It's not the politics of policing but an uncommon sense of justice that have helped TPD' Ron Palmer rise to the top of his profession
"You know, the police department is hiring," a former co-worker once told the then 21-year-old Ronald Palmer, future and current Tulsa Chief of Police, as he stocked shelves at a grocery store in Kansas City, Mo., where he had been working for five years.
Such was the inception of a law enforcement career that has, 37 years later, brought the former grocery store manager to fill the position of Tulsa's top cop, for the second time around.
Palmer, who had led the Tulsa Police Department from 1992 to 2002, once again took up the mantle of Tulsa's Chief of Police late last summer after Mayor Kathy Taylor asked him to return from his five-year retirement.
Many saw the second coming of Police Chief Ron Palmer as a deft solution on the Mayor's part to finally fill the contested post and clear up some long-standing controversy surrounding the office. But not everyone celebrated Palmer's re-emergence on the scene.
As UTW reported at the time, there were a couple of city councilors who protested the reappointment because of race-related grievances from Palmer's previous stint. Others were glad to have him back, but were skeptical about the terms under which the Mayor appointed him: as an at-will political appointment instead of a civil service employee.
Palmer wasn't fazed by any of that, though, having expected a certain amount of ruckus when he returned.
"Before I was hired, we talked about that," he told UTW of his prior discussions with Taylor.
"I said, 'You know, you've talked to others. You know there's political baggage that I bring back to this job in regards to race relations, at least in north Tulsa,'" Palmer related.
"Yes," the Mayor answered
"Is that going to be a problem?" he asked.
"She said, 'No. I think you deal with people fairly, and if I find that you don't, then I'm mistaken about your character,'" Palmer related.
So far, there appear to have been no mistakes in the Mayor's selection of Police Chief.
In fact, it's Palmer's character--his sense of fairness, of right and wrong, good and evil--that he points to, though not in so many words, as his main qualification for his life's work of fighting crime.
When asked why he chose a career in law enforcement, Palmer said, "That was never a goal. It wasn't something I had longed to do. But, I was brought up pretty much knowing the difference between right and wrong, and that had some influence on it."
Unlike many others in the law enforcement business, Palmer doesn't come with a pedigree. Actually, he is more a gypsy than a landed aristocrat.
He and his family moved five times before he was eight years old, when his family moved to Raytown, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City, where he remained until adulthood.
Regarding his nomadic beginnings, this reporter asked Palmer why his family moved around so much: "By chance, were you in the Witness Protection program, and that's why you've dedicated your life to fighting crime?" he was asked.
"I don't think it was anything that sinister," he answered, mid-laugh.
"If it was, I didn't know about it," he qualified, tongue-in-cheek.
Based on what Palmer thinks he knows, rather than being a would-be target of a Mafia vendetta, his father merely worked for a credit counseling company.
"He was transferred a bit with them. It was office manager-type work, and we just went where his work went," Palmer anticlimactically explained.
Palmer stayed at his grocery store job for its stability, eventually becoming a department head.
"I thought, maybe, there was a future there somewhere. I was going to college at the time, majoring in business, so I thought there might be a future for me in wholesale groceries or something," he said.
Then came that fateful day when he and a colleague were chatting about their employment options and what they might wind up doing with their lives.
After mentioning the 250 new officers the KCPD was looking to hire, his friend suggested, "Why don't we just go apply?"
So they did, and three months later the department hired Palmer, and then his friend in the next police academy class after his.
The career change was actually a pay cut for Palmer at first, but he found it somewhat more stimulating than running a grocery store department.
When asked why he made the change after investing five years and some college courses in the other job, he answered, "It was nothing probably so noble as 'giving back to the community,' because I was only 21 years old at that time.
"At 21, you're not thinking much about those things. It was just a matter of . . . it looked like a job that would be interesting, and I just kind of jumped at that. It was something to do, and I was young and impressionable."
A career in law enforcement had never even occurred to him before that off-the-cuff suggestion, he said.
"Actually, do you know when you do those things in high school, when your guidance counselor gives you those tests to tell you what you should be when you grow up? Mine always said something like 'priest' and 'forest ranger' or something. It was really odd," said Palmer.
"Maybe being a cop is like being a priest. I hope not," he added without elaboration.
Priests wear black, though, and forest rangers have badges, so maybe those tests weren't too far off?
"So, maybe it was a good integration of the two. I don't know," he answered, looking somewhat priest-like in his navy blue, almost black uniform.
Once "Father Ron" was trained and set loose on the urban forest of Kansas City, it was like entering a different world, as he tells it, having grown up in the suburbs all of his life and then suddenly finding himself on patrol in the inner city, assigned to the late-night/early-morning shifts.
"It was kind of a culture shock, but I liked it," he said.
Such was his life for the next seven years, until another off-the-cuff comment from a colleague nudged him toward a change in course.
"Don't you want to take the test for sergeant?" a fellow officer asked him.
He'd taken it before without passing, but on his colleague's suggestion, Palmer took it again, this time with success.
The promotion came with a shift change, which was the first time Palmer saw the light of day in his duties as a policeman.
"All of a sudden, we're rotating shifts, and I'm seeing command staff that I'd never seen before," he said.
That command staff apparently took notice of Palmer's character and talent, and soon after, his career took a turn that would provide the foundation for his role as a leader of a police force.
Preparing for the Job
The Kansas City chief of police asked him to be his administrative sergeant, which he wound up doing for a year before transferring to the department's internal affairs division, where he served as a squad sergeant, supervising investigators.
"As a sergeant, the experience in the chief's office was good in the sense that I saw how an office like this operates, and saw the good side, the bad side of a lot of different commanders that came through the office, and talked to the chief and got some insights into what he thought," Palmer related.
He said he also gained "a more global picture of the police department" through the course of supervising the IA squad.
"And the internal affairs stuff--I didn't know all that stuff existed. I knew there were some cops that got in trouble from time to time, but the breadth of that was pretty amazing, from [police] stealing things to just the basic complaints of rudeness and officer conduct," Palmer related.
Now that he's reached a pinnacle in his career, Palmer said he looks back at his experiences within IA and as the chief's administrative sergeant as being two of the most influential.
"It really gave the idea of what good looks like and what bad looks like, and making a differentiation between the good and the bad cop, and how you can sometimes take the cop that's kind of on the border and push him one way or the other, and hopefully push him to the good side, just by what you do and what you see and what you say," said Palmer.
After that, he rose to the rank of captain and was put in charge of the evening shift of the Central Patrol Division.
He was only about three weeks into his new duties when tragedy struck.
On July 17, 1981, a walkway collapsed in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City during a crowded event, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200 others.
It was, at the time, the most catastrophic structural failing in U.S. history, and it happened on Captain Palmer's watch.
While keeping order through such a crisis would have likely been daunting for a seasoned veteran in his position, Palmer managed to distinguish himself as a capable leader by his performance through the tragedy.
"I was glad to see help there, but I also got some praise from my superiors about how I handled the scene and how I got things done, so that kind of set the tone for my reputation as a middle manager/commander," he said.
After that, Palmer's responsibilities as a police captain varied through the years. He spent some time leading homicide investigations, then SWAT teams, planning and budget, and other areas of police work.
He was eventually promoted to the rank of major, becoming second-in-command of the department's field operations bureau, which was about the size of the entire Tulsa Police Department.
Palmer left Kansas City in 1990 to be the Chief of Police in Portsmouth, Va., but he only stayed at that post for about two years.
"Portsmouth was a great place to live and, I think, a very decent police department, but the resources there were certainly lacking, and every time something happened with my mom or dad or family, I'd have to spend $1,000 to get on a plane back to the Kansas City-area," he said.
"But I left under good graces, and told the city manager that, 'You know, you made some promises to me that you couldn't keep, and the police department is going to be a good police department, but unless you devote some resources to it, it's not going to get there,'" Palmer added.
The duration of his next job was considerably longer, as most Tulsans are aware. He traded the Portsmouth Chief of Police-hat for the one in Tulsa, which he wore for the next 10 years.
"Coming to Tulsa, the job was advertised in Police Chief magazine as 'seeking an outside chief.' I kind of did my homework on it and thought, 'Well, why aren't they choosing from the inside? There was never a history of an outside candidate, but they advertised nationally," Palmer recollected.
Upon further investigation, he learned of the controversy surrounding his predecessor, Chief Drew Diamond.
Union Public Schools hired Diamond in May to be its director of security, a position that became effective July 1, but in the early 1990s, he had fallen from favor among officers after a series of unpopular leadership decisions.
One particular example, which figured prominently in the challenges Palmer would inherit, was Diamond's decision to promote an African American officer to the rank of sergeant, despite a test performance that put him 23rd in line for a position with only 20 openings, which meant three better-qualified applicants were denied the promotion.
Diamond's "Youth in Policing" (YIP) Program also wasn't well-received. It was intended to help reform wayward youth by letting them ride along on patrols, but many Tulsa police thought it only gave youthful offenders an edge in their burglary endeavors by giving them an inside look at the inner workings of TPD's anti-crime efforts.
Another major strike against Diamond's image was his public statement that "there are no gangs in Tulsa." His public denials were meant to keep the gangs from gaining a sense of legitimacy and building street cred, but many officers felt that his position undermined their efforts to stem the growing, and very real, tide of gang activity.
These and other points of contention between Diamond and the rest of TPD culminated in a vote of "no confidence" in his leadership by the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police.
None of that dissuaded Palmer from seeking the job, though.
"I thought, 'I think I'm qualified to do that, and it seems that they're looking for a change,' so I applied, and was very fortunate to be selected. I took over in August of 1992," he recounted.
Palmer had visited Tulsa on earlier occasions, such as an International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in 1990.
"I liked the town. I liked the proximity to Kansas City. It's a good-sized city, with a good-sized police department with a good reputation," he said.
And the feeling would come to be mutual, for the most part.
Cpl. Gene Watkins of TPD's major crimes unit, who began his career in the waning years of the Diamond era, told UTW that, during that time, "morale was really, really poor."
That is, until Palmer took over leadership of the department.
"He was like a breath of fresh air," Watkins said.
"He put captains on shifts, where they weren't previously. Chief Palmer also rode around with patrol cars," he recalled.
But the job wasn't without its challenges.
The Issue of Race
"Some of the challenges are still there. Race relations were certainly a challenge throughout that period of time, and how we handled that," Palmer said.
A couple of high profile lawsuits punctuated those strained race relations.
In 1995, Palmer sued the NAACP for defamation of character after the group sent a letter to then-Mayor Susan Savage, alleging racial profiling and mistreatment of African Americans and asking for his dismissal as police chief.
Jack Henderson, who is currently north Tulsa's District 1 city councilor, was the NAACP's attorney in the suit, which was settled out of court the following year in 1996.
A coalition of black officers also sued TPD for racial discrimination in hiring and promotion.
The suit was settled after nine years of litigation, after Palmer left office, with the issuance of a consent decree in May 2003 by Oklahoma's U.S. District Court.
It required the police department to follow a series of policy and procedural changes, including accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), to "establish fair and non-discriminatory practices," "and increase public confidence in the Tulsa Police Department," among other goals.
As Palmer sees it, dealing with racial tension partly just comes with the territory for any police chief in any city, but especially for a police chief in Tulsa.
"Those issues are problems universally, for most chiefs. Race relations--whether it's tension in Hispanic race relations, which is kind of a new problem, coming back in 2007--they're going to be problematic for any chief that takes the job," he said.
"Part of it was just a distrust of--I don't know why me in particular, but--of me in particular, because the black community had a very favorable view of Chief Diamond, and I replaced Chief Diamond when Diamond was taken out, and I became the target of that," he added.
Along with racial tensions, Palmer also hadn't had any previous experience dealing with the political dynamics of a unionized police department.
"Dealing with a union department was certainly a challenge. Portsmouth wasn't a union. Kansas City wasn't a union," he said.
Despite the obstacles and the buffeting winds of politics and race relations, Palmer's first run as police chief was a successful one, as the numbers tell it.
"Crime went up and down, but mostly down. Over the 10 years, it went down, like, eight percent in Part 1 crimes--homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, larceny and auto theft. The ones the FBI counts as the 'major crimes' throughout the country," Palmer said.
"In 2000, we had the lowest crime rate we'd had in decades. So, we made some real good inroads on crime prevention and crime reduction, and that was one thing I was pretty proud of. People here got behind that, and we enlisted the aid of the community to help us with that," he added.
He retired in 2002, which was the plan from the beginning.
"I had my pension vested in 10 years, and I told people that if I could do 10 years, that's far above the national average for major city chiefs, especially for a city this size, which is about three or four years," Palmer explained.
Upon becoming a private citizen for the first time in 31 years, he started Palmer Security Consulting firm, and became a partner in a media consulting firm, the Palmer/McCarthy Group.
Palmer and his partner, Mike McCarthy, a former TV and radio personality, authored a book together in 2005--And the Incorrect Answer Is: "No Comment."
In 2006, he contracted with the U.S. State Department to help train police officers in Afghanistan.
During his recent interview with UTW, Palmer was far from evasive about his trip to the other side of the world, but he also didn't seem terribly enthusiastic to talk about it (he never said "No comment," but he didn't exactly break out the slideshow, either).
He'd contracted to mentor leaders of the Afghanistan National Police/Ministry of the Interior for a year, but left after four months, feeling that he "had not made a difference," due to corruption within the ranks of the Afghan police, among other factors.
He said he brought a new appreciation for the United States back with him, as well as a greater appreciation for how members of minorities in the U.S. feel, having been a minority himself during his time abroad.
During his five years of "retirement," the police department he'd led faced its own share of hard knocks.
Mayor Bill LaFortune suspended Palmer's successor near the end of his stint at City Hall.
The "official" reason was that Chief David Been had failed to deliver an unfavorable report about the SWAT unit to LaFortune after he received it late one Friday afternoon, instead relaying it the following Monday morning.
But, if you ask any Tulsa police officer, he or she will tell you that Been's suspension was the culmination of a long-standing pattern of dysfunction among TPD's leadership, due to personality conflicts between Been and the rest of the department's upper management.
Mayor Taylor ended Been's suspension when she took office, but he took his retirement leave soon thereafter, leaving a vacuum of leadership.
Deputy Chief Mark McCrory served as acting chief while Taylor looked for a permanent replacement, passing over three internal applicants while she took a page out of Mayor Savage's play book by looking for an outside candidate.
Deputy Chief Bill Wells and Majors Rob Turner and Paul Williams were those three internal applicants, and they filed a lawsuit and a grievance with the Civil Service Commission about Taylor's decision, contending that hiring outside the force when there were qualified internal candidates is a violation of the city charter.
Taylor found an interim chief in David Bostrom, a law enforcement consultant from Maryland, whom she appointed last May for a temporary and unspecified period of time, while she looked for a permanent chief.
Bostrom only lasted a few months, though, being particularly unpopular among Tulsa's police officers, who saw him as an ineffectual outsider and as little more than the Mayor's puppet.
"Bostrom's a failure," one TPD officer told UTW after Bostrom's departure last summer.
"He's been known to fall asleep at Crime Stopper meetings, and he promised to lower the murder rate when he got here, and that hasn't happened, and morale's getting lower and lower," the officer also said, not wanting to be named for obvious reasons.
Meanwhile, Palmer had been watching all this from afar, both as a silent, impartial observer and as an occasional and unofficial consultant for Mayor Taylor.
"I tried to look at it pretty objectively, because I looked at the police department for five years just as a citizen, albeit that I had some ownership to it, but I tried to remove myself from it so that Chief Been had the opportunity to succeed and make his own mark on the PD, and I thought, 'We ought to be on the front page about crime reduction and not necessarily about what's happening in this office, about how there might be turmoil in the PD,'" he recounted.
He said it was "pretty obvious" to him from the news reports he read that there were "issues in regards to the relationship between the Mayor and the police chief."
"I think some of those issues still remained when Mayor Taylor took over--the relationship between the police department in general and the relationship with the police chief more specifically--and it was a time when Dave Been had been suspended by Mayor LaFortune, and Mayor Taylor came in on the heels of that suspension and tried to bring him back, and there was no police chief for awhile, but there were three or four acting chiefs--a whole host of things went around in regard to stabilizing the leadership of the PD," he added.
While Palmer was planning a life with his soon-to-be new wife, shopping for properties in San Antonio, Austin, Branson and other places, Taylor called him from time-to-time to pick his brain as she looked for someone to fill the shoes he'd ably worn for a decade.
"She sought my advice a couple of times--once early on when she came into office, once mid-summer of 2007, after I'd got back from Afghanistan," Palmer said.
"She called me and asked, 'What do you think?' about the PD and what it needs," he recounted.
"Well, Mayor, somewhere along the line, the police and City Hall have to get along to make it work. So, you have a comfort level as the Mayor with the police department and the police department becomes more of a cooperative partner with the other things that happen in the city, and not be a standalone that you just can't get an arm around," Palmer advised her.
He said Taylor called upon him again when Bostrom was about three months into his run.
"What sort of person should I look for, for police chief?" she asked him.
"I gave her a few ideas about what I thought and said, 'Thank you very much for asking. I'm honored that you'd call me to ask,' and I didn't think much more about it," Palmer recollected.
"After these two conversations, I wasn't trying to describe myself--just what I thought the police department needed," he added.
He said the Mayor called him in mid-August last year while he was vacationing in New Mexico, and said, "I've done a lot of research on this and talked to a lot of people, and your name keeps coming up as someone who might come back."
"Well, I haven't thought of that, and I'm very honored that you would ask, but we'd have to talk about that before I made that commitment," Palmer answered her.
"So, I never applied for the job," he told UTW.
Comes with the Job
"It came out of the blue. It did, because there were certified candidates internally, and any of those guys could have been chief, had she chosen to do that, and the lawsuit was simmering, and I said, 'You know, I don't know if I want to be in the middle of this lawsuit. I know these guys, I respect these guys, and I don't want to be a detriment to what goes on with that, and let the courts resolve that without me getting in the middle of that,'" he also recollected.
Taylor had actually offered the job to one of the candidates she'd previously passed over, Deputy Chief Bill Wells, about a week before Palmer's return was announced in late August.
But, she offered it to Wells on an at-will basis, which he declined.
Palmer, however, accepted the job as an at-will political appointment, which contributed to some of the initial controversy surrounding his return.
"It makes me work harder, because somebody had faith in me and what I could do," he said about the terms of his employment.
Palmer said he thinks he might see his "at will" status differently if the Mayor hadn't sought him out for the job.
"She placed a lot of confidence in me," he said, adding, "But if I were a person hired as an inside candidate, I would want a contract."
Of course, the other bit of controversy came as no surprise to anyone, least of all Palmer.
"Councilor Henderson's and Councilor Turner's opposition was, at least to me, fairly predictable. And Mayor Taylor knew that, as well," he said.
When Taylor announced his appointment as Chief, the former NAACP lawyer, Councilor Jack Henderson, stood up and walked out of the press conference in protest.
He and then-District 3 Councilor Roscoe Turner later staged a rally in north Tulsa to protest what they called the "tyranny of City Hall."
That "tyranny" included, among other grievances, Palmer's reappointment.
Palmer said he's actively working to improve relations with Tulsa's African American community, though.
"Jack Henderson and I have talked, and I've been in the north community meetings, and in the churches, and we're still reaching out, and we're continually reaching out. We've reached out to the Black Officers' Coalition, and have established regular meetings with them, coming back, which I wasn't doing previously," he said.
When asked what he'd like to say to put to rest any lingering resentment over the perceived racism on his part, Palmer said, "I would like them to know this: that every action I take, every day, in my instructions to my staff, is that we treat everyone the same, that we have evenhanded, fair, race-free policing across the city."
Palmer also asked Tulsans to consider that police officers under his charge, like anyone else, have their own attitudes and emotional baggage, which leads to behavior that very often has nothing to do with race or racism.
"We do have good ambassadors in the Tulsa Police Department that will write you 10 tickets and leave you smiling, and then we have others where you'll ask them the time of day and you'll think they're the worst person in the world. And that's a job that we all have to deal with, because that's how people perceive us. And it's a spectrum of perceptions," he said.
"People's responses to being stopped by the police are certainly different, too, and it's not racial-based. It's just how they react, just based on life experiences. I mean, if you got stopped by the police, your reaction might be totally different than mine," Palmer added.
But, implementing a proven method of ensuring fair treatment for everyone is one of Palmer's goals for his second run as the Tulsa Chief of Police, which is to install digital video cameras in all marked police cars.
"That will negate the question of racism," he said.
And a comparatively shorter time as Chief was one of Palmer's terms for taking the job, he said.
"Mayor, I can't give you another ten years of my life. I'd be really old by then," the 58-year-old police veteran told her.
He told UTW that he only plans to be around for another two or three years, at most.
"I think that's going to be a pretty good figure, because, the more I think about it, the more I want to make sure the things I've started this time are near completion, or at least sustainability, and someone else picks it up at that time," he said.
Another goal for that time is to implement a COMPSTAT, or "COMParative STATistics" system within the department's community policing efforts.
The information-based policing system, he said, "will allow us to better utilize our resources by taking a whole host of data input."
"The reduction of crime in the cities that have adopted it is really quite substantial--double-digit decreases in a very short period of time--three or four years," Palmer added.
Another goal, he said, is to lay the groundwork for a replacement from within the department.
"The other pledge I made to her during our talks about coming back is that, I told her, 'Mayor, there are really people in this police department with a lot of talent, and I want to assist you in having the confidence in those people, and I want to mentor those people so that, when the day comes when I leave again, you know you have more choices to go internally from within the PD, because there is a lot of talent here,'" he said.
So, what happens to Ron Palmer at the end of three years?
"I don't know. If you want to run a job posting in your paper for the Police Chief position, that would be fine with me," he answered, adding, "I think I'll probably go back to private security, in some format. I'd like to find a corporate security job and work a few more years. 'Corporate director of security' would be an ideal job for me."
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