Nate Billings/The Oklahoman
In one sense, the case against former Oklahoma City Police Officer Dan Holtzclaw was simple, though chilling.
A police officer, working the low-income neighborhoods of his beat, used the power of his position to commit a series of sexual assaults against vulnerable women. His department eventually found out and investigated. On Thursday, a jury convicted him on 18 counts, and he could spend decades in prison.
Or perhaps not. To some on the predominantly black northeast side, the concept of what Holtzclaw was able to do suggests larger injustices that a city that has been celebrated for its rise from economic ashes needs to address.
Among them are economic inequities, social ills, high crime and incarceration rates, justice system fines and fees, domestic violence prevalence, and the paradox of needing, while also resenting at times, a strong police presence.
These themes and others emerged in black leaders’ comments Friday and in a joint mobile-video project, “Talk With Us,” done by Oklahoma Watch and students at the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2014 and 2015.
On Friday, Oklahoma Watch talked to several black community and other leaders and residents about the Holtzclaw case and what it could mean going forward.
Eran Harrill, president and executive director of the Oklahoma City Black Chamber of Commerce
For Harrill, Holtzclaw’s conviction highlights a deeper issue in the broken trust between police and the northeast area’s black community.
Holtzclaw targeted black women, many with a criminal history, because they feared no one would believe a cop raped them.
While Holtzclaw used that fear to coerce his victims into keeping quiet, the underlying sentiment that black people are untrustworthy is more widespread.
“That reflects an overall view police have of minority communities,” Harrill said. “If something bad has happened, we’re going to assume you’re guilty until proven innocent versus until proven guilty.”
Community leaders have to stay involved to keep the dialogue active as Holtzclaw fades from headlines, Harrill said. That includes groups like the Black Chamber of Commerce.
That also means getting people talking with each other regardless of their skin color or religion in order to break down racial barriers.
“Both sides have to be willing to listen,” Harrill said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to have to be African-American people that tell the African-American community that white people are OK.
“It’s also going to be the white people that tell the white community that black people are OK.”
State Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City
Shelton said Oklahoma has a chance to step forward as a leader in handling racism.
“I think this has the potential to grow into a Chicago, Baltimore and Ferguson situation if we sit back, knowing what’s going on, and don’t address it,” he said. “It can happen here. We have a chance here to say to the rest of the world to look at us as an example.”
The city could hire more minority police officers to better reflect its diversity, expand the use of body cameras and create more ways for police to speak out about corruption within their ranks.
Shelton said Oklahoma City and the state have many great police officers, but they fear being ostracized if they speak about corruption.
Referring to police abuses, he said, “They are not just happening in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. They’re happening in small towns. They’re happening to blacks, to Hispanics and to poor whites.”
Community involvement is key to keeping people focused on fixing racism, and that means engaging churches, politicians and communities, Shelton said.
Willa Johnson, Oklahoma County Commissioner
Johnson said the Holtzclaw trial highlights one example of the discrimination the black community faces.
“This is America. There is a lot of discrimination going on,” Johnson said. “We need to make this a discussion.”
Nothing will change in Oklahoma or America overnight, Johnson said. That’s partly because tackling racism in northeast Oklahoma City or elsewhere will require education.
Black people also have to be able to push for equal treatment without feeling threatened or endangered for standing up for their rights.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Johnson said.
John Pettis, Oklahoma City Councilman
For Pettis, Thursday’s verdict showed law enforcement can do right by the black community in his district.
Oklahoma City police quickly started an investigation when the first victim stepped forward, and an all-white jury convicted the officer, Pettis said.
“As soon as they had the leeway to fire him, our police chief fired him,” Pettis said.
Pettis added that the police union refused to represent Holtzclaw.
The jury’s decision not to convict on all counts shows there are still issues with trust that need to be addressed.
“Its clear the jury did not believe some of the victims,” Pettis said. “A majority of the victims – not all – had some type of connection of criminal activity. I think some of the jury had issues with that.”
“And that again, is one of the reasons why Holtzclaw picked the people who he picked.”
Real change for northeast Oklahoma City will only come through action, Pettis said.
The city is implementing programs to increase the diversity of the police force and the city is working to implement police body cameras.
Pettis said Oklahoma City’s efforts to address its racial problems will ensure it doesn’t turn into a flashpoint like Baltimore, Chicago or Ferguson.
“I don’t think those elements will happen here,” Pettis said. “We didn’t wait a year to investigate unlike what happened in Chicago. We did our job. Our police chief, our detectives, they did their jobs.”
Garland Pruitt, president, NAACP of Oklahoma City
“These ladies will be victimized for the rest of their lives. So we as a society, as decent human beings, have got to be on the side of right.
“We are looking for justice. They are looking for justice. We won’t know anything until January 21 (Holtzclaw’s sentencing date) as to whether or not we’ll get our just due. But don’t let this be the only time that you come forward when people of color confront you with a situation that is not always favorable to your so-called dialect. If it had been the Thunder, we’d all be here. But it’s not about the Thunder. It’s about people being victimized by a system that has a reputation of not being just and not being fair.”
David Prater, Oklahoma County District Attorney
“I believe that the investigation and prosecution of Daniel Holtzclaw will not be a setback to race relations in Oklahoma City because of a longstanding relationship between law enforcement and minority communities. It’s a great opportunity to continue the dialogue.”
Prater indicated he was concerned with attorneys from out-of-town trying to suggest authorities are trying to cover up the facts of the case. “My concern is that those not from our community and more interested in self-promotion and greed will inject themselves into the process and make things worse.”
Prater recounted his prosecution of Jerome Ersland, a former pharmacist now serving a life sentence for shooting a black teenage robber in his store.
“Oklahoma City is a special place. How many times could it have been a Ferguson, it could have been a Baltimore, but it didn’t. Why? Because everyone in this community loves the people here. This is an opportunity to move Oklahoma City forward as an example of what a community can be.”
Shayla Spriggs, registered nurse and northeast Oklahoma City resident
“They GPS on those cars. I don’t understand how it didn’t click. He was an officer who is supposed to serve and protect.
“It was disheartening that he got to stay at home and was not in jail. It was nice to see the police department fire him. You could tell they did know they have substantial evidence. I guess they were trying to look good.
I think it is an issue — people of color and police.”
James Whitfield, who grew up in northeast Oklahoma City
“Justice is served. But probably more likely, more needs to be done.” For example, “they (police) stop folks, profiling them. I have no clue how to stop them. What do they go on? What car you’re driving? Different things, but it’s race.”