A look at DOJ’s civil rights investigation into State of Oklahoma, OKC, OKCPD (Capitol Update)

According to a press release issued last week by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the State of Oklahoma, the City of Oklahoma City, and the Oklahoma City Police Department. The investigation is being conducted pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits disability discrimination by state and local governments and pursuant to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that prohibits state and local governments from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers that deprives individuals of rights protected by the Constitution or federal law.

“Community-based mental health services, which are proven effective in transforming people’s lives, are critical to preventing a cycle of unnecessary institutionalization and avoidable contacts with law enforcement,” according to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. 

There is no indication in the press release of what brought about the investigation, but the DOJ does not start an investigation unless there is some evidence they may find violations. Reports of alleged civil rights violations by law enforcement are reviewed by the local U.S. Attorney then forwarded to the DOJ Civil Rights Division for enforcement. The investigation could be a result of either a single or multiple incidents that indicate the possibility of a pattern or practice of civil rights violations.

In addition to law enforcement incidents, it appears that the state government will be under scrutiny over lack of adequate mental health treatment resources. The Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency recently presented a report listing several challenges to adequate treatment such as lack of mental health providers and inadequate coordination of services. Legislators recently allocated federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to develop mental health facilities and provider education programs, but Oklahoma’s state mental health funding and provider rates remain low.

How much a state wants to spend on mental health services for its citizens is a policy decision to be made by the legislature and governor. However, under federal law, a state cannot discriminate against the mentally ill. If law enforcement officers are armed and charged with the responsibility of dealing with the mentally ill, they must be trained and supervised in a way that prevents unnecessary harm. And state programs cannot discriminate against the mentally ill in the way they are funded and administered. If sufficient civil rights violations are found, a potential outcome of the investigation could be supervision of mental health services and police practices by a federal court.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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