It is an open question whether any sort of law enforcement reform will make it across the finish line during the session next year. The call for reform increased exponentially after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and other police killings, some of which were captured on video. Broad citizen support for changes in police procedures seemed apparent for a while when a diverse population of protesters hit the street. But as the protests continued with violence breaking out in some places, some of the rhetoric of the protestors provided ammunition for a reaction. Within a few weeks a full-blown reaction to the reform protests had developed in some places, including Oklahoma.
As summer has turned into fall in an election year, the issue has found its way into political campaigns. U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe is running a commercial with Republican Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado standing in front of a field of uniformed officers endorsing Inhofe, testifying to the Senator’s support law enforcement, and referring to those who don’t support Inhofe as “liberals” who want to “defund” police. This tells me support for police must be running high in statewide polling. Inhofe has the money and organization to emphasize any issue he wants, and he would not be spending money making a partisan issue of supporting police if his polling did not show it is popular. No doubt, legislative candidates are seeing the same thing.
During the time of widespread revulsion at the Floyd killing, several legislators made requests for interim studies to look at the need for law enforcement reform. It is encouraging that among them were top Senate leaders — President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-OKC, Majority Leader Kim David, R-Porter, and Appropriations Chair Roger Thompson, R-Okemah. The studies were held last week, and it appears these leaders are committed to trying to take a sincere look at the issues involved.
None of these Senate leaders are wild-eyed radicals about to do anything close to “defunding” police or probably even less controversial reforms that many reasonable people might support. But they seem willing to make a sincere effort to learn if anything can be done to decrease police violence and increase accountability, not just for individual officers but for their departments and their city and county leaders. But it will not be easy in an election year when the issue is being made partisan at the national level.
Being a police officer is a dangerous, usually thankless, relatively low-paying job fraught with opportunities to make a career-ending or life-ending (including their own) mistake every time they begin a shift. The payoff for most of them is doing an important job that has to be done. Those officers get their job satisfaction from knowing they are good at their job, and their community needs them. But there are some who get satisfaction from using their power to abuse and harm people they do not like.
Among solutions the studies examined are better officer screening and training, dealing with mental health crises, tracking officer discipline, use-of-force standards, officer and department accountability, and others. Most would agree things should be improved to protect citizens subject to police abuse without endangering officers. It is going to take strong legislative leadership to both support police and prevent officers who do not belong in the uniform, and a culture that protects them, from hiding behind the public support their colleagues have earned. Perhaps last week’s studies were a good beginning.