POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 7, 2011:
Waylaying Cop Rot:
Turning a bad stumble into a reform rumble
Some months ago, I saw Charles Ferguson's striking film "Inside Job," the winner of last year's best documentary film Oscar. The movie is a surprisingly gripping, beautifully shot look at the US financial collapse of 2008 and the genesis of our seemingly endless great recession. The film is an intellectually tight but emotionally powerful voyage: I learned a lot from the movie and oddly, for me, I was also angry during much of the show. Ferguson takes a meticulous look at how the crash emerged, interviews an array of key players and talks to a raft of academics and policy wonks about forestalling similar disasters. "Inside Job" is also an exceedingly powerful look at greed, misdirected ambition, and the failure of senior management in the financial services community and the government to supervise complex "products," gonzo marketing of these items and the "rocket science" staffers who created those Frankenstein offers.
In Tulsa, we have been witness, all summer long, to a tragic spectacle, a highly visible police scandal. It is a scandal played out over the course of the last two years. This is one that has been in our face, on a nearly continuous basis, for the last three months because of the trials of nearly a dozen TPD officers for various corruption, informant abuse and search warrant manufacturing indictments and many charges of informant intimidation and drug/drug money diversion. And there is also a small group of TPD folks who are unindicted conspirators or officers who have been implicated but secured immunity from prosecution for providing testimony. Like Ferguson's vivid film, the TPD trials involved tiny groups of workers who do not do the work that typifies most of their coworkers. Coworkers who also, by and large, have not violated the ethnic norms and moral world that they have pledged to uphold.
The financial service execs depicted in Ferguson's film, the ones at the center of the crash world of 2008, are hyper-ambitious, greedy and heedless of their humongous footprints.
The impact their epic sloppiness and criminal conduct would have on millions of pension fund holders, tens of thousands of peer workers in their own firms and on millions of homeowners, ordinary workers and the country as a whole is now not only legendary, but also at the core of our terrible growth and calamitous unemployment problems.
The "bad cops" at the center of Tulsa's police scandal are likewise fatefully entangled to the folks whose lives they have hugely traumatized by false accusations, contrived convictions and pointless imprisonments. Like their financial service counterparts, the accused TPD officers work for tiny, enormously powerful, relatively isolated "special units" that operated in a secret world. There is an important difference. Unlike the highly paid thieves and black hat Wall Street operatives they resemble, the TPD violators often had their own lives and the lives of colleagues, and even the lives of informants on the line. This is something that is essential to remember although it does not excuse their behavior.
As is the case in many large American cities, policing is the single biggest slice of our local government outlays in Tulsa. TPD is a relatively well-paid department and with it its college degree requirement, the department is among the best formally educated police operations in America. According to City Budget Director Pat Connelly, 739 officers currently are on the TPD payroll. And TPD is filled with dedicated people who do all kinds of work including very dangerous things that few of us would want to do at any price such as intervening in domestic squabbles and there are gobs of them in Tulsa. My direct (and pretty modest) experience with Tulsa's police force stems from public and private consulting I did in the mid 80's and early 90's. It is important to know that "mundane" stuff like patrol and domestic disturbance calls are as crucial as anything TPD does, arguably every bit as important as glam work like vice, drug interdiction, and homicide work.
In the opinion of a half dozen folks I've spoken with in law enforcement, the TPD summer trials seem to illustrate a passel of problematic field operations, frail supervision regimens and other challenges that are very weighty. Most have a close nexus to the operation of TPD's elite special units. TPD's structure apparently allows for manufactured evidence, invented informants, badly treated actual informants, diverted drugs and money and "boiler plate" search warrants. All the above are officer-fashioned calamities that have spawned the release or re-sentencing of over three dozen people who were falsely convicted as a consequence of bad acts of the TPD malefactors. And this epic mess up will be hugely expensive. Millions of city dollars will almost surely be spent now, and in months to come, when trials and civil settlements that spring from these toxic cases get underway.
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. This is the opposite of the vaunted "halo effect." Months of saturated coverage of police corruption and malfeasance amplifies a long-standing trust deficit.
The corruption trials of the past three months suggest larger systemic problems with TPD and challenges that really have not been fully addressed by TPD Chief 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 are essentially all that's needed to forestall TPD's bad summer. These are necessary but, in the judgment of a raft of keen observers they sum to an insufficient response. But much of the challenge, certainly, the weight of the just completed trials centers on the operational practices, subcultures and oversight the specialty units get at TPD.
A Muscular Response is to appoint an independent commission.
While TPD Chief Jordan has pledged to conduct an internal investigation of the issues at core in the TPD trials, Tulsans might want something more muscular including a tightly focused, independent look at the special units, informant management practices, special unit compensation, the nexus between these units and the DA and Sheriff operations, how they operate and are supervised and staffed, and whether tenure in special units should be limited. The independent commission should hold all its sessions in public and might be appointed by the Mayor and TPD Chief Jordan and feature representation from the City Council, the human resources industry, ministry, civil rights, law and judicial communities. And as my friend and veteran police reporter Richard Fricker suggests, the outsider 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 for testimony.
The Mayor and TPD chief Jordan can make it so. Can we turn a big ole confidence destroying event into a rumble for police reform?
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