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Norman Police Chief And Local Activist Discuss Police And Community Relations

Aug 1, 2016

Tensions between law enforcement and the citizens they serve have increased in recent years, and the cycle of violence has led to loss of life for both citizens and law enforcement.

The recent shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have brought people out into the streets to protest against police brutality. In Oklahoma, the shooting death of Eric Harris in Tulsa led to the arrest and imprisonment of ex-reserve deputy Robert Bates.

We the People Oklahoma's Marq Lewis

The organization We the People Oklahoma is led by Marq Lewis, a Tulsa activist inspired to seek justice in the wake of his city’s high-profile shooting. He says the mood between citizens and law enforcement has changed in Tulsa.

“Citizens believe in the process,” Lewis says. “There was this defeatism personality and mindset that was here in Tulsa. But now there's a sense of conquering.”

Many officers and their supporters have spoken out after shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge that targeted law enforcement, leaving eight officers dead and prompting many to call into question the motives of organizations like Black Lives Matter.

Keith Humphrey has decades of law enforcement experience and became Norman Police chief in 2011. He grew up near Dallas, so the recent shooting during a Black Lives Matter protest in that city hits close to home.

Norman Police Chief Keith Humphrey
Credit Paige Willett Lough

Chief Humphrey is also the Regional President of the National Black Police Association, which covers 17 states, including Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Minnesota. Humphrey says communication between law enforcement and the communities they serve is key.

“I think that we hear each other, but sometimes I think we fail to listen to each other. And there's a big difference between the two,” Humphrey says. “I think when you hear each other, that's a temporary solution. But when you listen, that makes room for long term solutions.”

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Interview Highlights

On Police Accountability Leading To Less Violence

“I won't say it will be enough. I would say it will be a start. Everyone wants to go home at night. But when we have police officers breaking policy or even doing something that is not good or breaking law, and there's accountability on that, it sends a message to the community that says that, ‘Listen, we're going to hold our police officers to the same standard we hold you as citizens, to that standard.’ But unfortunately, what we have seen is that police officers can do what they want to do and there's no form of retribution at all. You know, the citizens either are dead or we blame, or we victim blame the citizens.” – Marq Lewis of We The People Oklahoma

On The Future Of Police And Community Relations

“My hope is that these officer-related incidents will start going down. My hope is that these officers will respect people when they pull a person over in a traffic incident. My hope is that this racial bias that we have towards certain groups, that a lot of our mainstream media uses to characterize and stereotype certain groups will go down. My [other] hope is that the citizens will learn to trust the police officers more and start reporting criminal activity and not harboring criminals in their home. Trust the police officer and the department that if we were to give you some information that could help you solve your case, that you will not interrogate us and make us feel as if we're also a suspect.” – Marq Lewis of We the People Oklahoma

On The Management Of Police Policies

“I think there's room for improvement. I think that you have to go through and evaluate your policies on a regular basis because things change. State law changes, federal law changes, city ordinances change. And so your policies have to parallel those changes... So, it's a lot of work. Some departments have a dedicated person or dedicated persons to do that. Some departments don't have that, don't have the staffing to do that. So, you have find a way to manage that.” – Chief Keith Humphrey

On What Citizens Can Do To Affect Change

“Demand meetings with city leaders. Demand leaders. You know, one of the things that you have to understand is that as law enforcement and city government, citizens are our bosses. They're our supervisors. We work for them. We wouldn't exist if the citizens would not allow us to exist by you know, paying taxes and other things. So, citizens have a right, an obligation, to make sure that we sit down and we hear. And a lot of times where we have to be careful as chiefs, we don't always have to, in the initial meetings, respond. All we have to do is listen. Take notes. Prepare a response a week or two later or even do it in writing. If you sit there and you're trying to have a dialogue, depending on who's at the table, it could be pretty heated. Because you're trying to prove to people you're not doing this, and they're trying to prove that you are... Plus, if you've got it in writing, it's a document and the citizens can hold you accountable for what you said that you were going to work on.” – Chief Keith Humphrey

FULL TRANSCRIPT

MERLEYN BELL, HOST: Marq Lewis is the founder of We the People Oklahoma, a grassroots organization that recently fought for the indictment of Tulsa Country Sheriff Stanley Glanz in the wake of the 2015 officer-involved shooting death of Eric Harris. Sheriff Glanz resigned in 2015 and just this month plead guilty to one misdemeanor charge and no contest to a second, receiving a one year suspended sentence for crimes uncovered during a nine-week investigation of his office.

MARQ LEWIS: We created We The People Oklahoma because it was a need to bring an awareness to the police brutality that was happening nationally and also locally. By us creating that, we decided to just look at this national conversation that we're having and we also started looking at local conversation and we tried to solve an issue, like, what was needed to stop it? And at first, like most people, we started with protesting and organizing. And then we dived more into the policies. And we've been successful with that.

BELL: How have you been successful?

LEWIS: Well, we're able to bring awareness to situations locally within Tulsa. It started with Jeremy Lake. He was the nineteen year old kid who was shot and killed directly by an off duty police officer. We brought awareness to that. And then there was another gentlemen who was shot and killed by an Oklahoma City Veteran’s Affairs officer. His name was Rodney Walker. We met with the family, had a vigil. Things kind of exploded when the Eric Harris situation happened of April of last year. We were able to impanel a grand jury using the Oklahoma law in reference to removing the sheriff from power. And the sheriff also received two indictments criminally and also you had Bob Bates, who actually shot and killed Eric Harris. We were very instrumental in making sure our district attorney keeps his pulse on the case. And we were successful in having that and Bob Bates is now behind bars serving a four year sentence.

BELL: What's been the mood in Tulsa between citizens and police since these incidents?

LEWIS: Well, I think there has been a resurgence of citizens have rights. Citizens believe in the process. There was this defeatism personality and mindset that was here in Tulsa. So, but now there's a sense of conquering. Unfortunately, just earlier this week we had a major, he's over one of the divisions, and he wrote a very explosive blog. And watching the shootings that happened in Baton Rouge, he wrote a blog and that ended up causing more problems with the community relationships.

BELL: The major that you're talking about, Major Travis Yates, is commander of the Tulsa Police Department's Gilcrease Division in north Tulsa. And he's also the editor-in-chief of a website and e-magazine called LawOfficer.com. The blog post that you've already mentioned says expresses his feeling in part that we, we meaning the police, are at war. Tell us why you were offended by his statements and why you've called for his resignation.

LEWIS: So we work very hard to make sure that our citizens understand the law, understand the things that they need to do. And for a commander that is over 180 police officers, which commands the most diverse area within Tulsa, and for him to have written this article was extremely explosive. The title of the article said, "This is war." And it was almost like a declaration from police officers. That doesn't help the tone and the tenor of race relations and even communication. And not only did he go on to say, "This is war," he also labeled an organization and a movement that has brought more attention to the conversation of the inequalities of police brutality, which is the Black Lives Matter movement, and he labeled that as a hate group in the blogs that he's done. And it's almost as if that he was labeling these protesters and saying that we're at war. And they have the guns. They have the excessive force that they can use a form of use of force. And really the question was, who are you at war with? That's why our organization called for his resignation, because we're at a volatile time where we don't need that type of rhetoric.

BELL: Major Yates has since amended that original blog post. He put a statement at the end of the blog post. He says, "I understand where the terminology could upset some people and for that I apologize." He also appeared at a recent public forum that happened this week, the Tulsa Talks forum, which I know that you've also appeared at. He apologized at that public forum as well in front of a large audience. I wonder if you feel like his apology is enough.

LEWIS: No, it's not sincere. And even, I watched the statement that he said at that forum. I watched it live on Facebook, and he stated that well one of the state representatives called him and said she was upset. And he said, "For those that are offended, I'm sorry." Unfortunately, he did not retract his statements. He apologized for those who are offended, but it doesn't change how he feels. We don't believe what a person says, we believe what people do, and their actions behind it. And unfortunately, when you have officer related shootings that are occurring in this particular, in his district, that is a problem.

BELL: What gain do you think there would be from his resignation?

LEWIS: A week ago, we had a press conference, our organization, asking for all law enforcement all over the state to put your policies online. We believe that the citizens are not going to be able to hold you accountable if they don't know what guidelines you're going by. So, when we put that statement out, our local police department, the Tulsa Police Department, put out their policies online. Okay? We said, "Thank you for doing this." We went ahead and downloaded it and our team was putting it in our archives. When we put the press release out on Major Yates, they took the policy down. And we understood that he broke the social media policy. The social media policy basically states you cannot have any detrimental hate group or hate speech. And your blog post must be approved by the chief. And I believe the chief of Tulsa understands that it was inappropriate and he broke policy. So, the positive that we can get out of this if he is resign or whatever that the department decides to do with him, it sends a message to say that no one is above our policies.

BELL: I'm glad you mentioned that theme of accountability because I read the list of suggested policy changes that you suggested in the statement that you've already mentioned. And I wonder if it's your hope that increased accountability will lead to a decrease in incidents of police violence over time and whether or not that sense of accountability will be enough.

LEWIS: I won't say it will be enough. I would say it will be a start. Everyone wants to go home at night. But when we have police officers breaking policy or even doing something that is not good or breaking law, and there's accountability on that, it sends a message to the community that says that, "Listen, we're going to hold our police officers to the same standard we hold you as citizens, to that standard." But unfortunately, what we have seen is that police officers can do what they want to do and there's no form of retribution at all. You know, the citizens either are dead or we blame, or we victim blame the citizens. When we asked for policy changes, asked for the policies to be online, we also asked for blood testing and psych evaluations too after an officer has shot and killed someone. And we also asked for revisions of the police reports. So, yes, more accountability builds public trust.

BELL: So, I wonder how you feel concerning things that every day citizens, citizens of Tulsa or citizens of any other community, what they can do to help violence when it comes to their interactions with law enforcement.

LEWIS: That's a good question because we also work with citizens, telling citizens, listen. When you come in contact with the law enforcement, do not resist arrest. You know, we understand that if you are resisting arrest that creates more of a problem. Don't get in arguments. Don't fight. Don't, don't have your guard up. Treat this officer as an individual. Don't treat this officer as if... A bad officer is a representation of a couple of bad apples. But I think what has happened is that the mindsets of the law officer and the citizen relationship has been skewed. The mindset has not been a mutual form of respect. It has been, "I am the law. You do what I say you do." And what we have seen is that certain law officers have sometime of bias towards minority groups. So their approach towards certain minority group is totally different than they would approach a person that may be in the majority. And we've seen this happen even people have come to me and said, with the ride along programs, they will stop a person of color and they will treat them differently than they will treat a person that is in the majority. And that type of bias has to stop. You may get pulled over for illegal lane change, but it doesn't stop there. It goes to the accusations: "Where are you? Where are you coming from? Where do you work?" So, if you're going to pull someone over in a traffic violation, pull them over for that violation and do your job. Have a nice day. And leave. There's shouldn't be any form of antagonistic personalities going out the way. And that's on both parts. Not just on the officer. Also for the citizen too.

BELL: Have you had your own experiences with law enforcement?

LEWIS: I was a concealed carry. I was on the turnpike right after the toll road, and I was pulled over. The officer said I did an illegal lane change, which is very common. I've heard the illegal lane change story so many times. And knowing that I didn't do it, so the officer said, and he came on my right side because on the left obviously the cars are going. He came on my right side, on the passenger side, and he asked for my license and registration. And I told him, I said, "Sir, I'm a concealed carry." He asked me where my gun was, and I told him my gun was in the console and he reached for his gun. And he said, "You almost got shot." And I said, "Sir, I'm telling you that I'm a concealed carry." And literally sat down, he drew his weapon, he said, "You almost got shot." Now if you put yourself in that moment, I've done everything right. I acknowledged to the police officer, I told him I was a concealed carry, and I told him, and this is before I even reached for anything. He pulled his gun out on me. And I verbally told him, I said, "Sir, I need to reach for my stuff. Is that okay?" He said, "That's fine." He put his weapon back in his holster and he took my stuff. And I sat on the turnpike for twenty minutes for him to run everything possible and he came back and he said, "You're free to go." And when you have incidents like that, that stuff hurts because you've done everything right. And this particular police officer felt threatened. By me.

BELL: You touched a little bit about your hope in all of this. Sum up for us what your hope for the future looks like.

LEWIS: My hope is that these officer related incidents will start going down. My hope is that these officers will respect people when they pull a person over in a traffic incident. My hope is that this racial bias that we have towards certain groups, that a lot of our mainstream media uses to characterize and stereotype certain groups will go down. My [other] hope is that the citizens will learn to trust the police officers more and start reporting criminal activity and not harboring criminals in their home. Trust the police officer and the department that if we were to give you some information that could help you solve your case, that you will not interrogate us and make us feel as if we're also a suspect. Because that has been a problem also. That's my hope.

BELL: This is Race Matters. I’m Merleyn Bell. We’re hearing perspectives today on the strained relationship between police and the communities they serve. We’ve just heard from Marq Lewis of We the People Oklahoma. And now I’m happy to welcome Norman Police Chief Keith Humphrey to our program.

Chief Humphrey came to Norman after spending over two decades in law enforcement near his home of Oak Cliff, Texas, a Dallas suburb. He began his career with the Fort Worth Police Department, serving six and a half years there before transitioning to the Arlington police department, where he served 14 years. He then became police chief of Lancaster before leaving Texas for Oklahoma, where he has served as Chief since 2011. Chief Humphrey is also the Regional President of the National Black Police Association. His region covers 17 states, including Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Minnesota.

As the Regional President of the National Black Police Association, what's your take on how the recent shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge have effected efforts to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve?

KEITH HUMPHREY: Of course as a law enforcement executive it's very tragic, very disheartening. I think we take so many steps forward, and then we get knocked back so many steps. I think that people understand that this is not, the actions of these two subjects were independent. You know, did they take advantage of the situation at hand? There's a possibility they did. And so it's sad that we've gotten to the point where we have citizens that are cheering the tragic incidents against law enforcement. And law enforcement not understanding how we got here. And those are concerns I have constant conversations with my officers about.

BELL: I discussed with our other guest, Tulsan Marq Lewis of We the People Oklahoma, the efforts that he and his organization have made to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens of Tulsa. Do you think that there's any room for improvement in these relationships nationwide?

HUMPHREY: Absolutely. And the communication is the big thing here. I think that we hear each other, but sometimes I think we fail to listen to each other. And there's a big difference between the two. I think when you hear each other, that's a temporary solution. But when you listen, that makes room for long term solutions, so that's going to be the key. Listening, and not be defensive on both sides. And agree to disagree, but the main thing when you leave the table, understand that we have work to do.

BELL: When you speak about leaving the table, are you talking about instances where you here in the Norman Police Department have specifically taken measures to try and engage the community in some way?

HUMPHREY: Absolutely. You know, the best thing that ever happened to the city of Norman was community oriented policing. It's a philosophy that clearly states that police and the community have to work together in order to maintain a high quality of life, in order to help the city be safe. We have to be transparent. I think we've done a really good job of that. I think we've done a really good job of allowing our citizens to see how we work, our working components. We've listened to citizens. Any time that a citizen makes a complaint against an officer, every complaint is investigated whether it's on a first line level or a formal level. We attempt, or we don't attempt to, we do let the citizens that we've investigated those incidents. So, we don't sweep things under the rug. Another thing that's been really good for us is the Citizens Police Academy. In the last five years, we've had about 210 citizens complete that academy. We have one in the fall and one in the spring. And we have about 20, 22 people and we've had a very diverse group. We've had members from the LGBT community, we've had university professors, we had local businessmen... The majority are local residents, and so that's been really good for us.

BELL: I'm glad that you brought up those efforts at transparency. I talked to Mr. Lewis from We the People about that quite a bit as well as the idea of accountability. And the need for increased accountability. And one of the actions his organization has taken was to release a suggested list of policy changes that they'd like to see implemented. I wonder if you believe that most police departments have adequate measures in place.

HUMPHREY: I think there's room for improvement. I think that you have to go through and evaluate your policies on a regular basis because things change. State law changes, federal law changes, city ordinances change. And so your policies have to parallel those changes. We just went to a new concept or a new program policy management called Lexipol and it helps us update our policies on a regular basis. So, it's a lot of work. Some departments have a dedicated person or dedicated persons to do that. Some departments don't have that, don't have the staffing to do that. So, you have find a way to manage that.

BELL: What about when it comes to holding individual officers accountable for their actions? Do you see any room for improvement there? Because I know that's been a big issue nationwide.

HUMPHREY: I think so. Matter of fact, I know so. And then those officers have to hold themselves accountable too, but... I don't even know if an officer can be held accountable singly because he's part of that organization and he's part of the profession. And I don't know if people will ever separate the two. If someone does something, a law officer does something, he represents that department and in a citizen's mind, the entire department or the entire profession thinks that way or they react that way. I think that we're getting there to where we're seeing officers, they're being held culpable. They have culpability in these things that they do. The abuse, discourtesy, and things like that. So, I think you're seeing a lot more of that.

BELL: In a recent interview that you did with the PBS program Here and Now, you said that you're not blind to the fact that there are officers who may have racial bias. I wonder if you've witnessed this racial bias first hand in the departments you've worked for.

HUMPHREY: Well, I can tell you right now, the good thing about working here, I've not seen that from my officers there. But if you're asking me in my 28 years, have I seen that, absolutely. Seen it blatantly. Seen it where it seemed to be just a way of the profession, that that was just a daily standard of operation for guys. And so, I've seen the way that some officers treat citizens, I've seen the way some officers treat each other, and my philosophy is if you can't control the inside of your home, how can you go out and police the community? And I've seen it from white against black, black against white, Hispanic against... So I've seen it full circle.

BELL: In order for that trust that we're talking about between communities and law enforcement that's there to protect serve those communities, are you saying that you feel like it really has to start from within the law enforcement organization in order for that accountability and that system to be changed?

HUMPHREY: Yeah, I think we can't wait until a tragic incident happens before we try to step up and work on it. I think it comes down to the community saying, "Hey, we've been wrong." Okay, let's draw this line. We've been wrong. And law enforcement can say, "Okay, what can we do to help you. We've been wrong also." So everybody puts everything out on the table, but until someone sits down and have open communication regarding what's going on. But I think when the citizens, the more and more citizens say that there's a problem, police chiefs have no other option but to review what's going on in their department.

BELL: I wonder if you feel that organizations like Black Lives Matter and the work that they're doing to call out law enforcement agencies in different communities across the country, that the work they're doing is helping or hindering the rebuilding of trust.

HUMPHREY: I think the original purpose of Black Lives Matter was basically to bring peace and to say that we as African Americans matter. And I think there's a misconception of what the initial plans were for the group. It's basically saying, as black citizens we matter. We want to be respected. I don't take it as you saying black lives are the only ones that matter. And then number two, I believe that it would be unfair for me to say that every member that's associated with this organization is radical. I think that you have individuals that take advantage platforms for their own purpose. And the sad thing about it is the founders of Black Lives Matter and the initial group has to suffer for the actions of some. The protest in Dallas was a Black Lives Matter. There was a recently a short time later, there was a protest in Oklahoma City that was sponsored by Black Lives Matter. And I don't like to say protest, but assemblies. Both of those were peaceful. The situation in Dallas, you actually saw officers and members of the African American community, members of Black Lives Matter, taking pictures, laughing, hugging each other. So it was very peaceful. Same thing in Oklahoma City. Very peaceful. The situation in Dallas, you had a subject that took advantage of the situation. I don't believe that he was affiliated with Black Lives Matter. I think that was his agenda. And so now you have people that don't really understand what the purpose of Black Lives Matter is. And so, it's important that me as a chief, that I explain that to my guys, and I explain it when people ask me. Overall do I think the organization is radical? Absolutely not. But I do think there's individuals that caused the organization to be accused of that.

BELL: What steps can citizens take after they assemble, after the protest, to affect the kind of change that they're seeking?

HUMPHREY: Demand meetings with city leaders. Demand leaders. You know, one of the things that you have to understand is that as law enforcement and city government, citizens are our bosses. They're our supervisors. We work for them. We wouldn't exist if the citizens would not allow us to exist by you know, paying taxes and other things. So, citizens have a right, an obligation, to make sure that we sit down and we hear. And a lot of times where we have to be careful as chiefs, we don't always have to, in the initial meetings, respond. All we have to do is listen. Take notes. Prepare a response a week or two later or even do it in writing. If you sit there and you're trying to have a dialogue, depending on who's at the table, it could be pretty heated. Because you're trying to prove to people you're not doing this, and they're trying to prove that you are. So, take the notes. I hear you. And get back. Follow up. And I think that helps. Plus, if you've got it in writing, it's a document and the citizens can hold you accountable for what you said that you were going to work on.

BELL: Once you leave the table and go back to your employees and try and figure out some sort of solution and ways to implement that change, I'm wondering about sort of these internal conversations that you're having. Say there's been an encounter that's happened, a potentially deadly encounter that's happened between law enforcement and a citizen. Is there a fear inside that police department that acknowledging that that interaction may have been racially charged or racially motivated will somehow damage the relationship between law enforcement and the larger community?

HUMPHREY: Well, you know I have to be careful about discussing things like this with my guys. I don't to rush to judgement on certain incidents that occur. There's always two sides to the story, and somewhere in the middle there's the truth. It doesn't mean the person that was killed or injured was wrong or right, and it certain doesn't mean the officer was wrong or right. And then the thing about it is, it doesn't matter if that officer was justified. If the community doesn't think they were, there's nothing you can say to make them understand or believe you based on the history of law enforcement and the minority community. So you have to have those conversations. I have those conversations with my guys. We critique situations because every tragedy, there's a learning moment in there. There's a teaching moment, and we hope to get better. Yeah, I think deep in their mind, they're wondering what happened. But my guys want to know, what can we do to improve this? What can we do to eliminate this perception, which is sometimes people's reality?