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Opinion: Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issues advisory memorandum on racial disparities in policing on centennial of Tulsa Race Massacre
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Opinion: Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issues advisory memorandum on racial disparities in policing on centennial of Tulsa Race Massacre

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Black residents of Oklahoma and other communities of color lack trust in law enforcement to a much greater degree than white residents. The Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently released a report calling on federal, state, and local officials to take steps to eliminate this disparity.

By way of background, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is an independent, bipartisan agency charged with advising the president and Congress on civil rights matters. State advisory committees, like the Oklahoma Advisory Committee, conduct studies and produce reports and recommendations to the commission concerning local civil rights issues of statewide importance. Advisory committees themselves are bipartisan. Committee members represent a variety of backgrounds, skills, experiences, and perspectives — this composition promotes vigorous debate and a full exploration of issues.

Last year, in the wake of nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd and other Black men, women and youth during encounters with police, the Oklahoma advisory committee chose to study policing and its impact on individuals and communities of color in the state. The committee looked to similar deaths in Oklahoma, like that of Terence Crutcher which occurred in Tulsa in 2016. Another — Bennie Edwards — occurred in Oklahoma City during the committee’s work, reinforcing the need for research on this topic.

The committee was aware of historical relationships between law enforcement and communities of color in Oklahoma, including the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In that horrific two-day period, white mobs burned down homes and businesses, destroying the economically vibrant Black community of Greenwood and killing as many as 300 residents. Tulsa law enforcement authorities even deputized and armed many in the mob. The Oklahoma National Guard actually rounded up and arrested survivors. Thus, the committee aimed to release its study contemporaneously with the 100th anniversary of the massacre, connecting Oklahoma’s past and present.

In conducting its study, the committee reached out to a wide cross-section of academic experts, community advocates, government officials, law enforcement officers and affected individuals representing diverse perspectives. Several government officials declined the committee’s invitations.

Nevertheless, the committee received a great deal of oral and written testimony through public panels. Key findings from this testimony include:

Historical interactions between law enforcement and communities of color continue to influence relations between those communities and police.

There is a current state of distrust and resentment between many police departments and the Black community.

A perception exists that aggressive and intimidating police practices target minority populations.

Local police today often fill many roles not traditionally meant to be performed by police. These include providing mental health services, responding to homelessness, addiction, and substance abuse, enforcing national immigration policy, and collecting court fines and fees.

Known racial disparities exist in police interactions in Oklahoma, including arrest and incarceration rates, uses of force, stops and searches. Some of these disparities seem to be growing.

Virtually all witnesses agreed Oklahoma needs better policy and community relations. On the other hand, there was widespread disagreement whether there are systemic issues of racism in law enforcement.

Considering these findings, the committee unanimously agreed to make recommendations to a variety of stakeholders from the local to federal level on how to improve police practices and strengthen community trust of law enforcement. Among these recommendations are:

Implementing a statewide registry to track officers with a history of discriminatory conduct;

Allocating more funding for mental health care providers who work with police departments; and

Establishing meaningful community oversight to independently monitor police misconduct complaints.

Issues of race can be difficult to discuss, and they are no easier when they involve law enforcement. Yet, as a society, we must not fail to have an open, honest discussion. After several public briefings and significant debate, the bipartisan, diverse members of the Oklahoma Advisory Committee unanimously approved the report. Our fervent hope is that our government and community leaders, and members of the public at large, will use our report to continue this important dialogue and make our state an even better place for all.

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Vicki Limas is chair of the Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a professor emerita at the University of Tulsa College of Law. Andy Lester, an attorney from Edmond, is a member of the Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

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