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New police oversight programs create confusion, questions for some city councilors
  • Updated

City councilors are generally supportive of two new Police Department oversight initiatives while acknowledging that they don’t necessarily know much about either one of them.

The Tulsa World earlier this month reported that Chief Wendell Franklin had established a revamped version of the Police Department’s Community Advisory Boards and created a new internal Use-of-Force Review Board.

Several city councilors said last week that they didn’t realize that Franklin’s Community Advisory Boards — or CABs — were a new iteration of an old community advisory program. When questioned about whether they had been asked to submit recommendations for the new CABs, most councilors said they had not, or if they had, that they did so thinking it was for the old version of the program.

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“I was not (asked),” said Councilor Jayme Fowler. “But I did have someone on that advisory board. They asked to use my name as a reference.”

Councilor Phil Lakin said he thought the Community Advisory Boards recommendation he was asked to provide was for the old program but noted that councilors were made aware of the new CABs initiative in an April email from the City Council administrator.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Police Department says the CABs members were selected in coordination with the Crime Prevention Network and approved by the police chief without City Council involvement.

The three boards, one for each patrol division, serve multiple roles, including reviewing and providing feedback on new and updated policies and advising on best practices for crime reduction and trust-building. They also are given access to crime trends and crime-reduction efforts and on at least one occasion have been asked to review police bodycam footage.

Franklin said Tuesday that relaunching the Community Advisory Boards was part of the strategic plan he presented to Mayor G.T. Bynum when he was applying to become police chief.

According to Franklin, city councilors have not been asked to provide recommendations for either iteration of the CABs.

“It is designed for the benefit of the Tulsa Police Department, providing feedback and advice directly to the command staff of the Police Department,” Franklin said.

He added that city councilors have a direct line of communication to the department, including to himself.

“This means that they do not need an intermediary to speak to the chief, and they often do contact the chief directly,” Franklin said.

The CABs are not designed to be a forum for members of the community to address their grievances, Franklin said.

“The avenue for such grievances is through our Internal Affairs, the Mayor’s Office, the council office, or the office of the chief of police,” Franklin said.

He said the Police Department officially launched the CABs program in May, with notifications sent to the media.

Karen Gilbert, executive director of the Crime Prevention Network, said the Police Department asked her organization to help find potential CABs candidates. Crime Prevention Network is a nonprofit that raises money for programs such as Alert Neighbor and Project Trust.

“I identified the majority of the individuals, and there were a few recommendations from division commanders, but most of them came from us,” Gilbert said.

The applications were then reviewed by the Crime Prevention Network’s Board of Directors.

“Once they were approved, they were sent to division commanders; division commanders went over them; and then from there they went on to the chief for final approval,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert, a former city councilor, said she purposely avoided taking City Council districts into account when selecting applicants and instead focused on finding individuals who lived and worked in each of the city’s three police patrol divisions.

“Some of them (city councilors) are upset because they didn’t get to put their advocates on there,” Gilbert said. “That is why we wanted to remove all politics from it. We picked basic neighborhood leaders, business owners, just common workers to see if they would be a part of it.”

Councilor Lori Decter Wright was one of several councilors who said they would have liked to have had the chance to recommend a CABs member.

“I think it would always be better if there was engagement with the city councilors because we’re the elected officials closest to the people, so I certainly would have had recommendations to make,” Wright said. “It doesn’t mean that I would have expected everyone I recommended would have been selected.

Wright said she is grateful for Franklin’s efforts to modernize the Police Department and establish best practices. But she — like nearly every councilor interviewed by the Tulsa World for this story — said she did not know about TPD’s new internal Use-of-Force Review Board.

“I am not 100% sure what this internal use-of-force group is,” Wright said. “I don’t know if it’s part of what we have, the Citizen Advisory Board folks, or if it is just …. I will be curious what it looks like.”

The internal Use-of-Force Review Board will examine qualifying advanced uses of force to identify successes and failures in training and inform policy. This is in addition to the Police Department’s existing use-of-force review procedures.

Advanced uses of force are defined as those that have a low expectation of great bodily injury or death but some possibility of injury and could involve some pain compliance techniques — such as baton use, dog bites or pepper balls.

Bynum has previously said he has spoken with Franklin about what an independent evaluator of police practices would look like and that that is “absolutely in my mind the next step, further down the road.”

The CABs currently have no role in reviewing use-of-force incidents, but that could be changing. Franklin has said previously that he hopes “to put in some of these CAB members to see and let them have insight on how we review those uses of force.”

For now, the majority of the City Council’s nine members are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the internal Use-of-Force Review Board. But Council Chairwoman Vanessa Hall-Harper already has concerns.

“I think that it is basically the police hand-picking who they want serving on these committees,” Hall Harper said. “And I think they are trying to do everything they can to avoid the fact and the reality that we need independent monitoring, and as long the Police Department is controlling everything as it relates to the community engagement and the community reporting that we are not going to build trust.”

Councilor Connie Dodson said she was unsure of the role of the new CABs, but she’s clear in her support for the current configuration of the internal Use-of-Force Review Board — even if it has no citizen involvement.

“It doesn’t concern me, and the reason it doesn’t is because we’re moving away from cowboy police,” Dodson said. “I cannot count the officers I’ve talked to. They don’t like those who behave badly, either, because it gives the entire force a bad look.

“They don’t like it; they don’t like the ones that behave badly and in my opinion have wished that there were easier ways to take care of the ones and weed out the ones who are potential bad actors.”

Kelsy Schlotthauer contributed to this story.

Featured video: Wendell Franklin talks about taking over as police chief during a pandemic

Hospitals 'light up the sky' to honor frontline workers
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Blue lights filled the Tulsa night sky Tuesday as hospitals and business honored health care workers and first responders as they continue to treat patients with COVID-19 a year and a half after the pandemic began.

Ascension St. John Health System hosted services at all of its northeastern Oklahoma locations to pray for and honor health care employees across the area, as it lit its buildings with blue lights to pay tribute to first responders and all front-line workers who are working to protect the community from COVID-19.

Other area hospitals and businesses joined in the lighting ceremony to show their support, as well.

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When the pandemic started, hospital workers received an influx of flowers, meals and gifts from community members, said Ron Tremblay, chief mission integration officer at Ascension St. John. As time — and the pandemic — continued on, that community support seemed to wane.

“We don’t do this because of that,” Tremblay said. “But this (prayer service) is a way for us to rally the community again to say, ‘You’re doing an important role in our community, and we want you to be successful.”

Jeff Nowlin, CEO of Ascension St. John, echoed that sentiment and said the service and the lighting ceremony are reminders for the community that these workers are still battling COVID-19.

“Remember our folks that are on the front line,” Nowlin said. “They’re the ones who are showing up in these 12-hour shifts day in and day out and have been in this fight for 18 months. Those are the ones we want to honor and give thanks for and support.

“Early on, folks really recognized that. But now we’re getting back to school and football games — which is great — but let’s continue to remember them.”

Nowlin also said another way to show support for health care workers is by getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

The vaccine not only protects someone from the virus, but it also decreases the likelihood of that person going to a hospital, thus protecting health care workers.

“If we can keep folks out of the hospital who are fighting COVID-19, then it allows us to continue to serve all of our community and the needs they have,” Nowlin said.

“The bed capacity is still very limited in the community. By being vaccinated, you are supporting the front line. You are also protecting yourself and those around you.”

At the service, the Rev. Robert Turner prayed for the workers and offered words of inspiration.

The tumultuous times of the pandemic have brought a lot of darkness, Turner said, but front-line workers bring light to those dark times.

“I’m so grateful we are here tonight to honor those who bring light in the darkness,” Turner said. “You are the hands and feet of God in the midst of a dark world and a dark situation. God sent you here for such a time as this to bring light and salvation.”

Some leaders of first-responder groups thanked Ascension St. John for honoring them while also raising up other front-line workers who have served the community during the pandemic.

Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin said it’s not just police officers, firefighters and health care workers who should be thanked.

“I don’t just want us to think about people in a uniform,” Franklin said. “I want you to think about others as front line who have kept us going: maintenance workers, sanitary workers. That’s anyone who is responsible for ensuring we are doing the job we are able to do.

“That takes dedication. What we (front-line workers) have been through takes dedication and service.”

Featured video: “We are still under a crisis standard of care”: Oklahoma hospital at max capacity

Oklahoma hospitals aren't feeling relief yet as COVID-19 admissions start to fall -- for now
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There might be a reprieve approaching for Oklahoma hospitals as COVID-19 hospitalizations stall and even fall somewhat, but health care workers sure aren’t feeling relief yet.

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For the first time in about three weeks, COVID-19 hospitalizations are starting to show a significant decline rather than peaking or plateauing, according to the latest data released Tuesday by the state.

However, Oklahoma Hospital Association President Patti Davis said there are still difficulties across the state, with patients waiting in emergency rooms for intensive-care bed availability. She said hospitals don’t feel like they are over the hump yet because of patient holds for beds.

“I think given Labor Day activities, I think that all health care providers probably have their fingers crossed and are hoping for the best but not assuming that will hold once we get the requisite days past Labor Day,” Davis said — a reference to hospitalizations as a lagging indicator of viral spread.

Oklahoma’s hospitalization rate per inpatient still ranks poorly among other states — fourth worst in the U.S. — and nearly twice the rate of the nation as a whole.

But the three-day average of COVID hospitalizations across the state dipped to 1,351 reported Tuesday, a drop of 12% from 1,528 reported Friday and 16% below the current wave high of 1,607 reported Aug. 26.

COVID patients in ICUs also are also showing a decline, too.

There were 377 reported Tuesday, which is 9% below the 416 from Friday and 16% less than the recent high of 448 from Sept. 2.

In Tulsa County, COVID hospitalizations were at 371 reported Tuesday, down 9% from 407 reported Friday and 26% from an all-time high 504 reported Aug. 23.

COVID patients in Tulsa County ICUs were down to 103 reported Tuesday, which is down 10% from Friday and down 33% from another all-time high Aug. 24 of 154.

Some of the hospital overcrowding can be chalked up to younger patients being hospitalized with COVID because they generally are able to survive longer on ventilators.

Dr. David Kendrick, CEO of MyHealth Access Network based in Tulsa, said hospital admissions for COVID have declined for a few weeks.

However, hospital census numbers haven’t exactly followed that trend because COVID patients are staying in hospitals longer than in previous surges. So there are fewer beds — if any — for a new patient to occupy.

Kendrick said average lengths of stays in ICUs has increased from about 10 or 11 days to about 15 to 20 days. In general, medical-surgical beds average length of stay have gone up from about five to six days to 10 to 11 days.

So there could still be a rise in COVID deaths for at least another couple weeks even if hospitalizations plateau or decline, Kendrick said.

“It’s unfortunate, but this is the situation that we’re in right now,” he said.

Oklahoma’s weekly COVID death rate has generally been among the nation’s worst since August, recently as high as No. 3 and more than double the U.S. rate.

Federal data as of Monday put the state’s weekly death rate at 4.6, which is double the country’s rate of 2.3 and ranked 6th worst in the country.

The seven-day average of deaths per day released once a week by the state has been at 24 the past two weeks. That rolling average was five at the end of July.

More than 790 Oklahomans have died of COVID-19 since mid-July, according to state data.

Potential aid for hospitals might be President Joe Biden’s mandate that employers with 100-plus employees ensure each worker is vaccinated or tested weekly.

Dr. Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, offered her support in her personal capacity — not as a representative of OSMA — for Biden’s move.

Clarke said she understands some individuals don’t like being told what to do but health care providers do that every day based on their education and research.

“If that’s what it takes to keep our general population healthy, then I personally don’t have a problem having vaccine recommendations,” Clarke said. “I really think that in the long run as we go down the road we’re going to see more of this. And as more people die, we will continue to see more pressure to require vaccination.”

Dr. Jean Hausheer, leader of the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition, which hosted its weekly virtual briefing with reporters Tuesday, also tossed her support behind Biden’s effort.

“We have seat belt laws, right? We also have don’t drink and drive laws,” Hausheer said. “And those are all very sensible, right?”

Nearly a month ago, the FDA gave full approval to Pfizer for use of its COVID-19 vaccine.

Clarke used Pfizer as an example, which has shipped more than 1.2 billion doses around the planet.

She said it’s the number of people a vaccine is tested in that’s most crucial, not the length of time. A 10-year study of 400 people wouldn’t be robust enough to discern safety and efficacy in the general population.

Clarke said the Pfizer vaccine has been studied for more than a year and that, if there were to be a chance of a serious potential risk, we would have seen it by now.

“This is not experimental,” Clarke said, noting that Moderna will apply for full approval of its vaccine later this month or in October.