Oklahoma City police draw lessons from events in Ferguson, Mo.

Oklahoma City’s police chief shares his thoughts on what can be learned from protests in Missouri.
by Jonathan Sutton Modified: August 29, 2014 at 9:55 pm •  Published: August 29, 2014

Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty wants his patrol officers to wear video cameras. He believes his department needs to hire more minorities and knows that some members of his force are racially biased.

Citty offered his thoughts in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday after the fatal shooting earlier this month of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

The Aug. 9 death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson sparked weeks of unrest and clashes between protesters and law enforcement in the St. Louis suburb and prompted a national conversation about the lack of racial diversity in law enforcement ranks, the need for transparency in police shooting investigations and the importance of police departments earning the trust of those they serve.

Despite demographic differences between the two communities — Ferguson covers about six square miles, and two-thirds of its 21,000 residents are black, while Oklahoma City spreads over about 600 square miles, and about two-thirds of its 600,000 residents are white — Citty said there are still local lessons to be drawn from recent events in Missouri.

Among them is the need for police to foster trust in the communities they serve.

“If you haven’t built a relationship with the community and don’t try to build trust with the community before something like (Ferguson) happens, you’re really too late,” Citty said.

NAACP Oklahoma President Garland Pruitt said while his organization has an open dialogue with the department, the police still could do a better job of relating to the black community.

“Even with an open-door policy, we still have issues, and we still have problems,” he said.

Diversity and bias

Brown’s shooting highlighted the need for police departments to more accurately reflect the community they serve, policing experts say. In Ferguson, 94 percent of the commissioned police officers — 50 out of 53 — are white, while the population of the city is two-thirds black.

Oklahoma City’s police department, the largest in the state, comes much closer to matching the racial composition of the city’s residents, though Citty said the number of minority officers is lower than it should be.

Oklahoma City’s 1,000-member police force is about 84 percent white, 6 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Native American. That compares with the city’s racial makeup, which is 62 percent white, 15 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic and 3.5 percent Native American, according to U.S. Census data. About 5 percent reported being two or more races.

“Six percent is a good number, but it’s not as high as I would like it to be,” Citty said of the percentage of black officers on the Oklahoma City force.

Citty said he wants to increase the number of minority officers, not only to have the department more accurately reflect the community it serves, but also to provide a better understanding of the problems and issues that confront minority communities. Having diverse voices involved in making decisions also can help him do his job better, he said.

“It’s important to have a good representation because, as a white administrator, I don’t see things a black person sees on a daily basis,” Citty said. “I don’t see the same discrimination they see because it’s sometimes subtle, and it’s not cast on me. I’m not being discriminated against. I can easily make decisions that affect another culture and not even know it.”

Of the department’s four deputy chiefs and nine majors, all are white. Of the 133 captains and lieutenants, 11 are black, or 8 percent.

To recruit minority officers, Oklahoma City police visit job fairs geared toward black and Hispanic people and advertise on websites for minorities.

In addition to trying to include diverse voices in decision making, Citty said he also wants to be aware of racial biases within the police force.

While blacks make up only 15 percent of Oklahoma’s residents, they represent almost 35 percent of all arrests.

About 60 percent of those arrested are white.

“I guarantee you I have officers who have biases and racial biases,” Citty said.

“But we can’t have them acting on those biases because everyone needs to be treated the same. I don’t think the majority of officers are that way, but I’m not naive.”

Pruitt said the high percentage of black arrests gives him the impression that blacks are over-policed.

“There’s the possibility that police are overreaching in terms of arrest, even if people are found to be not guilty down the road,” Pruitt said.

Cameras on officers

The Ferguson shooting prompted calls from many quarters to require police to wear cameras on their bodies to document interactions with the public.

The Oklahoma City Police Department does not have dashboard cameras in its cruisers and has no current plans to buy body cameras.

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the International Association of Chiefs of Police are among those who support the use of such cameras, saying they can help reduce police misconduct while protecting officers against false allegations.

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by Jonathan Sutton
Breaking News Reporter
Jonathan Sutton is a reporter covering breaking news and crime for The Oklahoman and NewsOK.com. He grew up in Ada and has a degree in journalism from Oklahoma State University. He was the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily O'Collegian, OSU's student...
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