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Experts deconstruct 'defund the police' amid Norman's reallocation of NPD funds to mental health services

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Norman Police officer

A Norman Police Department officer stands by at the Norman protest rally on June 1.

For every 100,000 people in the U.S., 698 are incarcerated, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In Oklahoma, 1,079 people are incarcerated for every 100,000.

Statewide, 3,796 per 100,000 Black people; 1,876 per 100,000 Hispanic people; and 1,059 per 100,000 American Indian and Alaska Native people are incarcerated. Only 767 per 100,000 white Oklahomans are incarcerated, according to the Prison Policy Initiative

“In our criminal justice system or our incarceration services ... Oklahoma (is) leading the nation in both male and female incarcerations,” David McLeod, assistant director of research for OU’s School of Social Work, said. “We see those systems overwhelmed with ... people who would not have been caught up in the criminal justice system had they had appropriate mental health services.”

According to a Norman Citizens for Racial Justice June 6 release, Norman has experienced incorrect responses from its police department in instances of mental distress — including the dragging of Marconia Kessee across a hospital parking lot in 2018 and the killing of 17-year-old Richard Lee Sanchez in 2005.

The justice group said in the release these local events of racial injustice, along with national examples like the death of George Floyd, inspired them to deliver a list of demands to Norman Police Chief Kevin Foster, Norman Mayor Breea Clark and the Norman City Council June 6. The central theme of their demands was the defunding and demilitarization of the Norman Police Department. Councilmember Alex Scott called for a $4.5 million budgetary reduction. 

June 16, Norman City Council voted down Scott's proposal at a city budget meeting and instead cut $865,000 from the proposed increase in the NPD’s budget for the 2021 fiscal year — putting $235,000 toward the internal audit function and leaving $630,000 to be allocated to community services. The department experienced an overall increase of $104,000 from the 2020 fiscal year. 

Clark said as decisions concerning reallocation continue to be made, she thinks the department is prepared to experience reform. She said she hopes to lead Norman’s government in making serious and impactful change for residents. 

“Government is slow by itself … (and) it will take time to make sure we have the community input we need to … best allocate those funds,” Clark said. “We’ve shown we’re committed and not afraid to try new things in order to improve the quality of life and the profession for our police department.” 

Currently, Clark is meeting with a biweekly task force of various community partners to discuss how to best utilize community funds and resources in Norman. Clark said Norman is the first city in Oklahoma to mirror larger cities’ efforts to reform their police departments. 

Norman City Council extended Clark’s efforts during a July 9 oversight committee meeting in which councilmembers and other local experts discussed the pros and cons of allocating a portion of the remaining $630,000 toward a program similar to the White Bird Clinic’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets initiative in Eugene, Oregon. 

Since 1987, Eugene, Oregon, has capitalized on a partnership between a medic and a crisis worker with several years of experience in mental health. The 24/7 mobile response team costs around $2.1 million a year and is estimated to save $15 million a year through emergency room and jail diversion cost savings, according to White Bird Clinic coordinator Ben Brubaker in a June 10 NPR interview.

Ward 1 councilmember Kate Bierman noted during the July 9 meeting that 30 percent of the 98,221 calls directed to the Norman Police Department in 2018 were not crimes in progress. The percentage, rather, was related to mental health crises. 

Bierman said during the meeting that in 2018, the Norman Police Department received 1,056 suicide-related calls, 954 escort transport calls, 4,359 welfare check calls, 6,100 domestic disturbance calls, 787 public intoxication and drug possession calls, 825 missing children and juvenile truancy calls and 5,283 suspicious activity calls. This data, she said, illustrates the need for a system in Norman that can field calls to organizations beyond the police department. 

“A lot of criminal activity is driven by desperation, mental illness, substance abuse and poverty,” Norman Citizens for Racial Justice said in response to the city council meeting. “Police do not have the tools to solve the root causes of these issues, so we must invest in solutions that can help those in our community who are struggling and prevent the need for law enforcement.” 

Instead of trying to change the minds of those who are against the reallocation of funds, McLeod said it is more important to explain what reallocation means and outline the benefits. McLeod said citizens of Norman should first view this reallocation as just that — a reallocation of funds. 

The phrase ‘defunding the police’ is one McLeod — a former police detective, SWAT officer and forensic psychopathologist — said carries long-lasting emotion and frustration that is worth identifying. Although the phrase is technically accurate, McLeod said it incorrectly markets the movement of funds. 

“Really, it's a transfer of funding — you need to transfer the money we're spending on those types of criminal justice services over to prevention-based services or services that can help families break the cycles of criminal behavior,” McLeod said. “It's about expanding interprofessional services, … (embedding) social workers and other types of helping professionals in police departments … and transitioning police over into police activities as quickly as possible.” 

McLeod said it is crucial people critically examine data when considering the reallocation of funds and resources from the NPD into community programs. 

“If we really are honest with ourselves and look at the data, (it) says having the proper services for mental health … mean that people are less interactive with the criminal justice system,” McLeod said. “That ends up saving us tons of money as taxpayers, it frees up police to do actual things that police work can help with and helps create situations for positive growth and ... community interaction.” 

McLeod said data-driven policing can be effective in deploying officers intelligently into what statistics deem to be "high risk" communities. This form of policing, although well-intended, is something he said has been influenced by systemic racism and diminished opportunities for minorities — causing overrepresentation in communities of color. 

“It is such a delicate topic … but one of the responses that I see far too often is super-aggression when there is an encounter with … Black people,” OU School of Social Work instructor Renea Butler-King said. “I think that needs (to) not be.” 

Butler-King has contributed to conversations on race in a variety of settings, including an OU School of Social Work initiative called "Undoing Racism" which educates students on the importance of working toward on-campus change that is ethical and conscious. She said the conversations of diversity she has experienced are important, but applying them to community action is more complex than some might think. 

“Undoing racism is hard work (and) it has given me the ability to have conversations across cultures … (and to discuss) how to bring them together,” Butler-King said. “We do need some immediate change … (but) that particular topic (of defunding the police) is one I’m not really sure how to accomplish.” 

Her understanding of the topic, she said, is that police are necessary, but intentional violence toward Black people must end. She said if she were asked by the department to apply her knowledge base in a law enforcement setting, she would not shy away from sharing her experience.

“What I have learned in the ‘Undoing Racism’ work is that … the consciousness of culture works on all sides, (including) Black communities, white communities, police departments and academic departments,” Butler-King said. “We’re talking about developing a language now. It could be as simple as that — developing a language so that all people are having the same conversation,” Butler-King said.

Developing this language, Butler-King said, begins in a community that is on the same page and is willing to work together.

In working as a special victims detective, McLeod said he realized the criminal justice system is only a tiny piece of the solution. To find answers beyond law enforcement, he said the notion of keeping people from hurting each other in the first place should be considered. 

“(I am) not saying we don’t need the criminal justice system or law enforcement — I think we do,” McLeod said. “We need them to fulfill (their) role and then we need other folks like me and all of the different players we work with to try to create a scenario so that people don’t feel the despair, … apathy and fear that inspires them to behave in a way that gets them involved with the criminal justice system.” 

From a behavioral standpoint, McLeod said he knows how the use of force works within police departments and how fear drives human behavior. When people escalate their behavior toward an officer, he said that officer is trained to escalate one step above them. 

Escalation, McLeod said, is an instinct that can specifically be driven by implicit bias in situations or settings with which community members and officers are unfamiliar. He said now is the time for people to learn how to escalate situations intelligently. 

“I had personal experience for many years on a SWAT team,” McLeod said. “I wouldn’t minimize that we don’t need those things in some situations … (but) I would say that it’s not the right place to deploy them to protests. … (Today), we are showing that when people voice a rightful concern, they’ll be met with the most fierce, intimidating response. That’s a wrong way to use those services (and) I think we have got to be smarter.” 

When McLeod was a detective, he said he would talk with people who had committed crimes of assault and abuse. Without even realizing it, he said he developed a script where he would get to know the person, learn about their abuse or trauma, create a way for them to use their experiences to justify their behavior in the crime they committed and, after he recorded their conversations, he would put them in jail. 

McLeod said after he recognized the issues with this pattern, he was inspired to change the outlook of his career. 

“I thought, ‘What if we could identify these young people when they’re in trauma and help them choose a different life?’” McLeod said. “Then, nobody gets hurt … and we can help people … make the small steps needed to miss the big roadblocks in life.” 

In the short-term, McLeod said he desires to see investment in homeless programs, mental health, diversion programs and substance abuse programs. In the long-term, however, he believes investments in younger people will be key. 

“We know the vast majority of the people who are going to hurt others are people who experienced incredible trauma in their own lives,” McLeod said. “If we can get to those people young enough, we have the opportunity to change the direction and trajectory of their life. … That is a public health service … that is a crime prevention service … and that is something social workers can be good at.” 

Although this investment will likely take 5–10 years to bear fruit, McLeod said it is a long-term solution worth considering. Until this service can exist, however, he said the pressure is on to make successful, short-term decisions. 

“Right now is a pivotal time … (so) the strategy can’t be soft,” McLeod said. “We need to make sure we’re doing something that can show a reduction … or at least maintenance … of crime rates. If we don’t, then the opposition … (is) going to get really loud and they’ll start convincing people in the middle that they were right.” 

Upon being asked how she thinks a relationship between the police department and social workers could positively impact the Norman community, Butler-King, an avid foodie, said she was reminded of a dish called ceviche. 

Ceviche, she said, is a Latin-American seafood dish made with raffia crab, peppers and lemons that break down the proteins in the raw fish, causing it to become an uncooked but edible component of the dish. She said parts of the dish take a minute to cook without heat, which means they have to be left to meld together with the rest of the dish.

Butler-King said, like the components of this dish, a union of people from all backgrounds is something Norman desperately needs.

“When I think about all of the pieces that have to come together to do this work … it can be heated and then there are going to be raw feelings,” Butler-King said. “The movement is made up of a bunch of different things and ideas that have to take a little time before they can all come together.”

Editor's note: this article was corrected at 1:30 p.m. on July 19 to reflect that the $4.5 million budget cut was proposed by Councilmember Scott and not Norman Citizens for Racial Justice.

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