Shouts of “Defund the blue” drowned the clamorings of those advocating for the support of Norman police officers as the public comment portion of Tuesday night’s special session of the Norman City Council wore on.
Protesters and their counterparts first began to converge on city hall around 5 p.m. for a study session prior to the 6:30 p.m. meeting. For the second-straight Tuesday, those present found themselves feuding over whether to remove significant funding from the Norman Police Department in a heated meeting.
Eleven hours later the council voted to deduct $865,000 from police salaries and benefits and re-allocate that money toward a to-be-determined community outreach program, a decision that mirrors the national debate over funding local law enforcement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.
Ward 8 Councilmember and OU alumna Alex Scott originally moved to amend the city’s budget with a deduction of $4.5 million from police funds after she shared passionate testimony about her problematic experience with local officers who didn’t believe she was being stalked when called to her house and also told her when she was assaulted in college that sex crimes were not considered a priority, among other offenses.
“I'm in a very, very privileged position and there are many who are not, who are experiencing this, and If I am being disbelieved and disregarded on my doorstep then there is much worse going on,” Scott said during the council comment section. “That's why I made this amendment, to have this conversation. Because the purpose of our police is to protect and to serve, and if property is taking a higher priority than my body, then they are not upholding their pledge.”
“This amendment basically cuts the salary and benefits of the police department in half,” Scott said. “And while I don’t expect it to pass I do expect it to cause a conversation about those very things, about how we solve this problem.”
Several OU community members from different walks of life were among those present to continue their push for the reallocation of dollars from the Norman police. Each shared unique ideas for using the reallocated money.
Undergraduate Student Congress Budget Chair Lauren Patton returned to city hall after she voiced her opposition to what she called a poorly written budget last week, her testimony becoming one of many that led Mayor Breea Clark to table the discussion for seven days.
Tuesday night, Patton shared her decision to not report her rape to Norman police because she feared the trauma that might stem from that ordeal, while also encouraging the use of reallocated police funds to benefit the city’s underfunded human and children’s rights commissions and failing water treatment standards.
Patton also questioned the integrity of the police and their overall usefulness in assisting the community, using statistics to make her point.
“There are facts that we have 100,000 calls to 911 every year in Norman and that there were only 6,000 arrests,” Patton said. “It's a fact that the police somehow managed to confiscate $185,000 during criminal investigations last year that they can now use for enforcement properties, like law enforcement in the future. This year and they managed to make 6,000 arrests. They stole $185,000 and only made 6,000 arrests. They’re thieves.”
‘Better protection in the first place’
OU senior and Oklahoma College Democrats President Taz Al-Michael was another prominent university leader at city hall Tuesday, and while he asserted that he does not believe in disbanding the police altogether, he spoke of possibilities for better allotment of taxpayer money.
“A lot of what the defunding the police movement really stands for is converting protections into much more tangible programs,” Al-Michael said. “For example, I don't really want to see a police officer showing up at my doorstep if I'm having a mental health crisis."
Instead of sending officers who may not be prepared for mental health conflicts, Al-Michael said investing that money in social workers who are equipped to handle such situations is a more appropriate use of dollars.
“No one is talking about getting rid of protection in the community,” Al-Michael said. “Instead, they want to see that money better managed to deliver better protection in the first place.”
Al-Michael was not the only member of the OU community who expressed a desire for improvement in social worker funding. Exercise science junior Elle Barnhart says she is on the autism spectrum and struggles with mental health issues that she says police are not equipped to handle.
“I think it's just ridiculous to expect cops to be able to handle all of that,” Barnhart said. “It's not within their job description, and I think our cities need to have better resources to deal with mental health issues and also addiction, so that police aren’t being called with guns and tasers to situations where people aren't violent and they don't need that.”
OU senior Jarrod Fries echoed Barnhart’s thoughts when talking about his younger brother Gage, who he says has been in and out of mental facilities multiple times during his youth.
Fries said he believes his family might have been saved from several traumatic police visits had the right social worker come to their aid.
“It was really rough for our family to have to go through that,” Fries said. “If we could have had state-provided services to help navigate us through that, (it would have been) better than a cop coming to the house.”
‘Improve students’ lives’
Student Government Association representative Taylor Broadbent was at the last city council meeting and shared another thought regarding useful money reallocation for schools Tuesday night.
Instead of continuing the school officer resource program, Broadbent proposed more money be spent on teachers and counselors to avoid a system some argue is racially designed to outfit students for prison.
“In the schools, we don't need to be spending money on officers, but teachers, investing in counselors, services that are actually going to help improve students' lives instead of throwing them in jail because that's not fair,” Broadbent said. “We need to make sure that we're diversifying and funding the things that the community wants and needs and what's going to be better for our future instead of prioritizing the needs of the police union.”
As the night continued and members of the Norman and OU communities shared stories of traumatic police-related issues while also proposing solutions, tensions repeatedly escalated within and outside the council chamber. More than once a raucous resident had to be removed from the room by police, who were present in far greater numbers than last Tuesday’s meeting.
Regardless of the council’s final balloting, the large number of those in favor of Scott’s plan created great optimism that change can be accomplished in the near future.
“Being completely real, it is intimidating to see a bunch of these people from Back the Blue and whatnot,” Al-Michael said. “But in reality, there’s a lot more of us than there are of them.”
Near the end of the meeting, Clark motioned to re-allocate $300,000 from police patrol funding to community programs while reminding those present that amendments to the budget and consequently the city will still be possible in the days ahead.
“We’ve got to do a better job,” Clark said. “And I want to remind everyone that what we pass tonight is not set in stone. It can be re-allocated. We can actually amend the budget after tonight, but I want to show you that we are invested in moving forward.”