Lamons' favorite illustrations goes, "If fire departments ran like law enforcement does in Oklahoma, we'd have to have one fire station putting out only grass fires and another one putting out only structural fires and another one putting out only car fires."
Along with eliminating "the duplication of a billion efforts" between the two agencies, Lamons also argues that consolidating them under DPS would make them more accountable to the people of Oklahoma rather than to the boards of commissioners to whom they currently answer.
"Neither of these agencies report to an elected official -- they're governed by boards," he said.
"I think that all law enforcement should be under the supervision of an elected governing body -- if you have the authority to arrest and incarcerate people, you must be accountable to an elected official."
If OSBI and OBN were folded into DPS, they would answer to that agency's director, Public Safety Commissioner Kevin Ward, who answers directly to Gov. Brad Henry.
While this issue seems to be unique to Lamons' agenda, he said he is far from the first person to suggest it.
"This has been proposed in the last 20 years in the Legislature," he said.
If consolidating the two agencies is such a great idea, though, and would be so good for Oklahoma, why haven't other lawmakers picked up on it? Why has it failed in the Legislature for the past two decades?
"Because the directors (of OSBI and OBN) are able to kill it," he answered. "They're able to walk the halls of the Capitol and get the legislators on their side by telling them it would be bad for law enforcement."
Since most other lawmakers don't come from law enforcement backgrounds, Lamons explained, they are easily swayed by the directors' dire predictions of what consolidation would do to the state's crime fighting abilities.
"These are bankers and teachers and people from other backgrounds, so they believe them when they say it would be bad for law enforcement," explained Lamons.
So, who within the law enforcement community supports consolidating the two agencies?
"If you talk to most of the major city chiefs, they want this, but the smaller ones don't. This is where politics comes in," Lamons answered.
The politics of the situation, he explained, is that smaller, rural police departments depend on the OSBI for their investigations and so would not publicly support consolidation, lest the agency become less than enthusiastic about aiding in their investigations.
Another School of Thought
"That's scandalous," said OSBI spokeswoman Jessica Brown in response. "OSBI would never do something like that. We have a mission, and that is to give our police and sheriffs' agencies the best service we can."
Brown added that rural police and sheriffs' departments won't publicly support Lamons' plan, not because they're afraid OSBI would retaliate by not providing them the services they need, but because consolidation would damage the agency's ability to provide those services.
Tulsa Police Department's acting chief, Deputy Chief Mark McCrory, was unavailable for comment.
Oklahoma City Police Chief William Citty was out of town on business and also unable to comment, but Sgt. Gary Knight, public information officer for the Oklahoma City Police Department, said his chief normally wouldn't offer a comment on consolidation of OSBI and OBN since it wouldn't have any effect within his department.
After his consolidation efforts were thwarted by the agency heads at Lamons' first two attempts, he took a different approach last year by filing a bill that would consolidate, not only OSBI and OBN into DPS, but the Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission and the state Fire Marshal Commission as well.
Because the ABLE Commission is a constitutionally established agency, a constitutional amendment would have been required to consolidate it into DPS, which requires a statewide public vote.
"I've tried to do this with the approval of the directors of the agencies for the past two years but they fought it, so I'm going to take it to the vote of the people," said Lamons at the time. "The two hardest things to do in the Legislature are creating an agency or ending an agency," he added.
That legislation met with a fate identical to its predecessors, but not before Lamons tried to rally support for it by means of an interim study on the issue.
The study may have had an opposite effect from what Lamons intended, though, as members of the law enforcement community showed up in force to oppose the proposal.
Leading the charge was 30-year law enforcement veteran and former Rep. John Nance, R-Bethany, whose "One Big Thing" before retiring from the Legislature was authorship of Oklahoma's nationally-emulated anti-meth law of a few years ago.
"This legislation is poorly considered," he said of Lamons' consolidation plan. "I had five pages of people I wanted to speak here today but obviously time constraints didn't allow for it."
Nance's main objection was that consolidation would cost the state dearly in its ability to fight crime because through loss of specialization.
"I was a criminal investigator for the IRS, but I couldn't work kidnapping or homicide," the veteran lawman said. "All of us in the House of Representatives with any law enforcement background are opposed to this."
"His analogy to Wal-Mart is off-base," Nance continued. "We're not talking about retail; we're talking about law enforcement. The problem with Lucky is that his experience in the police force was as a street officer for DUIs, then he was a fitness instructor and then he was a public information officer. He's never worked narcotics or homicide and those are highly specialized.
"I admire him and think he's got an excellent record, but his whole philosophy is flawed in this. You can't have somebody who's a generalist rearranging law enforcement."
Lamons denied that consolidation would equate to a loss of specialization, though.
"What difference does it make if a narcotics investigator is working for OBN or if he's working for the Department of Public Safety?' he said. "All of these agencies have attorneys and all of them have public information officers and other administrators but the public wants more law enforcement officers."
"If he's saying they have attorneys sitting around on their thumbs, he's wrong," Nance countered. "Besides that, narcotics prosecutions are different than homicide prosecutions or gambling prosecutions. I've been out of the IRS for 15 years and I would not be competent to work the IRS today because of changes in the law. It's all too specialized anymore to have one agency or one attorney doing it all," he added.
In more recent comments about Lamons' latest efforts, Brown and Mark Woodward, public information officer for OBN, echoed and expanded on some of Nance's objections.
Woodward said the difference between a narcotics investigator working for OBN or for a more generalized law enforcement agency was what necessitated the formation of his agency in the first place.
"Creating a large, mega-agency creates concern that agents would be taken off narcotics to work on other cases," he said.
"In the '60s, the OSBI created a 10-agent drug division, but it eventually went down to three agents because the others were absorbed into other areas," he said.
Homicide investigations, for instance, took priority over drug investigations within the OSBI, Woodward explained, so narcotics investigators were routinely pulled to those cases instead of to their specialty.
Because of the enormity of the problem of drugs trafficking from Mexico, Woodward said narcotics investigations shouldn't be "watered down" by getting absorbed into a "mega agency."
"When others are talking about duplication of efforts -- there's nobody doing what we do," he said. "We're the only agency with a full-time undercover wiretap unit working these Mexican drug cartels."
"If a loved one of yours, God forbid, were a homicide victim, would you want someone with 20 to 30 years of specialized homicide experience investigating it, or a general investigator?" said Brown.
While Woodward agreed with Lamons that Oklahoma is somewhat unique in having a stand-alone narcotics agency (although not completely unique, he said, since Mississippi also has one), he said it is that very peculiarity which makes Oklahoma a national leader in drug enforcement.
"Many states said they wish they were set up like Oklahoma," he said, recounting his experience at a recent national law enforcement conference. "They said they have too much bureaucracy to get anything done."
Lamons has argued, though, that Oklahoma is the state with too much bureaucracy in the form of the boards of commissioners to which OSBI and OBN answer.
Brown explained that her agency previously answered directly to an elected official instead of to a board of commissioners. As a result, when the OSBI had to investigate former Gov. David Hall for fraud in the 1970s, "not only did members of his cabinet call and pressure us, but the director lost his job and several people were demoted."
Following Hall's stint, Gov. David Boren installed the current board system, she recounted. In contrast to Hall's investigation, when the agency investigated Gov. David Walters in the early 1990s, "it went pretty smoothly," said Brown.
Brown and Woodward both also said Lamons' plan wouldn't actually save any money for the state by eliminating administrative and support positions.
"I think we would have the same number of people, probably, because we'd still have a lot of work," said Brown. "He thinks we would get rid of some support personnel, but we wouldn't."
"On paper, it sounds good by saying we'll be saving money, but we don't believe law enforcement will be better just by saving money -- law enforcement just needs to be better," she added.
Lamons' latest efforts to get the two agencies consolidated were thwarted by House Speaker Pro Tempore Gus Blackwell late last month when he cut off Lamons' microphone through the course of his debate on the House floor.
The Tulsa Democrat offered two amendments to another bill that would have accomplished his objective, but they were tabled by a party-line vote. When Lamons got up to debate the bill, though, Blackwell silenced him.
"In my debate I was going to simply point out that law enforcement consolidation is a major issue that needs to be tackled," said Lamons. "At the end of my debate I was going to encourage everyone to vote for the Speaker's bill because I thought it was a good place to start. However, I was never given an opportunity to do that."
He said he was never given an explanation of why his microphone was cut off.
However, Blackwell, R-Goodwell, later said he stopped his debate because it wasn't pertinent to the matter under discussion.
"Representative Lamons tried to amend the bill twice. Both his amendments failed," he said. "In fact, for the last 20 years, this amendment has failed consistently, both under Democrat and Republican leadership. Instead of abiding by the wishes of the majority, he continued to try and promote his own amendment in debate. But the rules require he debate the bill before the members. It's my job to uphold the rules of the House."
Lamons, though, surmised that the true reason was that Blackwell has his own bill that would bring to a vote of the people the consolidation of the ABLE Commission into OSBI.
"They want to be the authors of an agency consolidation bill -- not a Democrat," he said.
That's fine by him, though. Lamons said he isn't concerned with who gets the credit.
"It's just important to me that both sides see the value of consolidated government," he said.
Blackwell said the reasons for his bill couldn't be more different than Lamons', though.
"My purpose is not to save money, but to better law enforcement," he said. "The larger the agency, the better they're able to get appropriations."
Share this article: