Oklahoma Watch and reporter Whitney Bryen are suing the City of Tulsa seeking details of an incident that resulted in the violent arrest of a woman in the throes of a mental health crisis.
Bryen requested all police reports and statements related to the arrest of LaDonna Paris under the Oklahoma Open Records Act on April 4 after video footage prompted public outrage. The reaction included hundreds of comments on video footage of the incident and on social media. Angry Tulsans who spoke at a City Council meeting criticized officers’ handling of the 70-year-old great-grandmother who was experiencing a bipolar episode. On April 13, Bryen also requested the audio and transcript of the 911 call that triggered the police response.
Jocelyn Finley, records office administrator for the Tulsa Police Department, said in an email on April 15 that the department would not release the audio or transcription of the call.
In May, two records administrators for the department told Bryen they did not have the authority to release the reports because the incident was under internal investigation. They directed her to police Chief Wendell Franklin’s office, which never responded to Bryen’s request.
The lawsuit also alleges that the police department violated state law because it does not have a designated records custodian who could respond to requests for public documents during business hours.
The defendant named in the lawsuit filed Tuesday is the City of Tulsa, which oversees the police department. The city and police department are public bodies funded by taxpayers and are subject to state open records law.
Department spokesman Capt. Richard Meulenberg said in an email Wednesday, “The Tulsa Police Communications unit is not able to give any statements in reference incidents that are in litigation.”
Ted Streuli is the executive director of the non-profit Oklahoma Watch and former president of Freedom of Information Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization formed to protect government transparency.
“The Open Records Act is absolutely clear on the points we’re arguing in this lawsuit,” Streuli said. “There is no justifiable reason for the Tulsa Police Department to delay or outright ignore our request. We’ve been waiting eight months and have given the city multiple opportunities to avoid litigation but they have chosen to ignore us and the law.
“When public officials choose to operate in the shadows, they must be held to account,” Streuli said. “The public’s business must remain public. It’s the only safeguard we have against corruption and no one, not even the mayor or chief of police, is above the law.”
Law enforcement agencies are required by the Oklahoma Open Records Act to make certain records available to the public such as offense report information and facts concerning an arrest.
Kathryn Gardner, a Tulsa-based attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press representing Oklahoma Watch and Bryen, informed Franklin via email that reasons given by employees for withholding the records violate state law. The chief did not respond.
“A ruling in favor of Oklahoma Watch and Whitney Bryen would send a clear message that public bodies in Oklahoma, including police departments, must follow the requirements of the Oklahoma Open Records Act,” Gardner said.
Police kicked in the door of a Habitat for Humanity Restore bathroom where Paris had locked herself, knocked her to the ground, handcuffed her and jailed her on Oct. 25, 2021.
Months later, Paris’ son posted portions of body camera footage provided by police on Youtube showing officers taunting Paris before her arrest. From outside the bathroom officers laughed and made fun of Paris. One officer fired her taser outside the door, while Paris talked frantically to herself saying she feared police were going to kill her.
The Youtube video has more than 68,000 views and 400 comments, many admonishing the officers.
The police department responded by posting the full video account online and investigating the actions of officers. Franklin will decide whether to discipline the officers and how.
Paris filed a civil lawsuit in May against the city, Tulsa mayor G.T. Bynum, and three of the responding officers alleging assault, emotional distress and violating her civil rights among other claims.