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.
A recent yearlong study by the Police Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit research group that advises departments on best practices, found that body-worn video cameras cut the use of force by police officers by more than 50 percent and led to a steep drop in citizen complaints.
“Whether it makes the officers act more respectful or it documents the behavior of the person they were dealing with, I think it’s a benefit to just have the documentation,” Citty said.
But while many departments across the country have adopted the technology, including several in Oklahoma, Oklahoma City has no such plans, preferring to let others work out any kinks with using the cameras.
“The only reason we don’t have them right now is cost,” Citty said of the cameras, which sell for hundreds of dollars each.
“They’re very expensive. There’s buying the cameras, storing the information, determining how long it will be stored. ... Sometimes it’s easier to let other departments look at it and work through it first.”
Citty said he believes the most important aspect of law enforcement is getting the public to trust that police will address their problems.
To help with that, the department has an 11-member citizen review board comprising community, business and church leaders, most from the minority community.
The group meets every two to three months to review complaints of police brutality and excessive force, and other citizen concerns.
The department also recently teamed with the NAACP’s Oklahoma chapter to produce a brochure that offers advice on how to interact with police. Officials hope the brochure will clear up some misconceptions about what police can and can’t do in the course of their duties.
Because officers rely so heavily on citizens to report crimes and identify suspects, there is no way for police to do their jobs without the cooperation of the community, Citty said.
Should an incident occur between an officer and a member of the public, community reaction will be dependent on that relationship.
The recent arrest of an Oklahoma City police officer on allegations he sexually assaulted six women, all black, while on duty, is the kind of situation that can destroy that mutual trust, Citty said.
Daniel Ken Holtzclaw, 27, a three-year veteran of the department, was arrested Aug. 21. On Friday, he was charged in Oklahoma County District Court with two counts of first-degree rape, four counts of sexual battery, four counts of forcible oral sodomy, four counts of indecent exposure, one count of first-degree burglary and one count of stalking.
He is being held in the Oklahoma County jail in lieu of $5 million bail, and authorities believe there may be more victims.
Holtzclaw is accused of stopping women — some as they walked through neighborhoods — and threatening them with arrest, Citty said.
Police said Holtzclaw forced women to expose themselves, fondled the women and, in at least one instance, had intercourse with a woman, Citty said. The incidents occurred in northeast Oklahoma City, in the area patrolled by the department’s Springlake Division.
On the day of Holtzclaw’s arrest, Citty held a news conference and said he was angry and disturbed by the allegations and condemned the officer’s actions.
On Monday, one of the department’s top-ranking officers, Maj. Brian Jennings, hosted a meeting with about 30 religious leaders from the area, in part to defuse any anger and to address concerns regarding the allegations against Holtzclaw and the events in Ferguson.
“I wanted to let them know that the Springlake Division was here to help and be a partner in the community,” Jennings said via email.
Several pastors who attended the meeting said the gathering was timely, given recent events in the city and across the nation.
The Rev. J.A. Reed, with Concerned Clergy for Spiritual Renewal, said Monday’s meeting was important to prevent the kind of community upheaval that occurred in Ferguson.
Good communication with the city police department is more important than ever before, Reed said.
The Rev. Lee Cooper, senior pastor of Prospect Baptist Church, 2809 N Missouri, agreed.
“We left feeling a lot better about some of the things that need to be done in our community, and we were able to get some answers for our congregations,” Cooper said.
The Rev. Alice Richardson, an Oklahoma City Police chaplain, advocated for more such gatherings in the future.
“In light of what is happening in Ferguson, Mo., meetings like this, in my opinion, should be the norm instead of the exception around the country,” Richardson said.
“The Oklahoma City Police Department is ahead of the pack.”
Carla Hinton, Religion Editor
CORRECTION: The Oklahoma City Police Department does not have dashboard video cameras in its police cars. This story originally incorrectly described the department’s use of dashboard cameras. (This story has been corrected.)