Sometimes a town revisits a topic over and over again -- without resolution. Take creating a formal civilian police oversight process in Tulsa; it's what keen observers see as a powerful avenue for connecting police officers to community dynamics, the hot pluralism that increasingly defines Tulsa and augmenting accountability in one of our most important local institutions.
But police transparency and ratcheting up trust are also -- a couple of local former senior Tulsa Police Departments (TPD) folks I've spent time with say -- supremely effective ways of securing critical Intel on "bad guys" from ordinary folks and vastly improving the capacity of Tulsa Police to predict and quash mayhem.
Tulsa is in the midst of a lazy, inadvertent re-look at policing and citizen oversight -- something we went though, amazingly, almost ten years ago.
This week, I made an effort to find out why civilian/police oversight was rejected by a select posse of 30 Tulsans in 2001. I found out that the folks on that panel and the then-Chief of Police and the Police Union (FOP) decided that citizen oversight was tough work and might push up TPD communication efforts and could mean more accountability. Duh?
Corruption & Its Consequences
Here in Tulsa we've been witness, all summer long, to a bad scandal at Tulsa Police Department -- a sorry set of corruption trials and their consequences. Played out over the course of the last two years, the scandal has produced a spate of TPD officer convictions for corruption, informant abuse, search warrant "manufacturing" indictments and charges of informant intimidation and drug/drug money diversion.
I argued a couple of weeks back, after having spoken to a bevy of former police folks, lawyers, academics and politicos that the corruption trials suggested larger, systemic problems with TPD: challenges that have not been addressed by TPD Chief Chuck Jordan, Tulsa DA Harris or the Mayor and the City Council.
District Attorney Harris and other folks have apparently concluded that a bevy of procedural changes in the wake of the trials are all that's needed to forestall a repeat of TPD's bad summer -- this is a necessary but insufficient response. And this epic TPD summer mess up will be hugely expensive: millions of city dollars will almost surely be spent now, and in months to come, when follow-up on trials and civil settlements that spring from the corruption cases get underway.
But there is larger cost: the entire spectacle lends great weight to the cynicism and pervasive distrust of police that is palpable in parts of North Tulsa, West Tulsa and among a whole cadre of young people who live everywhere in Tulsa. Especially since policing -- effective policing, if the intellectual leaders of much of this decade's best police science work are taken seriously -- doesn't happen when neighborhood leaders and ordinary folks alike, people who want violence free environments and authentic justice, believe TPD can't be trusted.
Beyond "Think Tanking"
Last week, Tulsa World reporter Ginnie Graham wrote a well crafted piece on Jordan's "think tank": an informal clutch of civilian advisers that the Chief used to help him navigate through the current crisis and other problems that typify the daunting work of a police chief in contemporary America.
TPD Chief Chuck Jordan
And Jordan is, it seems, a principled person who in his nearly two-year tenure, avoided taking the easy path on more than one occasion. There are apparently five or six people that the Chief consults on a periodic basis including several attorneys and a social worker. The Chief and Mayor Dewey Bartlett are both, it seems, opposed or lukewarm to a more structured, transparent regime for connecting TPD to ordinary people-- -- in a sustained, disciplined way.
Setting up a civilian oversight body would provide the senior management of the police department and our elected officials with a panoramic, "always on" conception of how policing in Tulsa is working, how citizens in various walks of life perceive it and how it might be improved.
A permanent oversight panel would hold the bulk of its sessions in public. The oversight body might be appointed by the Mayor and Jordan, and feature representation from the City Council, the human resources industry, the ministry, the civil rights activists, law and judicial communities, and from our neighborhoods. And, in a slightly different context, the panel needs to have subpoena power -- it should be able to demand files, correspondence, emails and reports, and should be able to command the presence of TPD staffers and officials. The panel would need a tiny staff and would help the Chief and our elected officials pilot the TPD.
Why the Chief, and Mayor Bartlett don't think an oversight panel project -- one that we could try on a trial basis -- is something we should explore is a mystery. Maybe they and their advisors are too enamored with what one scholar calls the "new police professionalism": David Sklansky is a Berkeley based law/policing scholar who is a particular, keen and inventive observer. Recently he wrote:
"Focusing the police and the public on the vision of an elite corps of expert crime fighters, acting independently but objectively and scientifically, to keep communities safe... We know this is a false ideal. It ignores most of what we learned about policing in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s: that much of what the police do is not crime control; that effective policing requires building trust and legitimacy; for trust and legitimacy depends heavily on fairness and decency: that policing depends heavily and unavoidably on the judgment and discretion exercised by street-level officers; that rigid top-down management can impede tailored, innovative problem-solving: and that especially in a democracy, calls for the police to be publicly accountable and publicly controllable are inevitable and fully appropriate"
Effective policing, in the end, depends on securing the trust and willing support of citizens -- why not rededicate policing in Tulsa to these fundamentals and make citizen oversight a new tradition for T-town?
We have an agile police department---- but it can and should be more accountable, much more transparent.
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