Lines of cars led to lines of people waiting to fill Victory Church’s 4,500-seat worship center in south Tulsa on Thursday to celebrate and honor the life of slain Tulsa Police Sgt. Craig Johnson.
Attendees clad in uniforms and deep shades of blue and black began gathering hours before the afternoon service began, and emergency vehicles were packed into the parking lot near 81st Street and Lewis Avenue bumper-to-bumper.
Community members also gathered along 61st Street, a main stretch of the procession route to the cemetery, holding flags and signs.
Carla Showman and her three grandchildren said they staked out a shady spot the day before, and arrived three hours early Thursday to show their support. The children — ages 9, 5 and 4 — had been practicing their salutes, she said, getting ready for the hearse to pass.
“When an officer falls, it affects us all,” Showman said, choking up a little. “They are the men who stand between us and chaos.”
Inside the church, police officers and supervisors, county sheriffs and deputies, detention officers and dispatchers, firefighters and EMS workers from municipalities big and small, counties across the state and states beyond sat on alternating rows with their blood and work families.
A 15-year TPD veteran, Johnson died June 30, a day after he and another officer, Aurash Zarkeshan, were shot during a traffic stop in east Tulsa. Johnson was 45. Zarkeshan, 26, remains hospitalized.
The news was the latest and perhaps most dreadful the law enforcement community has received in recent weeks.
Scott Zimmerman, a friend of Johnson’s and the pastor of his member church, Christview Christian Church, described the times as “overwhelming.”
“Between the horrible images of a man losing his life in Minneapolis — the national riots, violence and murders — to the deaths of little Miracle and Tony Crook in the Mingo Creek, to the shootings of Craig and Aurash that have brought us here today, and to the motorcade accident just last week; it’s enough to bring all of us to our knees,” Zimmerman said.
But Johnson loved and relied on God, Zimmerman said, and if he were present at the service Thursday, he would probably want everyone to notice the light at the end of the tunnel; “to not move forward in fear, to not allow ourselves to be shaken by the recent events that we’ve gone through, but to remember to embrace the love of God with the confidence and power that is only found in Him.”
That mindset is likely what got Johnson through his hardest shifts.
A graveyard shift supervisor relatively new to Tulsa’s Mingo Valley Division — he moved from the Gilcrease Division in late 2019 — Johnson oversaw 11 officers, and he made a lasting impact on them in the short time he was there.
“He always came to work with a smile on his face,” Officer Michelle Sanchez recalled in an email read by Officer Susannah Ralston. “No matter what kind of day we were having, I knew that I could count on him to always make me laugh.”
An atypical supervisor, Johnson balanced “safe, smart and patient” work with a carefree sense of humor and zeal for life he’s had since high school, Ralston said. The two met in middle school, and a shared love of band and “mutual awkwardness” formed a friendship between them not easily broken.
In fact, it was a ride-along with her at TPD in their adult years that got Johnson hooked on law enforcement, she said. Joining TPD, he quickly distinguished himself, but he never lost the kid inside.
Once on a petty larceny call at a Walmart, Johnson was lured away from his partners, who were dealing with a suspect, by the sight of a children’s Tonka bicycle.
At first, he was mad that “they didn’t have these” when he and Ralston were kids, she remembered.
“Then he decided he would take it for a test drive all around the back of the store to make up for lost time, all while his partners handled the call,” she said, drawing chuckles from the crowd.
A movie-quoter, meme-creator and master of sarcastic stares, Johnson was a “persistent smart aleck,” said Lt. Pat Harker, a former supervisor of Johnson’s.
He was also a “devout nerd,” Harker said, harboring a great love for Star Wars and Legos that he shared with his two sons, Connor and Clinton, whom he loved even more and talked about daily.
Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin, a father himself of two grown sons, took the stage with a weight on his shoulders.
He reached into his uniform shirt pocket and pulled out a laminated Bible verse he has carried on the job the past several years: Romans 8:38-39.
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, neither angels, nor demons, neither the present, nor the future, nor any powers, neither height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” he quoted.
“Sgt. Craig Johnson is gone from this earth,” Franklin added. “But his spirit lives on in each of us.”
Zimmerman closed by urging those listening to be people of action, like Johnson, rather than just people of aspiration.
Johnson loved east Tulsa, where he grew up, and he was always seeking ways to turn the tide in the community; to make it better than it was, Zimmerman said.
“Followers of Jesus in this room with me today and throughout this city, understand: no matter what this world throws at us, He is still our God, and we are still His children; called to do His work to bring about change to this world in which we live,” Zimmerman said. “He is our hope, He is our rock, He is our strength, He is our peace, He is our joy, and He is all we need.”
The procession route from the church to Floral Haven Cemetery in Broken Arrow passed dozens of observers.
Members of Jeepers Anonymous, a club of Jeep aficionados, parked their vehicles, about 25, side-by-side on 61st, each with a flag on a pole affixed to the back.
And Jerry and Brenda Paquette stood near the church parking lot with flags and a sign that read “We support our heroes in blue.”
“Even if just one police officer sees us and knows we’re grateful for what they do, it’s worth it,” Brenda Paquette said. “What they do is a calling.”
Gallery: Memorial service for Tulsa Police Sgt. Craig Johnson
World staff writer Tim Stanley contributed to this story.
Mayor G.T. Bynum says the city has been evaluating face covering regulations in other states and municipalities for a few weeks to determine best practices, including weighing legal matters and the “tremendous responsibility” such an order would place on local law enforcement, if implemented here.
Bynum during a news conference Wednesday listed several factors in play: What sort of age requirements? What medical conditions or professions will be exempted? Should it be only indoors, or outdoors, too? Will the city regulate individuals or businesses?
But the key point in waiting rather than acting now, Bynum repeatedly said, is to underscore the seriousness of the situation to hopefully gain widespread compliance if he does pull the trigger. The mayor has said he will implement a face covering order as soon as the Tulsa Health Department recommends it.
Bynum said he sees so many people around town not wearing masks that he believes the only way he can convince them to do so is to wait to impose a mandate as the last resort before a potential backtrack to an earlier phase of reopening.
“The issue for us I think to get public buy-in and for people to truly take this seriously and understand why they need to do it is to know that order isn’t being put in just because we think it would be a good idea,” Bynum said Wednesday during the city’s weekly COVID-19 update news conference. “We’re doing it because we felt like we had no other option to protect the integrity of our health care system and the trajectory that we’re on other than to put this kind of order or ordinance in place.”
There also is the volatile issue of fines, fees and incarceration.
Bynum said he and the City Council are focused on the much larger issue of trying to address situations in which non-violent offenders are locked up as criminal justice reform sweeps the state.
He pointed to Texas’ face covering requirement as a “good neighboring example” and said that it allows for a first-time warning and then fines afterward of up to $250 per violation. The mandate prohibits arrests for failure to wear a mask.
Bynum said a concern is that a person could be arrested for not paying fines after citation for mask non-compliance.
“Our legal team at the city of Tulsa right now is working with the legal team at the Tulsa Health Department in evaluating what different orders around the country at a local level look like, and if we need to move forward with one here in Tulsa, what would be that best practice,” Bynum said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order requires all persons in the state to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth inside businesses or other buildings or space open to the public where six feet of distance from those outside individuals’ households isn’t possible.
The order lists several exemptions, which notably include children younger than 10 years of age; medical conditions or disabilities that prevent wearing a face covering; while consuming food or drink, or seated in a restaurant to eat or drink; and exercising or participating in outdoor activities (maintaining physical distance).
Churches and voting locations also are exempt from Abbott’s order.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday redefined what for decades federal and state prosecutors thought had been “Indian Country” in eastern Oklahoma when it comes to crime enforcement jurisdictional purposes.
The court upheld challenges from two American Indians who claimed criminal cases prosecuted against them in state court should have been tried in federal court because Congress never disestablished the 19th century boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation.
Since statehood, state courts have heard criminal cases where jurisdiction was considered to be on nontribal-owned land, while federal courts have handled “major crimes” that occurred on tribally owned land, referred to as “Indian Country.”
The decisions mean Oklahoma prosecutors lack the authority to pursue charges against American Indian defendants in much of eastern Oklahoma, including the city of Tulsa. It also throws into question the convictions of hundreds of American Indian defendants.
Crimes not involving American Indians will continue to be prosecuted in state courts.
Both the state and area tribes, in a joint statement, downplayed any concerns about problems the ruling might cause down the road.
Prior to the ruling, both state and federal officials predicted that a decision against the state could throw criminal prosecutions here into chaos.
The 5-4 decision in one case, written by Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, noted the concern from those opposing the decision.
“The federal government promised the Creek a reservation in perpetuity,” Gorsuch wrote in a case filed by 71-year-old Jimcy McGirt.
“Yes, promises were made, but the price of keeping them has become too great, so now we should just cast a blind eye.
“We reject that thinking,” Gorsuch continued. “If Congress wishes to withdraw its promise, it must say so.
“Unlawful acts, performed long enough and with sufficient vigor, are never enough to amend the law. To hold otherwise would be to elevate the most brazen and longstanding injustices over the law, both rewarding wrong and failing those in the right.”
Only Congress has the power to disestablish or reduce the boundaries of a tribal reservation.
Associate Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor joined Gorsuch in his majority opinion.
The decision reverses lower state court rulings against McGirt. A second, one-page decision in the case of Patrick Dwayne Murphy upholds a federal appellate court decision that overturned his death sentence. McGirt and Murphy are members of the Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) nations respectively.
Both men challenged the long-held belief by most that the state of Oklahoma since statehood had jurisdiction over crimes committed on non-American Indian-owned land in eastern Oklahoma.
The two men claimed that the 19th century-era historical boundaries of the Creek Nation, which covered an 11-county region of eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, were never disestablished by Congress.
McGirt is serving a life without parole prison term, in addition to two 500-year sentences, after he was convicted of the 1996 rape, sodomy and lewd molestation of a minor in Wagoner County.
McGirt’s case, which is similar to Murphy’s jurisdictional challenge, sprang ahead after the court withheld a decision on Murphy’s case last fall, leading some to speculate that there might be a 4-4 tie in the case with Gorsuch recusing because he was on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver when the Murphy case was decided there.
Gorsuch did not take part in the Murphy ruling, which affirmed the appellate court decision.
Murphy, 51, had challenged on jurisdictional grounds his conviction in the 1999 murder of a man in McIntosh County.
Murphy, like McGirt, claimed that his conviction and death sentence should be vacated because the state of Oklahoma did not have jurisdiction to prosecute him.
The 10th Circuit ruled in favor of Murphy, relying on prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings to determine that Congress had never disestablished the Creek Nation tribal boundaries established in 1866.
Prior to the ruling, attorneys for the state and federal government issued dire predictions about what could happen if the reservation was found not to have been legally disestablished.
“Oklahoma stands on the brink of the most radical jurisdictional shift since statehood,” attorneys for the state of Oklahoma argued in a reply brief filed with the Supreme Court in the Murphy case.
The federal government backed Oklahoma’s opposition to the “never disestablished” theory advanced by Murphy and McGirt.
“The federal government lacks sufficient investigatory and prosecutorial resources in the area to handle that volume of cases; the FBI currently has the equivalent of seven agents for all of eastern Oklahoma,” attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice wrote.
Statements Thursday from those on both sides of the cases were more muted as to the practical effects of the decision.
The state’s three U.S. attorneys downplayed any strife that could develop from the decision.
“As Oklahoma’s United States Attorneys, we are confident tribal, state, local and federal law enforcement will work together to continue providing exceptional public safety under this new ruling by the United States Supreme Court,” the written statement said.
A statement from the state of Oklahoma and five major Oklahoma tribes echoed the spirit of working together.
“The State, the Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations have made substantial progress toward an agreement to present to Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice addressing and resolving any significant jurisdictional issues raised by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma,” the statement says.
“The Nations and the State are committed to ensuring that Jimcy McGirt, Patrick Murphy, and all other offenders face justice for the crimes for which they are accused. We have a shared commitment to maintaining public safety and long-term economic prosperity for the Nations and Oklahoma.
“The Nations and the State are committed to implementing a framework of shared jurisdiction that will preserve sovereign interests and rights to self-government while affirming jurisdictional understandings, procedures, laws, and regulations that support public safety, our economy, and private property rights.
“We will continue our work, confident that we can accomplish more together than any of us could alone.”
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum issued the following statement after the ruling:
“Muscogee (Creek) citizens founded Tulsa, and our successes and challenges are shared,” Bynum wrote.
“They were before the Court’s opinion, and they will continue to be.
“We remain committed to the same strong cooperative relationship we have had for decades with the Creek Nation, and to the shared obligation among all jurisdictions — city, tribal, county, state, and federal — to serve all Tulsans, city and tribal residents alike.
“For most residents and most purposes, recognition of tribal boundaries will not even be noticeable. Importantly, the Court’s opinion does not affect private property ownership. Where there is any jurisdictional uncertainty, we will work with our partners to develop mutually respectful cooperative agreements, such as our Intergovernmental Cross-Deputization Agreement, which has been working well for nearly two decades.
“This decision will inevitably present further questions of jurisdiction and authority that will need to be resolved. I am grateful that this decision would arrive at a time when we have such a good working relationship between the City of Tulsa and the Creek Nation. I am committed to working with Principal Chief David Hill and his colleagues in the government of the Creek Nation to collaboratively address any issues as they arise.”
“Finally, I am certain Creek Nation officials join me in condemning the abhorrent crimes of the Petitioner in this particular case, and I am confident that the Creek Nation and federal authorities will hold him accountable.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by the three remaining associate justices, Samuel A. Alito, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas.
“As the Creek, the State of Oklahoma, the United States and our judicial predecessors have long agreed, Congress disestablished any Creek reservation more than 100 years ago,” Roberts wrote. “Oklahoma therefore had jurisdiction to prosecute McGirt. I respectfully dissent.”
The historic tribal boundaries cover most of an 11-county region in Oklahoma that includes Creek, Hughes, McIntosh, Okfuskee, Okmulgee and Wagoner counties and portions of Mayes, Muskogee, Rogers, Seminole and Tulsa counties.
Featured gallery: COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues
Gov. Kevin Stitt stood steadfast by his stance Thursday that he won’t mandate masks as a COVID-19 preventive measure, saying he will protect personal freedoms and not shame people who don’t wear face coverings.
Face mask orders are a hot topic as both Norman and Stillwater have implemented them and Tulsa officials are contemplating a similar action.
Stitt told reporters at a news conference that he believes in local control and isn’t comfortable requiring masks. The first question would be how to enforce such an order, he said.
“We just think that you can’t go down that road, and so I’m going to protect the freedoms in Oklahoma,” the governor said. “We’re not going to mandate (masks) in the state of Oklahoma, and we’re not going to be mask-shamers either.”
Stitt said Oklahoma has 5,000 hospital beds designated for COVID-19 patients, with 487 of them filled as of Thursday. He said 1,000 of those beds are in intensive care units.
He noted that the state’s peak for COVID-19 hospitalizations was 560 people on March 30, with the number dropping to 306 on April 24, when the he launched the state’s reopening.
“We are nowhere close to the capacity at this time. … And when you look at our active cases and you look at our hospitalizations, we would have to go to something like 2,000 positive cases a day for a 14-day period to start approaching those ICU bed capacities,” Stitt said.
The state’s seven-day rolling average of new daily cases set a record Thursday for the sixth consecutive day, climbing to 565 positive cases per day.
Tulsa County’s seven-day rolling average was at 145 cases a day Thursday.
Bynum said Wednesday that this week is the first time since Tulsa started reopening May 1 that hospital leaders in the city have expressed some concern to him about capacity if the county’s ongoing surge isn’t disrupted.
Stitt also announced on Thursday the release of the state’s county-by-county COVID-19 alert system, but the online resource didn’t list what constitutes a high risk, only the “new normal,” low and moderate risk.
The State Health Department in the evening sent out a news release explaining the high-risk criteria.
The alert system’s rankings will be updated once a week and are based on the average number of new daily cases per 100,000 people in a seven-day span in each county.
Green — or the “new normal” — is less than 1.43. Low risk — yellow — is 1.43 to 14.39. Moderate risk — orange — is considered to be more than 14.39.
High risk — red — is the same rate as moderate but with one or more of four additional thresholds breached based on statewide data, not county-level or regional data:
• When the percent of ICU beds available statewide dips below 5%.
• When the percent of medical-surgery beds available statewide dips below 5%.
• When the percent of ventilators available statewide dips below 5%.
• When the average days’ availability of personal protective equipment on hand and available statewide dips below 5%.
The four highest-risk counties in the state as of Wednesday are at moderate risk: Tulsa (17.85), McCurtain (44.99) and McClain (15.36). Oklahoma County is at 14.04, just below the moderate risk category.
Stitt said the alert system will help people take personal responsibility and make individual decisions best suited for themselves as Oklahomans learn to live during the pandemic.
“We’re not going to start and stop our economy and start and stop our economy unless we see some catastrophic issues with our health-care authority going up to the red level,” the governor said.
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