The goal behind Mayor G.T. Bynum’s proposal to create an Office of the Independent Monitor has always been a simple one: improve trust between the police and the public through transparency, accountability and outreach.
But there has been nothing simple or easy about getting the program implemented.
In the year and a half since Bynum pitched the idea at a City Council/Mayor Retreat, the police union has consistently opposed it, city councilors and citizen advocates have failed to reach a consensus, and the mayor, seeing the handwriting on the wall, has pulled the plan from consideration.
In March, a proposal from Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper to put the issue to a vote of the people through a city charter amendment died when just three of nine councilors voted in favor of sending it to the City Attorney’s Office for review.
The charter amendment would have given the OIM more authority than Bynum had proposed, including subpoena power. Hall-Harper initially had the support of Councilors Lori Decter Wright, Jeannie Cue, Crista Patrick and Kara Joy McKee. But Cue and Patrick pulled their support in the days leading up to the vote.
Also opposing the measure were Councilors Phil Lakin, Ben Kimbro and Connie Dodson. Councilor Cass Fahler was not present for the vote.
Now comes another chance. Bynum and advocates for the program announced earlier this month that they would work together to bring the proposal back to the City Council.
“What I committed today to is going through that ordinance process (to create the OIM) and then, if the council adopts that ordinance and establishes it, then we would go to collective bargaining with the additional responsibilities that would require contractual agreement,” the mayor said.
In that one sentence, Bynum encapsulated the simple but incredibly difficult process of establishing a police oversight program. To get the OIM program he wants — one modeled after the Denver OIM — the mayor doesn’t only need the City Council’s support, he needs cooperation from the police union.
Bynum’s proposal has always called for giving the OIM three primary responsibilities: to follow up on citizen complaints about police and review Tulsa Police Department Internal Affairs’ investigations of use-of-force incidents; review best practices for police and make policy recommendations; and conduct community outreach.
Only one has stood in the way of the program being implemented: review of use-of-force investigations.
“Internal Affairs investigations are conducted confidentially, and citizens don’t have a means of verifying results,” Bynum said in announcing his proposal in January 2019. “I think we owe it to the citizens and to the officers to do better.”
But who would do the reviews? How much authority would they have? And which use-of-force incidents would be reviewed?
Bynum’s intent was to give Tulsa’s OIM powers similar to those granted to the Denver OIM. Those would include being present for internal affairs investigations and providing recommendations on how investigations into use-of-force or other serious incidents should proceed.
The Denver OIM can also give public recommendations on policies, discipline and training.
“Just from a pure policy standpoint, I would love to just do exactly what they do in Denver,” Bynum said Thursday. “That was the goal.”
It didn’t work out that way because Tulsa is not Denver. It has a different form of government, different state laws it must abide by, and a collective bargaining agreement with the police union that requires that changes to working conditions be negotiated through the collective bargaining process.
“We asked our legal department to take their ordinance that they have in Denver that created their independent monitor, their citizens oversight board, and then apply it to Tulsa with the legal realities of what we have here,” Bynum said.
What came back was a proposed ordinance that gave the OIM 10 working days to review Internal Affairs investigations into use-of-force and other incidents involving Police Department personnel to ensure that they were conducted properly.
Only after the Internal Affairs investigation was completed would the OIM have access to investigative reports, interviews and evidence.
The OIM would have no authority to discipline an officer or to recommend discipline.
Bynum blames himself for not making it clear to city councilors and OIM advocates last year that his goal all along has been to implement as much of the Denver OIM model in Tulsa as possible.
“The key difference between now and where we were last year is, I think there was a breakdown in communication in understanding that there would be follow up if the council established the office by ordinance to work through those other issues in collective bargaining,” he said.
That work will begin anew this week when the mayor, joined by Hall-Harper and other OIM advocates, sits down with the city legal department to discuss what powers Tulsa can grant its OIM and what powers it cannot.
“You want to take the Denver model and basically split it up into two things,” Bynum said. “... Here are all the things we can do legally under our contract that we can do through an ordinance, and I think that is almost entirely what I proposed last year.
“And then list two is here’s all the things that would fall under the Denver model but need to be collectively bargained — they can’t be done through ordinance.”
Given that the mayor’s next proposal will likely look much the same as the one he presented last year, there is bound to be pushback.
Dodson said Thursday that she can’t support the creation of a new government entity at a time when the city is furloughing employees because sales tax collections have plummeted. Bynum’s original OIM proposal called for spending $500,000 a year on the program. The Police Department’s annual budget is approximately $120 million.
“I would not be comfortable allowing additional funds for a new department to be created when we don’t know how long we’re going to have to work on recovering from this pandemic and the economic hit that we have had,” Dodson said.
Jerad Lindsey, chairman of the Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police, has said previously that the union opposes the latest effort to establish an OIM in Tulsa. On Friday he added another reason why — a proposal by State Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, to establish a state Office of the Independent Monitor within the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office.
“In light of recent developments with a leadership plan from the state of Oklahoma, I think it is premature for us to talk about spending precious city tax dollars in an economic crisis when it appears the state of Oklahoma is willing to provide this function for us,” Lindsey said.
Gallery: Tulsans walk to Joshua Barre's home during Mental Illness Matters service