Strategies for Building Trust Between Law Enforcement and Communities in Oklahoma: Problem Overview

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In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was established to investigate race riots that had occurred across the country. The Commission surveyed members of communities where the riots broke out and uncovered deep tensions between these communities and law enforcement. They identified “at least 12 deeply held grievances” that were widely held in the affected communities, and they ranked them into three levels of intensity. “Police practices” topped the list, accompanied by unemployment and inadequate housing. In the second tier was “ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms.”1 Their report from 50 years ago identified a problem that is unfortunately still familiar today:

“The abrasive relationship between the police and the minority communities has been a major – and explosive – source of grievance, tension and disorder. The blame must be shared by the total society.

“The police are faced with demands for increased protection and service in the ghetto. Yet the aggressive patrol practices thought necessary to meet these demands themselves create tension and hostility. The resulting grievances have been further aggravated by the lack of effective mechanisms for handling complaints against the police. Special programs for bettering police-community relations have been instituted, but these alone are not enough. Police administrators, with the guidance of public officials, and the support of the entire community, must take vigorous action to improve law enforcement and to decrease the potential for disorder.”

Recent events across the country suggest that we are far from solving these problems. The issue became most visible during demonstrations in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere in the wake of law enforcement killings of black men, many of them unarmed. Surveys also suggest that the gap in trust of law enforcement between White and Black Americans is wide. For example, in a 2015 Gallup poll just 52 percent of Black respondents said that local police treat racial minorities “fairly” or “very fairly,” compared to 78 percent of White respondents. Only 29 percent of Blacks have confidence in the police, compared to 58 percent of Whites, according to Gallup data from 2014 to 2016.2

Mistrust of police is the core of these issues, and building trust between police and communities does not happen overnight. Research has shown, time and again, that when communities trust their police, they are more likely to obey the law.3 This keeps both citizens and police safer. Building trust must be the guiding principle to all reform efforts.

There are some positive signs for community relations with police in Oklahoma. Organizers for a Black Lives Matter rally in Oklahoma City last year, for example, acknowledged the Oklahoma City Police Department’s support of their event and their positive interactions with participants.4 Following the killing of Terence Crutcher by police, the Tulsa community gathered peacefully. The Tulsa Police Department promptly released video of the incident, and following a timely and thorough investigation by law enforcement, the District Attorney filed manslaughter charges against the officer and promised that justice would be done.5 Such incidents may reflect an environment more open to dialogue about improving community relations.

Racial Disparities in Policing

Mistrust of law enforcement in minority communities is driven in large part by the perception that law enforcement unfairly target minorities. Data from law enforcement agencies in many places have shown that law enforcement officers are many times more likely to stop black motorists than white motorists, for instance.6 Police are also more likely to use nearly every type of force against blacks more often than against whites, ranging from pushing people into a wall or to the ground to the use of pepper spray or drawing and pointing a weapon, though evidence is mixed about racial bias in law enforcement shootings.7

The numbers alone tell only part of the story. The disparity in traffic stops, for instance, does not mean that black drivers are simply getting more tickets than white drivers. It is indicative of the practice of “pretextual” stops, where officers cite a minor violation – such as a broken tail light – in order to stop a driver and question him or her further. One study of traffic stops in Kansas City, for example, found that white drivers were more likely to be stopped for common traffic violations like speeding, “but blacks were far more likely to be stopped for investigatory stops or given no reason at all for being pulled over.”8 These investigatory stops, also known as “pretextual” stops because the stated reason for the stop w

as a pretext for an officer to ask other questions or search the vehicle, caused a great deal of distrust among African Americans. Both white and black drivers believed traffic stops for speeding were legitimate and that they were treated fairly. “However, when the stop was for a minor infraction and led to the officer asking prying questions and requesting to search the vehicle,” explains Jonathan Blanks, a research associate in the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice, “the stops engendered hostility and resentment among all races, but particularly among African Americans and Latinos – who were stopped much more often for investigatory purposes – whether or not the officer was polite and respectful.”9

While very few pretextual stops lead to the discovery of a crime, they are often humiliating and lead those who are stopped to believe they are being targeted for their race. Although racial profiling is a violation of both federal and Oklahoma laws, there is little recourse for those who believe they have been targeted. An Oklahoma Watch review of the state’s two largest police departments and two state law enforcement agencies found 60 complaints alleging unlawful racial profiling by officers over a four year period, but none were substantiated.10 Absent clear evidence of racial discrimination, racial profiling is very difficult to prove.

Adding to the mistrust engendered by pretextual stops are practices like civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize the property of people they suspect have committed a crime, even if they aren’t convicted. An Oklahoma Watch investigation found that about two thirds of such seizures in the state involved racial minorities.11

Officer Misconduct

Day-to-day practices like pretextual stops and asset forfeiture engender mistrust among minority populations; officer misconduct can often bring such feelings into sharper focus. Regardless of how rare or how common, acts of officer misconduct are severely detrimental for community relations, reinforcing the sense that community members are targeted based on race. While cell phone videos of officer-involved killings inevitably omit some context and provide room for interpretation, their raw and graphic nature have stirred deep outrage when they seem to confirm other lived experiences. To take the most prominent example, the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in 2015 was sparked by the case of Michael Brown, who was killed by police in 2014. While the specific details of that case remain controversial, there is much less dispute that the contentious aftermath reflected longstanding grievances with a justice system widely seen as oppressive to black residents, due to numerous abuses well-chronicled by the US Justice Department.12


Even without graphic video for evidence, officer misconduct has been shown to deepen distrust of law enforcement among minority communities in ways that make it more difficult for law enforcement to do their jobs. For instance, researchers found a significant drop in crime reports to 9-1-1 from black neighborhoods after it was reported that several white off-duty law enforcement officers severely beat a biracial man at a party in Milwaukee in 2004. Study author Matthew Desmond commented, “It shows what a deep rift events like this cause in the social fabric, in predominantly black communities.”13

Criminal Justice in Oklahoma

Oklahoma has seen its own high-profile controversial shootings by law enforcement. The killings of Eric Harris in 2015 and Terence Crutcher in 2016 by law enforcement in Tulsa sparked debate on the issue in Oklahoma. The lack of violent demonstrations in response to Crutcher’s killing – while widely praised as a sign of strong community relations, especially in contrast to unrest at the same time in response to events in Charlotte, North Carolina – perhaps masked deep problems in the state: Oklahoma has the third highest per capita rate of killings by police officers among the states.14

Oklahoma’s place near the top of the list of officer-involved killings per capita reflects in some ways the overall aggressiveness of our criminal justice system. For example, Oklahoma’s overall crime rate is just tenth highest among the states, but we imprison people at a higher rate than every other state except Louisiana.15

This trend has shown signs of worsening in recent years. While the violent crime rate fell by 16 percent between 2010 and 2015, the prison population grew by 9 percent.16 This is largely due to the decisions of prosecutors across the state to aggressively pursue felony charges. Felony filings continue to rise, topping 10,000 in Oklahoma County alone in FY 2015, more than were filed in Manhattan and Brooklyn, which hold five times more people.17 In a period where many states saw simultaneous reductions in crime and incarceration following “smart on crime” reforms, Oklahoma has largely maintained an aggressive “tough on crime” stance but trailed the nation in reducing crime rates.

Racial Disparities in the Justice System

It is well-documented that “tough on crime” policies and practices have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities, and this problem is also found in Oklahoma. One in 15 black males in Oklahoma over the age of 18 is in prison, the highest rate in the country.18 Black Oklahomans are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white Oklahomans; Hispanics in the state have an incarceration rate three times higher than whites.19

That reality has far-reaching consequences beyond the mostly working-age men that are incarcerated, and even beyond the families they leave behind. “The widespread incarceration of men in low-income communities has had a profound negative impact on social and cultural norms relating to family and opportunity,” writes Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. “With the criminal justice system playing such a dominant role in the lives of poor people and people of color, the integrity and credibility of the system has become a central issue.”20

Mental Health Disparities in the Justice System

As mental health hospitals closed in the last half century, the justice system has found itself responsible for solving problems stemming from mental illness. For their part, law enforcement officers often express frustration about the time they spend as first responders to mental health crises. “Now, we’re sending the police out as a front-line mental health team with no training and no resources, and no support backup, and we expect them to do the job,” said Steve Lyons, a former police officer who now serves on the board for the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) Tulsa. “A lot of officers resent the hell out of that.”21

Beyond occupying officers with frequent calls, people with mental illness can present challenges that law enforcement aren’t trained to deal with. This can lead to tragedy, as it did when police in Ardmore responded to Patricia Tompkins’ call about her son, who was suffering from severe depression and whom she suspected had attempted suicide. The officers that responded ended up shooting and killing him as he reached for a cell phone that officers thought was a weapon.22

In short, the problem of strained relations between law enforcement and communities is part of a larger distrust of the entire criminal justice system. When police take a confrontational stance toward the communities they are sworn to protect, they reinforce the perception that the system is biased against them.

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  1. “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” 1968,
  2. Frank Newport, “Public Opinion Context: Americans, Race and Police,” Gallup, July 8, 2016,
  3. “Research,” National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, 2016,
  4. Brian Hardzinski, “Positive Reaction To Oklahoma City Police During Black Lives Matter Rally; One Person Arrested,” KGOU, July 12, 2016,
  5. Bill Chappell, “Tulsa Police Officer Will Face Manslaughter Charge In Unarmed Man’s Death,” NPR, September 22, 2016,
  6. David Montgomery, “Data dive: Racial disparities in Minnesota traffic stops,” Twin Cities Pioneer Press, July 9, 2016,; Ben Poston, “Racial gap found in traffic stops in Milwaukee,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 3, 2011,; Stacey Barchenger and Natalie Neysa Alund, “What 2 million traffic stops show about race and policing in Nashville,” October 25, 2016,
  7. Quoctrung Bui and Amanda Cox, “Surprising New Evidence Shows Bias in Police Use of Force but Not in Shootings,” New York Times, July 11, 2016,
  8. Jonathan Blanks, “Thin Blue Lies: How Pretextual Stops Undermine Police Legitimacy,” 2016,
  9. Ibid.
  10. Clifton Adcock and Nate Robson, “In All Cases, Police Find No Proof of Racial Profiling,” Oklahoma Watch, December 14, 2015,
  11. Clifton Adcock, Ben Fenwick and Joey Stipek, “Most Police Seizures of Cash Come from Blacks, Hispanics,” Oklahoma Watch, October 7, 2015,
  12. Civil Rights Division, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” U.S. Justice Department, March 4, 2015,
  13. Quoctrung Bui, “Calls to 911 From Black Neighborhoods Fell After a Case of Police Violence,” New York Times, September 29, 2016
  14. “The Counted: People killed by police in the US,” The Guardian,
  15. “Prisoners in 2015,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 2016,
  16. “National Imprisonment and Crime Rates Continue to Fall,” Pew Charitable Trusts, December 2016,
  17. Supreme Court of Oklahoma, “2015 Annual Report,”; Rory Fleming and Casey Tolan, “Oklahomans Voted to Make the State’s Criminal Justice System Less Barbaric,” Slate, March 10, 2017,
  18. Ashley Nellis, “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons,” The Sentencing Project, 2016,
  19. “50 State Incarceration Profiles: Oklahoma,” Prison Policy Initiative, 2016,
  20. Bryan Stevenson, “Confronting Mass Imprisonment and Restoring Fairness to Collateral Review of Criminal Cases,” Harvard Law Review, 2006,
  21. Clifton Adcock, “When Police Confront the Mentally Ill,” Oklahoma Watch, December 5, 2016,
  22. Ibid.


Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

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