OKC FOP forum
Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of Police President Mark Nelson moderates an OKC candidate forum Monday, March 1, 2021. On left, Bradley Carter and Shay Varnell are competing for the Ward 1 seat. On right, Jessica Martinez-Brooks and Barbara Young are competing for the Ward 3 seat. (Provided)

Ahead of their April 6 runoff, candidates for OKC City Council Ward 1 and Ward 3 took part in a candidate forum on public safety presented by the Fraternal Order of the Police Lodge 123, which has yet to issue a formal endorsement in either race.

Disagreements on policy were in short supply during the 60-minute forum (embedded below) as candidates agreed on virtually all questions asked by moderator Mark Nelson, the police union’s chapter president.

Those questions during Monday night’s OKC FOP forum included:

  • Should police officers stand down and allow protestors to destroy property and commit violent acts?
  • Should the police be defunded?
  • Should resource officers stay in OKC’s public schools?
  • Should the newly created Citizens Advisory Board have the power to make policy within the department?

Ward 1 covers much of northwest Oklahoma City, while Ward 3 spans far southwest OKC.

Advisory board question draws slight contrast

When asked if the newly created Citizens Advisory Board should have the power to alter or create policy within the Oklahoma City Police Department, virtually all of the candidates emphatically answered “No,” although one offered a more nuanced response.

Ward 3 candidate Jessica Martinez-Brooks, who ultimately said the board should not have the power, added that input from citizens was still important.

“I believe it’s important for us to build positive relationships in the communities we are serving, and we do that by gathering input from people in the community,” she said. “To me, that was the original intent in establishing the task force.”

Martinez-Brooks added that listening to input ultimately fosters better relationships between police departments and those in the community.

Her opponent, Barbara Young, said allowing the advisory board authority to set policy would be a mistake.

“I do support the concept behind citizen involvement, but to give them authority would be a significant change in police policy,” she said.

Ward 1 candidate Shay Varnell also said decisions on policy should stay within the department.

“I think the ultimate decisions need to come from our chief, not citizens who want to sit on a board,” he said.

His opponent, Bradley Carter, echoed that sentiment.

“I don’t see anything wrong with having input, but to give them authority over any type of policies isn’t the right way to go,” he said.

Candidates heap praise on police response

The forum’s first question centered on unrest following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last summer and the subsequent protests in OKC. When asked to evaluate OKCPD’s response to unrest in the city, all of the candidates took the opportunity to praise police efforts.

“I think our police did an amazing job,” Carter said. “We watched those protests turn into riots, and we had people yelling and spitting in their faces, and they didn’t move. I don’t know if I could have handled that.”

Varnell, his Ward 1 opponent, agreed.

“I think our city did better than any city I saw on the news,” Varnell said. “Our tactical team did exactly what they needed to do to make sure things didn’t get out of hand, just like they did all over the country.”

City Council’s role in police funding

All four of the candidates said they would not be in favor of cutting funding to the Oklahoma City Police Department. That debate has been unfolding in cities across the country since last summer’s protests.

Carter said the job of the council is to get out of the way.

“In a lot of ways, we have to step out of the way and let you do your job,” he said. “You guys have been trained very well, and you know what your job entails. Our goal is to make sure you have the funding to do your job. As a councilman, we’re there to oversee fiscal aspects, but not to police you.”

Varnell said police in Oklahoma City are generally well liked and appreciated by the citizenry.

“We have to make sure we support them financially in ways that they can succeed at their job,” he said. “We have a lot of people in this area who appreciate you more than you know, and we need to make sure that comes from the City Council, not just the citizens.”

Young said the council’s job is to support the department.

“One of the things we’ve seen from the council lately is there is an enormous amount of time spent in the horseshoe talking about the problems the police department has, not what they are doing right,” she said. “I feel like as an ambassador that we have a job as a city councilor to talk about the good things the department is doing.”

Martinez-Brooks said she believes more police funding is necessary.

“I would never vote to defund the police. I will tell you there is a shortage of police officers, and we need to understand where those staffing issues are now,” she said. “We already have a growing population that has come up quickly in the last 12 years in Ward 3. We have to maintain the right citizen to officer ratio to make sure it’s safe.”

Candidates: School resource officers should stay

All four candidates said school resource officers should remain in public school districts throughout the city.

“I do think our school resource officers are important to the relationship building that happens between students and our police force,” Young said. “I think the majority of our students love having their resource officers in school.”

Martinez-Brooks agreed.

“I think they should stay in schools,” she said. “I think SROs are a big part of positive outreach and maintaining those relationships with our youth.”

Candidates not asked about recent shootings

Monday night’s forum featured no discussion of the OKCPD’s recent officer-involved shootings, including that of Bennie Edwards. The 60-year-old Black man was shot to death by OKC police in a confrontation late last year. One of the officers involved was indicted last week for second-degree manslaughter by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.

Registration deadline approaching

The deadline to register to vote in the April 6 runoff is Friday, March 12. Those who need to update their registration or register to vote can begin the process at the Oklahoma State Election Board’s voter portal.

Watch the OKC FOP forum

Primary election previews for Ward 1, 3

Cheat sheet: A crowded field battles for OKC Ward 1

Cheat sheet: McAtee retirement opens door for wide open OKC Ward 3 race