The Dark History of Tulsa Policing

By Nick Alexandrov

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, on the June 7th edition of CBS News Sunday morning, dismissed the idea that race played a role in Tulsa Police Officer Betty Jo Shelby’s killing of Terence Crutcher. “It is more about the really insidious nature of drug utilization,” he asserted, citing Crutcher’s failure to follow police orders, in his final moments, as a reason he died.

CBS was right to ask about race, whatever Bynum believes. Tulsa cops, like forces nationwide, have a long, ugly record of racist misconduct and violence. That history still echoes, affecting how Tulsans today see local law enforcement.

Consider, first, that just nine months ago Human Rights Watch (HRW) published research on this exact topic. “This report is, in many respects, a case study of abusive, overly aggressive policing in the US,” HRW concluded, emphasizing that “black people, even regardless of wealth or poverty, disproportionately receive aggressive treatment by police” in Tulsa.

While the document highlights the murders of Crutcher and Joshua Barre, it also cites “police conduct of stops and searches, issuance of citations, enforcement of court debt,” and other non-lethal encounters as evidence of “racial bias in policing outcomes.” And these problems, HRW stresses, trace far back in city history.

For example, “an association of black Tulsa police officers filed a class action lawsuit” in 1994, “alleging racial discrimination in the police department’s employment practices, including a segregated work environment, discriminatory hiring and promotions,” and other injustices.

Or go back further, to March 1980. “Concerns aired by [Tulsa’s] north-side clergy included the disrespect shown blacks in their encounters with police, alleged acts of police intimidation,” and more, The Oklahoma Eagle, a Black newspaper, reported.

The month before, the paper decried the police’s “new public relations gambit,” which, it argued, would never “ease the tensions which have escalated over the shooting of Malvin Edward Penny,” the North Tulsan murdered by Officer Charles B. Quinn.

Years earlier, in September 1967, the Eagle covered the NAACP’s call for “an extensive investigation into a charge of police brutality”—’a physical beating’—“brought by Ciridieio Robinson against an officer or officers of the Tulsa Police Department.”

That same month, North Tulsa’s Paul Wayne Jones, 20, “was fatally wounded by a policeman’s bullet as he reportedly ran from police when he was stopped with three companions…for a routine investigation,” the Eagle explained.

Previous Eagle editions describe how the police “arrested and jailed” activists sitting in at the Apache Circle Restaurant (1964), and how Black Tulsans attempting to enter Vandevers department store for a fashion show were “barred at the door by…city police” (1951).

In 1944, Elton Antwine, a Black man, related that a pair of white detectives, Paul Livingston and Bob Cleveland, “arrested him at his home on the night of August 1, drove him out on a high hill, gave him a severe beating, and threatened to kill him,” the Eagle disclosed.

Decades before, in March 1922, the Oklahoma Leader detailed how Tulsa’s Black Deputy Sheriff John Smitherman “was dragged from his room, brutally beaten and then forced to eat his own ear which had been sliced from his head.” Smitherman, while recuperating, remembered that two of the assailants “were wearing police badges.”

Less than a year earlier, after the Race Massacre, Tulsa Chief of Police John A. Gustafson faced accusations that neither he “nor any of the policemen under his supervision and control attempted to intercept or prevent” the torching and leveling of Greenwood.

There’s more to this history. But even this brief review suggests today’s protests and calls to dismantle police forces are not only necessary—they’re decades overdue.

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