For Tulsa officers, more privacy following a police shooting

By Dylan Goforth, The Frontier, July 11, 2018
https://www.readfrontier.org/

On Wednesday, video showing a shootout between officers and a suspect outside of a midtown QuikTrip was released by the Tulsa Police Department.

What was not released by the department were the identities of the officers involved in the shooting.

The suspect, John Chatman, was charged on Wednesday with several felonies, including three counts of shooting with intent to kill, Possession of a Firearm After Former Conviction of a Felony, Obstruction, and Driving Under Suspension. Chatman was also charged with driving with an improper tag, a factor which the police department said led to the traffic stop earlier this month.

In the video that was released Wednesday, Chatman tells officers to “just shoot me” when they tell him he is about to be “pepper-balled” for refusing to leave his vehicle. Pepper balls are considered a less lethal form of use of force.

However as a Gang Unit officer fires the pepper ball gun, another officer can be heard yelling “he’s got a gun,” then firing shots into the van Chatman was driving.

One officer was shot in the leg and was released from the hospital. Chatman has been hospitalized since the July 3 shooting.

The Tulsa Police Department has routinely been ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying their officers who shoot suspects, often releasing the officer’s identity within 48 hours of the shooting.

But at a time when agencies across the state have put a tighter grip on the release of information following officer-involved shootings, TPD is now following suit.

Shane Tuell, a public information officer for TPD, told The Frontier that the department plans to keep the identity of officers involved in shootings under wraps at least until a report on the shooting is submitted to the district attorney.

“In that case, we’re talking like 5-7 days,” Tuell said.

However as a Gang Unit officer fires the pepper ball gun, another officer can be heard yelling “he’s got a gun,” then firing shots into the van Chatman was driving.

One officer was shot in the leg and was released from the hospital. Chatman has been hospitalized since the July 3 shooting.

The Tulsa Police Department has routinely been ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying their officers who shoot suspects, often releasing the officer’s identity within 48 hours of the shooting.

But at a time when agencies across the state have put a tighter grip on the release of information following officer-involved shootings, TPD is now following suit.

Shane Tuell, a public information officer for TPD, told The Frontier that the department plans to keep the identity of officers involved in shootings under wraps at least until a report on the shooting is submitted to the district attorney.

“In that case, we’re talking like 5-7 days,” Tuell said.

However there are circumstances where the officer’s identity could be withheld by the department even longer, Tuell said.

The “5-7 day” range may be contingent on it appearing the shooting will be ruled justified, Tuell said. If the DA indicates prosecutors may take a more lengthy look at the shooting, the police department may wait until that process plays out.

Across Oklahoma, many agencies simply do not release the names of their officers who shoot suspects — a fact due, in most cases, to the involvement of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

Many of the agencies are small and don’t have time or resources to investigate their own officers, so they request an OSBI investigation. The OSBI does not release the names of the officers it investigates until the investigation is finished, former PIO Jessica Brown told The Frontier earlier this year.

Brown said that was a decision she had made herself years prior and it had become unofficial OSBI policy. She also said that the OSBI’s decision not to release officer names did not preclude the agencies the officers work for from releasing their identities.

“There was a Lawton Police Officer, and I released his name and he was getting death threats. He had people driving by his house and yelling things and throwing things, so I changed at that point and said I would not release them,” Brown told The Frontier in April.

Brown said the OSBI is investigating the officers, who “should have the same rights as anyone.”

“If they’re arrested or charged, at that point I would release the names,” she said. “But not prior to that. If their individual department wants to release the name, I say go ahead. It won’t hurt our investigation.”

However, in the past, most agencies who’ve requested OSBI assistance have said they could not comment on pending cases, saying all questions must be directed to the OSBI.

The Tulsa Police Department had often released officer identities within two days of any police shooting, Tuell said, which often troubled officers who wanted more time to notify their families and perhaps even briefly move them out of town.

“We’ve gotten some feedback from some of our officers, and a lot of them have said they have not had time to talk to all of their family and make accomodations,” Tuell said. “We may have set a precedent (internally) but statewide, there’s not a lot of precedent with the way this is all handled.”

At times, it can take months to learn the identities of officers who have shot suspects. Some investigations are considered “ongoing” until the completion of toxicology reports by the state medical examiner’s office, which often take six weeks or more. If the OSBI won’t release the officer’s identity unless the officer is charged, and if the agency won’t release the identity until an OSBI investigation is complete, the identities often don’t become public until clearance letters are filed by the investigating district attorneys office.

And those reports are typically only released following an Open Records request.

Sometimes, it takes even longer. In January, Bartlesville police killed 72-year-old Geraldine Townsend while trying to arrest her son on a drug charge.

Townsend, police said, exited her room and fired at officers with a BB gun. Two officers returned fire, killing the woman.

When those officers were cleared, they were identified only as “officer 1” and “officer 2.”

One thought on “For Tulsa officers, more privacy following a police shooting

  1. This is a difficult problem. The concern for officer safety is a legitimate concern, but so is the public’s right to know who is responsible for using lethal or potentially lethal force. And once the officer (and officers’ families’ safety issues are resolved) the release of names should be equal–if the person who was the recipient of police use of force and his/her/their name(s) are released, the names of the officer(s)’ names should be too. It creates an atmosphere of transparency that can actually be very helpful in improving trust of a fair and complete investigation. If the officer\9s) have sterling reputations for good community relations skills, excellent judgment and an ability to defuse difficult situations that will quickly become clear. If, on the other hand, the officer has a file full of reprimands for excessive use of force, racial slurs, poor judgment, etc., it will make a ‘blue wall of silence’ far more difficult to build or maintain because the vast majority of officers want the bad apples gone–it hurts their ability to do their jobs right. I was heartbroken when first saw the TPS release in which the policy change was buried with little explanation. Perhaps FOI Oklahoma could help create a mediation panel to come up with a statewide standard–not a regulation, just a best practices guideline that all sides could agree was fair.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*