In 2016, 32 Oklahomans were killed by police officers. That gave Oklahoma the third highest per capita rate of such killings in the United States, behind only Alaska and New Mexico.1 Concern over the number and circumstances surrounding killings by police has grown in recent years. The issue has become increasingly visible among the media, advocates, elected officials, and law enforcement.
Law enforcement officers in Oklahoma, too, operate in a dangerous environment. Between 2008 and 2012, 13 officers died in the line of duty, the sixth highest rate in the country.2
The public attention to high-profile cases of officer-involved shootings has revealed a harsh reality of frequent tense interactions with law enforcement that can quickly turn deadly. These interactions are especially common for people of color, who are also vastly overrepresented among the people killed by police.
Oklahomans have recognized that our criminal justice system needs major reforms and have begun taking steps to do so in recent years. State leaders recognize that we need to reduce an incarceration rate that remains among the very highest in the country. Discussions of reforming law enforcement – the front line of the justice system – have been largely absent from the conversation at the state level. However, highly controversial police killings, including those of Eric Harris* and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, have raised awareness of the need to address this component of our justice system, both to protect citizens and to ensure that law enforcement has the training – and the respect of the community – needed to do their job. For Oklahoma’s justice reform measures to be complete, the state and its communities will need to address our high rate of police killings head-on.
This report lays out some best practices for strengthening the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. After describing problems occurring under the status quo, the report identifies several areas to reform, including training models, policy solutions, and officer recruiting strategies that have contributed to positive changes in other jurisdictions. Further, agencies should collect and release critical data in order to evaluate and improve their practices and be accountable to the public they serve. The most successful reform efforts have grown organically from within local governments and law enforcement agencies, so this report offers lessons and guidance to Oklahoma police departments that seek to reduce avoidable killings and improve community relations.
*Correction: The original version of this report named Eric Garner, who was killed by police in New York City. We regret the error.
- “The Counted,” The Guardian, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database
- “Police Officer Fatality Rates by State,” Governing, http://www.governing.com/gov-data/law-enforcement-fatality-rates-by-state.html