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Even without fine, city officials say new 'complaint-driven' mask ordinance has teeth

The mask ordinance approved by the City Council on Wednesday and signed by Mayor G.T Bynum on Thursday includes an enforcement mechanism.

But Bynum knows there are some Tulsans who don’t see it that way. Councilors removed the $100 fine that had been proposed in the original mask ordinance and replaced it with language stating that violators would be cited under trespassing and other existing laws.

“All that this approach does versus the other one is that it doesn’t create a new fine,” Bynum said. “It allows property owners and police officers to utilize existing penalties.”

What the ordinance does not do is place the onus on police to race around town looking for people who are not wearing masks. The city provided details about the ordinance and answers to some frequently asked questions on its website Thursday.

“What it does is it makes it more complaint driven rather than establishing the expectation that Tulsa police officers are driving down the street looking for people that don’t have a mask on to cite them,” Bynum said.

Exactly how the new enforcement language will shake out in practice remains to be seen. The Police Department on Thursday issued a statement saying it plans to seek a legal opinion on the ordinance but did not respond to a request by the Tulsa World for clarification.

The statement seems to indicate that police will respond to and enforce trespassing violations related to masks called in by property and business owners but that further review of the ordinance will be required before other potential violations are considered.

“Disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace ordinances are ‘not applicable to a failure to wear a face covering or social distancing issue,’” the statement says. “Therefore, until a legal opinion is received, officers will not be dispatched to face covering or social distancing issues alone nor to those calls that are not made by a property or business owner.”

A post on the Police Department’s Facebook page says the statement is not intended to be a “political stand for or against the mandated wearing of masks” but is an explanation that the department must examine its ability to enforce the ordinance.

The ordinance applies to people 18 years of age and older and says those “located within Public Service Areas of Places of Public Accommodation or an Educational Building are required to wear face coverings at all times when present therein. Except as otherwise provided herein, persons in any Public Setting wherein social or physical distancing cannot be maintained are required to wear face coverings.”

The ordinance includes an exception for people eating and drinking in restaurants. People visiting a place defined as a “Public Setting,” such as workplaces, houses of worship, gyms and child care facilities, will be required to wear masks when physical distancing cannot be maintained.

City Councilor Lori Decter Wright said she and most of her colleagues did not feel comfortable fining people who violated the face mask ordinance. The City Council and mayor have spent the last year working to decrease the number of people who end up in jail for nonviolent offenses.

“One hundred dollars for a family that is really struggling, that could be their food budget or their utility bill. We don’t want to do that,” Wright said.

She acknowledged that the ordinance might have a limited effect on those adamantly opposed to wearing a mask but said the hope is to reach those whose thinking could be changed.

“It’s (for) the people that were in that ‘I don’t have to so I am not going to’ category,” she said.

Councilors worked nearly six hours on the ordinance Wednesday afternoon and evening before approving a document that borrowed heavily from Stillwater’s mask ordinance.

Wright and Bynum said there were few substantive differences between Stillwater’s ordinance and the one originally proposed for Tulsa — save for the penalty — but that Stillwater’s was clearer and easier to understand.

“It’s the same; it’s just phrased more clearly,” Wright said.

Bynum said city legal authorities are still examining whether — and to what extent — the new ordinance will affect church services. He noted that the state Attorney General’s Office has said municipalities have limited authority over places of worship.

“I know there is some language on that in the ordinance,” he said. “But as to how far that can go, I don’t have clarity on that.”

The mayor did provide clarity on two questions on the ordinance he said he’s gotten asked about since it was proposed.

Although the ordinance exempts persons 18 years of age and younger, Bynum said, that does not prevent school districts from imposing face covering requirements.

The Tulsa County Election Board is also free to establish mask requirements of its own. The city’s original proposed ordinance had provided an exception for voters and those working at voting precincts, but Bynum said the ordinance was written that way for a purpose.

“We had a number of things in there (the original proposal) that were excepted that were not excepted because we thought it would be nice to except them,” he said. “We excepted them because we didn’t feel that the city had the purview to regulate them.”

Tulsa Police Department statement on mask ordinance

"The Tulsa Police Department is currently seeking a legal opinion on the nuances of the newly passed 'Face covering and social distancing during covid-19 pandemic civil emergency' ordinance. The current interpretation of the ordinance lacks punitive violations therefore limiting its enforcement by police. However, the Tulsa Police Department will continue to respond to and enforce criminal trespassing violations stemming from businesses and property owners requesting a person to leave their premises. We will only take enforcement action for trespassing after the business or property owner requests that the person leave and then the person refuses to leave, as is already stated in Tulsa Revised Ordinance Title 27 Section 2106.E.

"If a business or property owner wishes to file trespassing charges upon another citizen, responding officers will issue a citation on behalf of the business or property owner and the complainant must sign the citation and be willing to appear in court to testify before a judge. If extenuating circumstances exist, responding officers may arrest the citizen on behalf of the business or property owner and the complainant must accompany the officers to our City of Tulsa Municipal Jail to sign a document which lists the charges against the citizen for trespassing.

"Disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace ordinances are not applicable to a failure to wear a face covering or social distancing issue. Therefore, until a legal opinion is received, officers will not be dispatched to face covering or social distancing issues alone nor to those calls that are not made by a property or business owner."

Tulsa Police have not responded to inquiries about how complaints regarding the ordinance will be documented.

Video: Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum speaks about the importance of masks

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Lack of evidence so far in Tulsa Race Massacre grave search doesn't deter commitment, mayor says

The lack of success at an initial test site has not deterred Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum’s commitment to searching for burial sites from the city’s 1921 Race Massacre, he said Thursday.

“Our commitment to this is a long-term one,” Bynum said shortly before visiting the test site in Oaklawn Cemetery.

“I’m sure we would have all liked to find something on Day 1,” he said. “The reality is we’re dealing with oral history that’s been passed down for 99 years.”

Digging for potential evidence of graves began at Oaklawn on Monday.

Bynum has made a priority of bringing some degree of resolution to the long-standing stories that bodies of people killed in the violence of May 31-June 1, 1921, were buried in one or more unmarked locations.

Those stories have persisted since the event itself. Supposed locations vary widely, as do the estimates of the number of bodies involved.

The current location was chosen because of a convergence of geophysical data and written and oral history.

The geophysical data, derived from subsurface scanning, indicated an anomaly in the soil near the cemetery’s west boundary.

That anomaly, however, turned out to be up to 10 feet of dirt fill spread across the area, perhaps for drainage purposes.

Researchers said Thursday it appears a stream originally ran through that section of the cemetery and at some point was taken underground. The team has encountered water at about 15 feet in several places.

A long narrow trench dug off the original test site is expected to be extended to about 80 feet. In addition, core samples will be taken in the area Friday to determine whether further excavation is warranted.

“I think what the team is doing on this that’s really important is leaving no question as to whether or not there are human remains at this anomaly,” Bynum said.

“This is one of several locations identified in need of exploration. ... We still have further scanning to do in Oaklawn and at Rolling Oaks Cemetery. And, based on what that scanning finds, potentially more test excavations,” he said.

“If the experts believe those are worthy of test excavations there is further work to do there.”

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Gallery: Test excavations in Tulsa Race Massacre mass graves search

Gallery: Digging continues Tuesday for Tulsa Race Massacre mass graves at Oaklawn Cemetery

Defense wants video released that shows officers being shot during traffic stop

A judge will reconsider his decision to temporarily block release of video showing the shooting of two Tulsa police officers after a defense attorney alleged that the footage would contradict claims police made.

David Anthony Ware, 32, had a not-guilty plea entered on his behalf Thursday morning on four charges, including first-degree murder and shooting with intent to kill, related to the June 29 shooting of Sgt. Craig Johnson and Officer Aurash Zarkeshan. Johnson, 45, died at a Tulsa hospital June 30. Police on Wednesday escorted Zarkeshan on the initial leg of his transport to an out-of-state rehabilitation facility.

In court Thursday morning, defense attorney Kevin Adams said the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office “freely admits their intention” to seek the death penalty against Ware. He said that is part of why he was frustrated to learn a prosecutor received a judge’s approval July 6 to prevent release of video footage of the shooting for at least six months, as Special Judge David Guten made the ruling before Adams’ appointment on July 14 and before he could respond in court.

Another issue, Adams said, is that he’s received information that the footage could refute statements a Tulsa police detective wrote in an affidavit about Ware’s reportedly standing over Johnson while shooting him.

“I don’t approve of what Mr. Ware did, but let me tell you what, if Mr. Ware was not charged with killing a police officer, we would not be having this discussion,” Adams said. He later told reporters, “Even if you hate Mr. Ware, OK; you ought to, for the rest of us and for the sake of our system, want the process by which the state of Oklahoma is asking to kill him to be completely and totally fair.”

Guten will hold a hearing on the issue Monday afternoon and wrote July 6 that the order could change or be discussed again later. He acknowledged Thursday that he “made a decision” not to view the videos before ruling on the state’s request, saying, “I didn’t think that I needed to do that to make my determination” on the subject.

Assistant District Attorney Kevin Gray said he would not discuss the specific comment within the affidavit about Johnson’s and Ware’s positions, but Adams said he based his statements partly on information he received from the state. Adams said it is important for him to see the footage for himself as he prepares Ware’s defense rather than rely on the claims of police.

Gray contended that the defense should be able to see the video but said that should be due to obligations to exchange discovery, or evidence, rather than a blanket release to anyone who wants to see it.

“If we kill the order, quite frankly, the media behind me would have authority under (the Oklahoma Open Records Act) to go next door to TPD and demand it because there would be nothing (legally) to stop them,” he told Guten. Adams said, “I just can’t imagine in a case like this the state of Oklahoma would sit idly by and watch this get disseminated.”

Although he said he is aware the case is “highly emotional and highly sensitive” for the community, Adams said he believes the information police put in public court documents is designed “to make Mr. Ware look as horrible as possible in the public’s eye.”

Gray said the affidavit in question was not written by anyone in his office and also said Brian Martin, an attorney representing Ware’s co-defendant, Matthew Hall, agreed with his request to stop the footage from going public while the case is pending. Hall is charged with being an accessory to murder and of being an accessory to shooting with intent to kill, neither of which iseligible for capital punishment.

District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler has not yet asked for Ware to face the possibility of a death sentence, as those requests generally occur following preliminary hearings. But Gray said the death of a law enforcement officer while on duty is among the list of aggravating circumstances that can be used when asking for capital punishment.

“That said, like any other case, we’ll take a look at it,” he said. “We’ll evaluate it. We’ll discuss it internally, and then Mr. Kunzweiler will make a decision on whether to put his signature on a bill (of particulars) or not.” ’

Adams, for his part, said the case against Ware will likely be about the question of whether a jury agrees that the state has the right to legally execute him in what will be, in his view, an act of retribution for the killing of a police sergeant. He also accused the District Attorney’s Office multiple times of “playing politics with the death penalty” and of “gamesmanship,” citing past experiences he’s had while presenting capital cases in Tulsa County at trial.

“There are people in our community that are crying out for his blood,” Adams said of Ware. “There are people in our community that would like to see him die. And what I would suggest and ask people to think about, with everything that’s going on in our community today, with everything that’s going on in the world today, do they really think that more bloodshed, OK, that more violence, OK, is going to bring us all together?

“This is a horrible event. It’s a horrible thing. And I don’t approve of the acts of Mr. Ware on that morning, OK? But I also don’t agree that it’s gonna make anything better for the state of Oklahoma to get to kill him.”

Gallery: Memorial and tribute for Tulsa police officers

Gallery: Memorial and tribute for Tulsa police officers

Education groups call on state leaders to mandate masks in schools

The Oklahoma Education Association and other local organizations are urging state leaders to require the use of face masks in schools to protect students and educators during the coming school year.

OEA President Alicia Priest hosted a virtual news conference Thursday to warn against reopening school districts in Oklahoma without implementing the necessary safety procedures.

“Oklahoma educators are eager to get back to the classroom and see their students’ smiling faces looking back at them in person,” Priest said. “We got into this profession to build relationships with our kids and colleagues and to help make our communities better. The love we receive in our buildings every day is the most rewarding feeling for an educator.

“This is why it pains us to admit that there is still so much to be done before we can return back to our schools safely. We can’t support school starting when it’s dangerous.”

School districts across the state currently are drafting plans for how to safely reopen and are relying on local health officials as well as state leaders for guidance.

While Tulsa recently approved a face mask ordinance, it doesn’t apply to people younger than 18. Oklahoma and most of its cities have not implemented any mask requirements.

Priest emphasized the need for Oklahoma to adopt clear, strong policies to protect the health and safety of students and school employees to resume classes safely in August. She noted that the COVID-19 epidemic has only worsened since schools shut down and transitioned to distance learning in March.

In addition to requiring face masks in schools, Priest said the state must provide schools with personal protection equipment and cleaning supplies such as soap and hand sanitizer. She also called for establishing protocols on when to shut down a school site or an entire district and a plan to address the number of students gathered in buildings at the same time.

Priest said she believes that children and educators will die if those needs aren’t met and safety isn’t prioritized.

“OEA provides our members the option to have a free will drawn up by our legal team,” she said. “We are getting dozens of requests every day, and all of them have the same question: Can this be completed before I have to go back to work?

“We all miss our students, and we all wish school could go back to normal. But there are some of our colleagues who are literally planning for their deaths. This is unacceptable. This is inhumane.”

The Oklahoma City branch of the American Federation of Teachers surveyed its district’s employees about their thoughts on wearing masks during the 2020-21 school year. About 89% responded that staff and visitors should be required to wear them inside school buildings, while 81% said students should wear masks, said Mary Best, president of AFT Oklahoma.

Safety requirements must be in place before schools open, Best said, and it’s become imperative for educators to adapt to a new normal.

“Teachers and staff are anxious and are not only worried about their health and safety but the health and safety of their own children and loved ones,” she said.

The Rev. Clark Frailey, co-founder and executive director of Pastors for Oklahoma Kids, said he’s heard from many educators who are afraid they won’t have the resources to return to school safety next month.

They want to know how this situation will be different from previous years in which public education funding has been shortchanged and neglected. Frailey said he doesn’t know what to tell those educators.

“We can make up lost ground academically,” he said. “We can make up prom and basketball games, but we can’t bring back dead people. I just don’t understand how we can approach this any differently by taking the utmost concern for the staff and for the kiddos who are going to go back into these schools.”

Jami Cole, a Duncan Public Schools teacher and leader of the newly renamed Oklahoma Edvocates Facebook group, said many teachers and their loved ones have underlying health issues that put them at higher risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The best way to ensure their safety, Cole said, is for everyone to wear masks when they leave their homes.

“This discussion is not about partisan politics or denying individual freedoms,” she said. “It’s quite simply about the health and safety of our children and the education professionals who work with them every day.”

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