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Norman City Council votes against grant for protective equipment for police

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A screenshot of the Norman City Council's Oct. 13 meeting.

The Norman City Council cast a narrow vote of 4-5 against a federal grant for protective police equipment and informational software following a lengthy public hearing on militarized policing and its effects on city protests in a Tuesday council meeting. 

The Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant is an annual provision from the U.S. Department of Justice to local units of government based on population and crime statistics, Norman Police Department Standards Administrator John Stege said. This year, he said the formula grant allocated $26,226 to Norman with the broad purpose of “reducing crime and violence”.

Stege said the formulaic nature of the grant would require Norman Police to designate funds toward four specific areas predetermined by its executive staff in the application process. He said staff members requested grant money for personal protective equipment for crowd management, web-based analytical software for police data initiative sets, executive conference room audio-visual upgrades and the Cleveland County Sheriff's Office.  

A subject of contention surrounding the grant was the administration of $15,623 to police crowd control equipment. A breakdown of this sum proposes an allocation of $6,785 to protective suits, $2,254 to protective helmets, $2,277 to protective shields, $483 to batons,  $2,414 to an interactive whiteboard for the Chief’s conference room and $1,050 for shipping. 

Currently, the Norman Police Department is dependent on the Oklahoma City Police Department to provide crowd control equipment to combat violent situations, Norman’s Police Chief Kevin Foster said. 

“We have only two choices,” Foster said. “Choice one is we allow our department and our officers to address the situation in the way we recognize the greatest level of success or we stand down and call for assistance from another agency. Once we make that call for assistance to another agency, we are no longer in control of that situation… I feel much more confident with our folks, trained the way we want them to be trained, to be able to respond, (which) we won't (alter).”  

The Norman Police Department is also investigating a data-based software called Tableau, which was created by computer science and business experts to help people understand databases and spreadsheets. Stege said the police department is seeking training with this software so it can upload information and develop interactive charts. 

“One of the things about the public data initiative is that the data is supposed to go out in a raw format … allowing the users to actually develop their own reports,” Stege said. “This software doesn’t actually change any of the data sets — it just displays graphs and people can simply click on the areas they are interested in and it filters.” 

Ward 1 Councilmember Kate Bierman posed an initial concern regarding the necessity of this grant in Norman, a city she said does not possess the propensity for violence this proposed change would address.

“As we went through the budget discussions in June … the response from the police department was ‘We are not Kenosha, we are not Ferguson PD, we are not St. Louis … we are not any of these other departments where these tragic situations have occurred — we are Norman,’” Bierman said. “The language included in the staff report basically indicates violence happening elsewhere means we need to be prepared for violence here.” 

Bierman said although she believes Norman could be one tragic incident away from experiencing unrest similar to the present climate of Kenosha, Wisconsin, the department is failing to reflect the original perspective of councilmembers in June denying Norman’s proclivity for violence. 

Ward 3 Councilmember Alison Petrone said the topic of demilitarization is one she has seen elicit a unified response. The position of Norman residents, she said, is they do not want to feel like their neighborhood policing poses a threat. 

Petrone said recent studies have suggested soft policing is one of the reasons cities like Norman have been able to keep the “temperature dial” down, as polo and khaki uniforms presented officers in a non-threatening manner during summer protests. She said the plexiglass barriers she has seen officers separate themselves from protesters with on T.V. run the risk of creating an adversarial relationship between residents, law enforcement and city government. 

“I don’t want riots — I don’t want to send a message that if you come into our city hall and want changes, whatever side of the aisle you might be on, that you're going to be met with the pendulum swinging so far the opposite direction a couple of months later on our agenda,” Petrone said. “I don’t know that I want to feel like … our neighborhood policing is ramping it up and ready to go to war with some people.”

Foster said his greatest concern derives from recent warnings from federal agencies regarding the possibility of a volatile response following Election Day. He said if things do turn violent, he wants his officers to feel safe when he sends them out to confront situations.

Mayor Breea Clark said based on hearing from the Norman Police Department, national responses and webinars she has attended through her mayoral network, Election Day is the next immediate threat for unrest. She said a flaw in the Chief’s argument that this equipment and training could be used to challenge potential Election Day violence is that it would not be available by Election Day to address potential violence. 

“If we can’t have the equipment by the next immediate threat, why would we tip the scales of a very delicate balance our city is trying to walk as we are re-imagining what policing can look like?” Clark said. “We have made some very hard choices to move us forward, and my concern is that this decision would set us back.” 

Ward 6 Councilmember Elizabeth Foreman, who has seven years of experience serving as the finance director for OU’s Health and Sciences Center campus police department, said her agency provided shields that are normally never used to its officers in the event they need them. Therefore, she said she sees this grant as providing equipment — not weapons. 

“I know a lot of people are very concerned that this seems like we’re militarizing the police, but I really see this as … (the provision of equipment),” Foreman said. “For me, this isn’t tear gas, this isn’t rubber bullets or anything like that — it’s not weapons.”

Ward 2 Councilmember Joe Carter — who was appointed to replace the recently deceased councilmember David Perry Tuesday night with a vote of 7-1 — said his position on Norman’s past Animal Welfare Oversight Committee allowed him the opportunity to get to know police chiefs across Oklahoma. He said he trusts the Norman Police Department to keep the community first and continue defusing situations. 

“I watched Chief Foster the night in June that went till four in the morning and how he quietly de-escalated the crowd, so I have a lot of confidence in our police officers,” Carter said. “We don’t want to have to call in out of town police to deal with a situation that’s escalating in our city — we want our Norman police officers doing that.” 

Responses from Norman residents surrounding this grant were varied — some were in full support while others were vehemently against the proposal. 

One Norman resident in favor of the grant said if the city government can give firemen fire trucks and provide them with safety equipment that police officers should also be equipped with proper safety gear. He said they deserve similar protections. 

An Oklahoma City native who was against the grant drew upon their experiences with police during a May 30 protest that transitioned from calm to chaos. They said they experienced violence from the officers as they were trying to address the crowd. 

“I was with my hands up, backing away from the line of shields approximately 20 feet off when an officer decided to shoot me in the knee,” they said. “As a trans person, I was scared to reach out for medical care as transphobia in medical environments is a serious issue. So I tied myself off with a paper towel and only after three hours decided to go to the ER — I could have bled out … I saw teenagers getting hit in the face with tear gas canisters. Young kids were out there and were just scared. I do not trust the Oklahoma City police to keep officers properly trained and your citizens in Norman safe.” 

Councilmember Bierman said tear gas and rubber bullets are not the only dangerous weapons in question as she has seen people she knows experience head injuries from shields. She said she thinks Norman should address local threats as they come, but the city is currently not in need of further protection.

“I have a friend in OKC who actually ended up distancing herself from her family because one of her family members was a police officer who was in OKC bragging about what was happening on May 30th and 31st,” Bierman said. “He said ‘This equipment makes you feel invincible — I felt like a soldier.’ The helmets and the shields all have a very militarized look to them, and I don’t feel that we have enough reassurance that the next time we have a protest it will not be used (in a violent manner).” 

Ward 7 Councilmember Stephen Holman said he is in full support of the data-based software and audio-visual equipment, but he has substantial concerns with Norman Police responding with this protective gear. He said violent situations very rarely experience de-escalation through additional violence, and although it might protect officers, its very presence runs the risk of fostering violent situations. 

“Our police department, over the years, has always been able to respond by listening and engaging with the people,” Holman said. “And I feel that in the current state of things responding to the public in a different way like this could definitely provide or present problems that we haven't had to deal with before.”

Ward 4 Councilmember Lee Hall echoed Holman’s sentiments by saying Norman has a reputation for having peaceful protests, which was demonstrated during the multitude of events held during the summer. She said the council needs to continue working toward de-escalation and maintaining control over the decisions the city makes. 

The meeting ended with an opposing 4-5 vote — Bierman, Petrone, Hall, Holman and Clark voted against the grant, while Carter, Foreman, Ward 5 Councilmember Michael Nash and Ward 8 Councilmember Matthew Peacock supported it. 

Clark said she felt the concerns she heard do not outweigh the benefits of $26,000 from the federal government during what she deemed to be the most volatile time in her lifetime. She said the council will continue discussions surrounding the addition of equipment and informational technology in future meetings.

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