It was an earnest and progressive come-together Monday evening between the African-American pastor of East 6th Street Christian Church, Jesse Jackson, and Oklahoma City Chief of Police Bill Citty. But two different stories were still being told.
The pastor, a public figure, and a woman who spoke after the meeting had variations on the same tune. Jackson described an Easter Sunday morning with his son. They were driving to their sunrise service when a police cruiser made a U-turn and pulled them over. Jackson said the officer didn’t ask for identification or insurance, but instead asked, “Where are you going?”
“I had a clergy collar on, on Easter Sunday morning. It was not Halloween,” Jackson told an International Peace Day forum crowd at Oklahoma City University. The event was put on by The United Nations Association of OKC, Edmond Trinity Christian Church and the Respect Diversity Foundation.
In reflection, Jackson said he can handle seemingly random stops such as the one he described, but he is concerned about his son, who asked the question, “What did we do wrong?”
For Jackson, it was a matter of manners. The officer’s first question projected suspicion, rather than a conversation, or even the common police question, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”
Similarly, a woman in blue pants and blouse, carrying a pink fan, shared her experience of being pulled over. She had the windows of her new car tinted.
The woman said the first words from the officer were, “Where do you work?” Since she’d been taught to be respectful, she didn’t say what she felt like saying.
Further, the traffic stop had her feeling self-conscious about her own belongings.
“I’d been blessed to have a decent car,” she said. “It’s like we’re not supposed to have anything.”
The woman also reported an instance of a police car speeding through her neighborhood, a few miles from Remington Park and coincidentally not far from a noisy police gun range. She called police and asked to speak with a supervisor. She said her call wasn’t returned.
Citty acknowledged a speeding problem within his department and advised the woman that, if she can write down the location and time of a speeding police car, then GPS can identify the car by its location. Citty said he didn’t know why her phone call was not returned, saying she did the right thing and can also file a complaint on the department’s website. He said those notes are not ignored.
Different narratives from different perspectives
Citty said he is the first to acknowledge that the narrative on his end is different, and he has appeared at similar forums previously. He talked about asking a former black police chief if he still encountered discrimination, to which the officer said of course he did. Citty said he feels conversations like Monday’s are a good step.
“I tell people, what we are going through now, there is a lot of good that is going to come out of it,” said the Oklahoma City native who is in his 12th year as chief of police.
Responding to Monday’s testimonials, Citty said the department was looking at introducing a concept in training called “procedural justice” to combat procedural injustice. It’s a concept he said most officers haven’t heard of yet. When it comes to holding individual officers accountable, Citty said, there is always the obstacle of police unions and arbitration laws.
The city is also reviewing results of a presidential task force report, which Citty said has many ideas in it that could be implemented.
“Are our policies and procedures written to hold our officers accountable to treating people the way we want them treated? Because that’s part of it. I can’t hold an officer accountable if I don’t have it in writing,” Citty said. “Just telling a person why you stopped them. Treating them with respect. If we can do things that force our officers and hold them accountable — procedurally do things that make you feel more respected — then that’s our responsibility. And those are some of the things we are looking at.”
The forum offered a trade-off of statements and comments that did not come across as a fluid exchange with two microphones going at the same time. Rather, one of the public personalities would often speak standing up with the other sitting down. At the end, time only remained for four questions from the sizable audience. Seven or eight people were turned away and asked to approach Citty or Jackson after the meeting.
“We wonder then and wonder now about whether there was an anti-racist component to the training academy, and who does that training,” Jackson orated. “We wonder then and wonder now about accountability for that training.”
An eye to national turmoil
On the whole, Oklahoma City has avoided a conflagration as serious as the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., or Baltimore. Oklahoma City did see some small protests related to former OKCPD officer Daniel Holtzclaw being charged with dozens of counts of rape and sexual abuse on the job. Holtzclaw is awaiting an October trial.
More recently, a heart-wrenching death under police custody happened in Texas.
Still, when Baltimore erupted in April, Jackson reached out to Citty in May before the summer season in what he hoped would be a step to “avoid World War III” if something similar were to happen in Oklahoma City.
The national mood of rage and distrust toward police officers was something he felt keenly on the OKC’s northeast side. Jackson said he has been a leader of his community for 19 years — first at a YMCA, then as a pastor and now more connected politically, having conversations “in board rooms and barbershops.”
Jackson breaks it down as an issue of stress. The more worries you have, then the more it will affect your well-being and general health. He said his people have more worries, be they as big as police persecution or institutional racism, or as small as walking behind a white person in the Wal-Mart parking lot and seeing them secure their keys.
The mood at Monday’s forum was sometimes light and humorous. The woman with the fan was greeted by a flock of lady friends who pulled her in and asked, “What kind of car do you drive?” (It was an Audi TT).
Or when a Native American man shared that he didn’t live on the northeast side like Jackson and many of the attendees but had friends there. When he drives there, he said he’s suspected to be looking for drugs.
“And I have rich friends too,” he said to some laughter, adding that when he drives in those neighborhoods, he’s looked at suspiciously as well.
Marvin Fisher, 72, is a member of Jackson’s congregation who attended the forum. As part of Jackson’s organization Occupy the Corners, he said he has stood at the corners of Northeast 23rd Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard and Northeast 36th Street and Kelly Avenue. Members of this group pass out cards that give people a list of things to do in order to avoid confrontation if they are stopped by the police.
Fisher said more police on foot could help relations between citizens and police in his community.
Jackson agreed and spoke of his childhood in Mississippi when police officers would tell the him and his friends to shut up when they were disrespectful and to get their butts home when it was late. The kids would obey because they knew the officer would tell their parents. It meant the police had a relationship with the families, Jackson said.
Fisher noted that was not the observation he made of his neighborhood today. In all, though, he said he was impressed with the meeting.