Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan on Saturday said he was sorry that the Tulsa Police Department did not protect its citizens during the 1921 Race Riot.
"I can not apologize for the actions, inaction and dereliction that those individual officers and their chief exhibited during that dark time," Jordan said at John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park. "But as your chief today, I can apologize for our police department. I am sorry and distressed that the Tulsa Police Department did not protect its citizens during those tragic days in 1921."
Jordan's comments came at the outset of "Literacy, Legacy and Movement Day," an event meant to promote cultural awareness, literacy, health and entrepreneurship. Starting at the park named after Franklin, a highly respected author and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who died in 2009, participants walked to various significant spots in the Greenwood District.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot destroyed much of a Greenwood neighborhood that had been thriving. Tulsa's police chief at the time, John Gustafson, was removed from office partly because of his handling of the riot.
Witnesses to the riot said some police officers set fire to homes and businesses in the district, and others did little or nothing to control the situation. Jordan said Saturday that during the riot, "officers of the Tulsa Police Department did not live up to the oath that they took."
Hannibal B. Johnson, a facilitator with the Mayor's Police and Community Coalition, said Saturday that Jordan had expressed an interest to him about "righting that wrong" by making a public statement in an appropriate forum.
Johnson said Saturday's event seemed like the perfect opportunity for Jordan to deliver that message.
Jordan told the crowd, "I have heard things said like 'well, that was a different time.' That excuse does not hold water with me. I have been a Tulsa police officer since 1969 and I have witnessed scores of 'different times.' Not once did I ever consider that those changing times somehow relieved me of my obligation to uphold my oath of office and to protect my fellow Tulsans."
Johnson is an attorney, consultant and author whose books include "Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa's Historic Greenwood District." He said to his knowledge, Jordan's statement on Saturday was unprecedented. He said it was an important signal that this is a "new day" for the city and its police department.
The legal repercussions surrounding the riot have continued to be felt in the 21st century.
In December 2007, Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris formally dropped an indictment against nearly 60 men that had been issued by a Tulsa County grand jury less than two weeks after the riot.
In 2004, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Tulsa federal judge's ruling that a statute of limitations precluded the claims brought by riot survivors and descendants in a civil suit against the city of Tulsa and the state of Oklahoma.
Although some may question whether it's productive to linger over the events of 92 years ago, Johnson said he believes that such an acknowledgment and apology for the misdeeds of the past will help the community move on.
After his speech, Jordan said the lack of healing has caused a lot of problems, including a legacy of distrust of the police department among some residents that has been handed down over generations.
Jordan said it is still difficult to recruit black officers from the local community.
He said, to his knowledge, none of his predecessors as chief had ever publicly stated that Tulsa police officers failed to protect citizens during the riot.
Still, Jordan said that, to him, his comments to those who assembled on Saturday were "not so much about apologizing. It was to assure them that this is not the same police department that it was in 1921."
Jordan mentioned during his speech that the rapid arrests made in the aftermath of the Good Friday 2012 shootings - in which three black people were shot to death and two others injured at four north Tulsa locations on April 6, 2012 - were an example of how the modern-day department reacts in such times of crisis.
"I hope that the dedication and commitment that your officers demonstrated in the wake of the Good Friday killings shows our community that hate-motivated crimes or any other evil visited on our citizens will not be tolerated," Jordan said.
City Councilor Jack Henderson said he thought Jordan made a "big statement" on Saturday.
"I know this chief and I know that he means it," Henderson said.
Henderson said of the infamous riot "the history is there" and that addressing it is part of moving forward.
State Rep. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, described the chief's statement as a "great symbolic gesture to start the healing process."
Matthews said that Saturday's event, which came a few weeks after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, had been planned for about a year. He said it was only part of an ongoing effort to further revitalize north Tulsa.
State Sen. Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa, said he thought it only appropriate that the walk through the Greenwood District began at a park named for John Hope Franklin, whose father, Buck Colbert Franklin, was an attorney who played a vital role in rebuilding north Tulsa after the riot.
Jordan told the crowd on Saturday, "While we should never forget the crimes and injustices that were committed in 1921, you can rest assured that your police department today will never allow such an atrocity to occur. We will be in the front lines to protect your lives, your families and your property."
David Harper 918-581-8359
email@example.com SUBHEAD: The comments came at an event for literacy, legacy and movement in Tulsa's Greenwood District.
Original Print Headline: Chief apologizes for inaction