Months before the Memorial Day death of George Floyd and the weeks of nationwide protests that followed, Oklahoma’s Legislature had a chance to take up issues that today dominate the headlines.
Lawmakers introduced a set of bills at the start of the year that would curb the use of excessive force by police, broaden the use of body cameras, require lawmakers to consider the impact of new laws, create an Oklahoma Commission on Race and Equality and set up a policing standards task force.
All bills failed to pass.
Only one received a floor vote. Most didn’t even get a committee hearing – the first step for bills to have a chance to become law – so there was no public discussion of the issues.
This year was not atypical.
An Oklahoma Watch review found that since 2014, the year the Black Lives Matter movement took off in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, few bills proposing to increase police oversight or address how law enforcement treats minority groups have passed the Legislature.
Of the dozen bills introduced by black lawmakers dealing with these topics over the past six years, the majority were denied committee hearings. In every case, they fell short of the legislative finish line.
Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, one of two black lawmakers in the 48-member state Senate, said he doesn’t believe the GOP-majority Legislature has given these issues the attention they deserve.
“No — no, no, no, no — not since I’ve been here,” said Young, who was first elected in 2013. “And it’s because you have a party in control that has not seen the significance and importance of looking at those issues.”
What’s Been Proposed
In the days and weeks since a white Minneapolis police officer killed Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, while in his custody, advocates and protesters across the country have called for a re-evaluation of federal, state and local policing standards.
Oklahoma is no exception.
A look back through past legislative proposals offers a glimpse at some of the offerings that largely have fallen by the wayside in recent years.
Among those were three separate attempts to pass legislation requiring all law enforcement officers to wear body cams — which advocates say could change police behavior and strengthen accountability — instead of leaving it up to each department whether they are used.
A legislative fiscal report found this would cost the state $348,000 and local law enforcement agencies $1.1 million.
Former Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Tulsa, introduced the first attempt at this legislation in 2015. The bill was sent to the House Rules Committee, where it remained without getting a hearing during the two years it was eligible to be heard.
A second attempt in 2018 by Rep. Jason Lowe, D-Oklahoma City, to overhaul the state’s body camera law similarly died without a vote in the same committee.
This year Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, introduced legislation similar to Shelton’s proposal. The measure got a committee hearing only after Goodwin amended the bill to do away with the requirement all officers wear body cameras and instead would make it a misdemeanor crime if an officer blocked or turned the camera off during an interaction.
The bill was rejected by the House Public Safety Committee on a 1-12 vote.
Police oversight legislation has struggled as well.
Democratic lawmakers introduced three bills between 2015 and 2018 that would allow or require the state attorney general office to investigate officer-involved shootings and deaths. Each proposal died without a committee hearing or vote.
Another bill, introduced by Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, and Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, would have put the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations in charge of investigating all police-involved shootings or deaths for local law enforcement agencies outside of Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
The legislation sailed through the Senate with a 45-0 vote. But once it moved to the House, the legislation again stalled in the House Public Safety Committee, where it remained without getting a hearing.
In 2019, a Republican-led effort that allowed the OSBI to contract with local law enforcement groups to conduct administrative reviews of use-of-force investigations was signed into law. But Democrats criticized the proposal for not going far enough.
Other bills that failed to reach the House or Senate floor include:
• A 2015 bill requiring officers to complete four hours of diversity training and racial sensitivity education.
• A 2020 proposal to create the Oklahoma Commission on Race and Equality.
• A bill from this year to create a task force to review laws, practices and training programs regarding the use of deadly force in Oklahoma.
Rep. Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, is one of seven members of the legislative Black Caucus, all of whom are Democrats. She said part of the struggle is just trying to introduce bills while in the minority party when Republicans hold more than three-fourths of the seats in the 149-member Legislature.
But she said she feels that the Legislature has failed to prioritize legislation or ideas to address racial injustice or how police treat minority populations. She said the fact that so many proposals don’t even get to be discussed or worked on in committee shows there is a problem.
“We have to be willing to at least have these hard conversations,” she said. “If we are not even educating, we are not making progress.”
Nichols, who also is black, agreed.
“I think it’s a world-view thing,” he said of the predominantly white Legislature. “Part of it is that you might not want to deal with an issue because you’re not familiar with it.”
GOP Leaders Respond
Committee chairmen get the final say of what legislation gets a vote, and what doesn’t, in the committees they lead. Those chairmen are appointed by House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, or Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.
Treat said he has empowered his committee chairs to consider bills on their “own merits and not on the basis of which senator introduced the bill or what party they belong to or what race they are.”
But he signaled the events and conversations over the past several weeks have raised legitimate concerns that the Legislature hasn’t addressed racial injustice as much as it should.
“In retrospect, Oklahoma has not focused enough on these topics,” Treat said. “We should always strive to do better. I am ready to work with colleagues from across the rotunda and across the aisle on ways we can better ensure all Oklahomans are treated fairly and justly.”
McCall agreed, saying that although many changes need to occur locally, changes are needed on the state level. He said these issues will be a “bigger topic everywhere going forward.”
“Constituents are telling us the time has come for more scrutiny of policing policy,” he said. “For many, it is past time, and that must be acknowledged as discussions proceed.”
The GOP leaders didn’t go into specifics about what they want to see when the Legislature returns next year.
But Treat said criminal justice reforms will continue to be a priority of his, adding that legislation requiring lawmakers to review the racial impact of the bills they are considering is a concept “worthy of exploring.”
Black Lawmakers Ready New Legislation
Nichols, along with other House Democrats, announced a set of proposals that he hopes will be a “first step” toward addressing police oversight and racial injustice issues.
Those include requiring the state attorney general’s office to review all cases of officer-involved deaths to determine if the officer should be prosecuted and making law enforcement agencies publicly report use-of-force cases and disclose if any disciplinary action was taken.
He also wants a statewide database of officers who resign during internal investigations to avoid being fired for cause and to revive his unsuccessful proposal from early this year to create a citizen oversight panel to study training and standards for policing and report recommendations to the Legislature.
Nichols the nation is at a watershed moment that he believes can and will bring about meaningful policy changes.
“As people get more and more fed up, that can bring about change,” he said. “But sometimes it takes a lot.”
Matthews, the Legislature’s longest serving black lawmaker, said he too is hopeful there will be a renewed focus on these issues. But he cautioned that it will take action from his white colleagues on both sides of the aisle to see results.
“This outrage must spread outside the African-American community – and not just in demonstrations, but in actions and demands for accountability,” he said. “And if elected officials don’t have the moral code to do this, they should not be in office.”