Oklahoma County sheriff
Oklahoma County sheriff candidates Wayland Cubit, left, and Tommie Johnson, right, participate in a debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Michael Duncan)

The candidates for Oklahoma County sheriff, Democrat Wayland Cubit and Republican Tommie Johnson, had sometimes-heated exchanges about each other’s records and plans in a debate Thursday evening presented by NonDoc and News 9.

The two clashed over law enforcement experience and the presence of federal immigration authorities at the the county jail but found common ground on body cameras and increasing the department’s funding.

Watch the full debate here or find it embedded below.

Cubit, a 24-year veteran with the Oklahoma City Police Department, started the debate touting his law enforcement experience and his strong connection to the city and county.

“I have a vast array of experience,” he said. “I’ve done everything from field training. I’ve done a vast array of investigations from undercover investigation to gangs, non-violent crimes all the way to the most violent crimes. But the most important thing is I’ve created programs that have reduced crime in the most heavily crime-ridden areas of Oklahoma City.”

Johnson also cited his experience as a seven-year officer in the Norman Police Department. He said the difference between him and Cubit is that he offers achievable plans.

“My diverse experience gives the necessary qualifications to run the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “But the most important thing is I don’t speak in generalities. I don’t come to you with just ideas. I have a concrete plan backed by facts and data. Things that we can roll out day one to make positive, feasible strides.”

Candidates differ slightly on priorities

Tommie Johnson
Oklahoma County sheriff candidate Tommie Johnson speaks during a debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Michael Duncan)

Both candidates were asked about the top priority for the department. Johnson cited body cameras, which the department currently does not have.

“The top priority for the Oklahoma County sheriff is to get body cams,” Johnson said. “The ability to have evidence that is directly reflective of everything that happens on scene is of the upmost importance. It outrages me that the deputies of the department don’t have them.”

Johnson said the cost to start a body camera program is $150,000 and about $65,000 annually for upkeep. But Cubit said that figure was too low.

“Those numbers are way off because he’s never managed a body cam program,” Cubit said. “He’s never investigated a use of force on a body cameras. Supervisors do that.”

Cubit said building trust between the community and the department was paramount.

“The top priority in all of law enforcement is building trust in our community,” he said. “And part of that would be body cameras. Part of that would be transparency of our policies and accountability with our policies. But the No. 1 thing is to build trust.”

When asked by a moderator, Cubit said he didn’t know how much the Oklahoma City Police Department spends annually on body cameras.

Johnson seized on this.

“You ask him a question and he speaks in generalities,” Johnson said.

Cubit said plans don’t necessarily equate to success.

“I hate to quote Mike Tyson, but everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth,” Cubit said. “I’ve had plans that have failed, that I’ve had to re-adapt. I respect that he has ideas, but we have to recognize is he’s never done it.”

Disagreement over ICE

Wayland Cubit
Oklahoma County sheriff candidate Wayland Cubit speaks during a debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Michael Duncan)

The presence of agents from Immigration Customs and Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE, at the jail also sparked disagreement from the candidates.

The Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Authority has held multiple votes to remove ICE agents from office space at the jail, but the issue remains unresolved.

Cubit said he’s opposed to ICE agents at the jail.

“They should not be physically in our jail,” Cubit said. “I’ve conducted a number of investigations where members of our community are afraid to cooperate with local police because they believe we are operating as agents of immigration. That hinders our investigations and makes all of us less safe.”

Johnson said he’s in favor of ICE at the jail.

“I approve of that,” he said. “A lot of people get confused and say this is a racial issue, but it is not. We have immigrants of all nationalities that move to our country to explore the opportunities that our great nation has. But ICE being in the jail offers us the ability to put public safety as the top priority. It lets us know who is in our nation. Who is in our county.”

Race and policing

Oklahoma County sheriff
Oklahoma County sheriff candidates Wayland Cubit, left, and Tommie Johnson, right, participate in a debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. (Michael Duncan)

No matter who voters choose on Nov. 3., Oklahoma County will have a Black sheriff for the first time in history.

Asked whether there is systemic racism in American law enforcement, Johnson said he doesn’t believe there is, while Cubit said racism in police forces is part of a broader problem throughout the country.

“I won’t say we have systemic racism in policing; I’ll say we have systemic racism in America,” Cubit said. “Our police departments are just people who live in America. I will say we do an awesome job in Oklahoma and Oklahoma City of dealing with systemic racism by enacting policies, procedures and oversight that keep the implicit biases in check. We do have people that go rogue. But that’s what policies are for.”

Johnson said diversity is a way to get at issues with racism within police departments.

“I don’t feel like there is systemic racism within police departments, but the one thing that police departments and every agency around the country can do better is to become more diverse,” he said. “I truly believe that if we make our agencies resemble the communities we serve that solves a lot of the issue. It allows you to have tough conversations and from tough conversations come great knowledge and better practices.”

Both agree on funding

With operations of the jail handed over to the trust, the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office annual budget is now less than $11 million. Both candidates said that’s not enough to adequately fund a department with more than 100 deputies.

Cubit said the budget is woefully inadequate, owing to the massive size of Oklahoma County.

“The entire agency is not adequately funded and I don’t know why,” he said. “We’ll push that on past leadership or the budget board. We have roughly a $10 million budget for 700 square miles and about 150 employees, and about 150 of those miles are unincorporated. Just for manpower alone, we don’t have enough money to give the kind of service I feel like the people of the county deserve.”

Cubit cited pay as a particular problem.

“What the deputies get paid right now is not a livable wage,” he said.

Johnson corrected Cubit on the department’s budget before agreeing with much of what he said.

“It’s not adequately funded,” he said. “I do appreciate Mr. Cubit for touching on things that I’ve been expressing my whole campaign, that we don’t have adequate officer pay. We have good men and women, and we’re training them, and then they’re leaving for a department with a more livable wage. It costs more to train an officer than to retain an officer. If we invest and create longevity and pride in the agency, that makes us better stewards of county resources.”

Watch the full debate