Oklahoma City police
The OKC City Council held a budget meeting on the police department's funding for Fisacl Year 2021 on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, and it was not without controversy. (Screenshot)

Oklahoma City Police Chief Wade Gourley wants more than $200 million for his department’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget, but citizens who spoke during today’s OKC City Council meeting want more from him when it comes to accountability.

Gourley is requesting $204 million for next year to run the department, which includes more than 1,000 officers. That amount would be a 3.45 percent decrease over this fiscal year. Cities across the state have lost significant sales tax revenue owing to the pandemic.

The proposed cuts for OKCPD would come from a combination of not filling 34 vacant officer positions, which would save more than $3 million. Changes in other personnel-related costs like salaries, health insurance and retirement would account for another $2 million in savings, Gourley said.

The City Council spent about seven hours of Tuesday’s meeting — which is ongoing at the time of this article’s publication — focused on the police department.

Budget request comes at a tough time

Oklahoma City Councilwoman Nikki Nice encourages the crowd to register by Friday to be eligible to vote in the June 30 primary election on May 31, 2020. (Michael Duncan)

Tuesday’s budget hearing came at a time of tumult for Oklahoma City and the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. Since then, the nation has seen protests in its largest cities that have — at times — turned violent. Oklahoma City saw disturbances both Saturday and Sunday night, including vandalism, that followed peaceful daytime events.

As the OKC City Council was meeting via videoconference, OKC’s Fraternal Order of Police chapter held a morning rally and press conference to show support for Gourley, a development that was questioned by Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice because of its timing.

“I don’t have a problem with anybody gathering and doing what they need to do to support me, I’m just curious as to why we’re doing this right now and in front of City Hall,” Nice said.

Fraternal Order of Police President John George said the officers had a right to gather and show support their boss and department. He praised people who protested peacefully over the weekend but said a small number of protesters crossed the line and were arrested.

“I want to commend these officers,” George said. “They should not be ridiculed, and they definitely shouldn’t be ridiculed by some of our elected city officials who don’t want to know the truth. They just want their narrative out there. They really kind of owe us an apology, too. There’s a couple of them. Everybody knows who we are talking about that condemned our officers’ actions when they don’t even know what was going on that night. Or if they did know what was going on, then they’re just not telling the truth.”

Asked to whom he was referring, George named Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon, who said in a series of tweets Saturday night that Oklahoma City’s status as the No. 2 city in the country for per-capita fatal use of force by police is a concern.

Hamon also conducted an interview with Storme Jones of News 9 on Saturday night in which she said she was “really frustrated all night about the escalation.” During the interview, a police car using its lights and sirens nearly ran into protesters in the street.

Gourley: Officers critical of Floyd’s death

Prior to his presentation, Gourley said all of his officers that he has spoken with have said Floyd’s death was wrong and should not have happened.

“Not one has made any comment in support or trying to justify what happened in Minnesota,” Gourley said. “Every officer has been saddened, appalled. You name it. Every officer was talking about how angry they were at what happened as well. We feel like there are a lot of ways with the community we are united and feel the same way, and that’s why it sometimes gets frustrating.”

Gourley also disputed the Mapping Police Violence report and its data.

“The report that is being referred to, we’ve gone in and analyzed this data, and they are using media reporting data, social media and some other things to collect that,” Gourley said. “When we drill down in some of this data, we found several instances where they attributed a death to us that wasn’t us. They called some ‘in-custody deaths’ and attributed them to us, and the investigation determined that wasn’t the case at all.”

Citizens criticize Oklahoma City police

Police form a line in downtown Oklahoma City during a protest Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Michael Duncan)

While Tuesday’s meeting was held virtually because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, there was no shortage of citizens willing to engage with their representatives, and most came with plenty of concerns about how the Oklahoma City Police Department does its job.

Dozens spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting, and most were critical of the department’s handling of incidents over the weekend, as well as the number of people killed in officer-involved shootings each year. Speakers said their first names, though some were difficult to identify for purposes of publication.

“We have the second highest number of people killed by police per-capita in the United States,” a female speaker said. “That’s 49 people. Of that total, 25 were black, and seven more were Latinx. Blacks are seven times more likely to be killed by police than whites. Chief Gourley has said we don’t have a problem, but the numbers tell a different story.”

Another said the only thing working at the police department is its public relations apparatus.

“As a social worker, I have witnessed Oklahoma City police officers engage a homeless man who was standing on the street corner and shoot him,” a woman who called into the meeting said. “In this city, we continue to put money toward a police budget, and the only area that seems effective is the public relations department. I would love to see our police department put money toward things that actually matter. As much as we talk about training our officers, we still consistently see people being treated in ways we know can be changed.”

While most of the callers criticized the department, one caller supported Gourley.

“I’ve heard a lot of negativity today, and I want to think Chief Wade Gourley for his leadership,” a man who identified himself as Joe said before reading Bible scripture.

The OKC City Council will vote on the proposed police budget June 14.

Black Lives Matter has demands, FOP wants meeting

Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police President John George gestures to officers on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (Tres Savage)

The OKC FOP’s press conference came one day after the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter called for Gourley’s resignation and issued a list of other demands.

“We are tired of not being listened to. We are tired of not being treated with the dignity that they expect,” said BLM OKC director T. Sheri Dickerson.

Mark Nelson, OKC FOP’s vice president, said Tuesday that the police union would like to meet with OKC’s Black Lives Matter chapter to discuss the issues at hand.

“We are not here to talk about their list of demands, honestly,” Nelson said. “We’ve reached out to Black Lives Matter to try to have a conversation. We haven’t heard back yet. So we don’t want to address those until we’ve had a chance to talk to them.”

Dickerson responded with an emailed statement.

“While we will never cease to be horrified at every instance of police brutality, we will not be deterred from opposing the murder of our people by police,” Dickerson said. “Black Lives Matter maintains its demands to the City of Oklahoma City and reaffirms its call for the immediate release and dropping of all charges against the protesters, especially our black brothers and sisters, who were engaged in non-violent protest over the weekend. We further reaffirm our demand for the resignation of Police Chief Gourley and the immediate installation of and external audit and oversight board over OKC Police Department.”

George, the OKC FOP president, said he disagreed with assessments that his organization unfairly protects officers who are accused of or charged with violating the law.

“You can look at the record here for the officers that have been in trouble,” George said. “We have a district attorney around here who is not afraid to file charges when an officer has crossed the line, so that record stands for itself.”

George also said it’s the job of his organization to represent and issue statements in support of officers such as Keith Sweeney, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in December for the 2017 murder of Dustin Pigeon, a man who was threatening to light himself on fire.

“These officers basically pay insurance. It’s called FOP Legal Defense. So they have a right to be defended in court like any citizen does. So yes, we support them in that way. Their dues pay for that defense,” George said. “I’m not going to talk about any specific case, but they have their right to have their story heard in court like any other citizen does.”

When Sweeney was convicted in November 2019, George released a statement at that time calling for additional training for officers.

“More and more, police officers are called to respond to people suffering mental health crises,” George said. “Our community must increase funding to train officers and provide mental health services for people in need.”

Tuesday, George said OKCPD officers already go through annual trainings.

“I can tell you we go through a lot of de-escalation training, a lot of implicit bias training,” George said. “We do that most of us on a yearly basis. But again, that’s probably a better comment for the department to see what they provide. Can we do better? We can always do better.”

(Editor’s note: Tres Savage contributed to this story.)