The City of Norman is considering reinstatement of nine police positions — which would transition into its community outreach division — that were cut following an $865,000 decrease to the department’s proposed budget increase in June 2020.
The consideration comes at the request of Norman Police Department Chief Kevin Foster and Captain Stacey Clements. Both cited an 11 percent increase in Part 1 crimes and larceny, a 19 percent increase in aggravated assaults and a 50 percent increase in stolen cars in 2021, as of Sept. 1. The department also noted that 2020 was the deadliest year for vehicle accidents resulting in serious injuries or death in decades.
The original nine positions were one master police officer from Staff Services, one master police officer and one sergeant from Criminal Investigations, two police officers and two master police officers from Patrol, and one master police officer and one sergeant from Special Investigations. Seven of the positions were vacant in 2020 because the department did not hold a police academy that year.
Norman City Manager Darrel Pyle said during an Oct. 19 study session that council would have to wait until the next fiscal year to add these positions, as applications for the NPD’s police academy are closed for the year.
Following the confirmation of the City of Norman’s 2020 budget, Ward 7 councilmember Stephen Holman said council voted in response to the public, which had an “overall desire” to implement an alternative policing response for mental health crises. Now, since the nature of the positions is being reconsidered, Holman said he feels it is worth reevaluating the budget to see if there is room for the addition of nine positions to NPD's community outreach division.
The community division would require officers to communicate with Norman citizens directly and evaluate data instead of focusing on making contact with community members, Holman said. He believes having a division dedicated to creating community relationships could encourage policing that individuals who have and haven't had poor interactions with officers can support.
“Having the police department willing to listen to those concerns and problems that people have brought up and making an attempt structurally in how the department operates to try to address those, I think, is going in the right direction. I think that's what we all wanted,” Holman said.
Proactive policing is not always the answer, Holman said. Despite the presence of patrol cars parked in the driveways of Ward 7’s suburban neighborhoods, the ward still faces challenges with car break-ins.
“As I mentioned (last) Tuesday (during a council study session), one officer that lived there told me he's come out before and found a beer can on his patrol car,” Holman said. “The presence of a police car, or even the police officers themselves don't always deter crime.”
COVID-19 decreased officers' ability to physically respond to calls, resulting in a limitation of their services to high priority calls, Holman said. This explains some of the burdens NPD is facing, as most of Norman’s priority calls materialize in traffic issues and accidents. If officers dedicate the majority of their time to addressing these calls, it doesn’t leave much time for community outreach, he said.
Holman, who voted for the decrease to the NPD’s proposed budget increase, said much has changed since the 2020 vote regarding community access to mental health resources. He said he thinks Norman will experience expanded access to these resources following the federal government’s implementation of a 988 dialing linked to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The three-digit number, which will formally launch in July 2022, will serve as an immediate emotional support and crisis counseling contact to help U.S. citizens in mental health crises. Holman said this number would redirect some of the mental health calls NPD gets and “ideally” take some of the pressure off of the department.
The pandemic further exacerbated issues related to Norman’s response to its homeless populations, as most of the responsibility lay with the NPD. As Oklahoma City’s population grew about 12.9 percent in the last 10 years, Holman said it makes sense that homeless individuals flocked to suburban areas like Norman, where it is “safer to be homeless.”
While community resource fridges on E. Main Street and W. Lindsey Street were present, Norman’s homeless population also became more visible, as they benefited from 24/7 access to resources. This increased calls to the department, which were often related to mental health crises.
Holman said these individuals should not be prohibited from existing. He expects the 988 number and implementation of a recently approved unarmed, non-police crisis program will decrease the criminalization of the population, allow them to get connected to resources and open opportunities for officers to focus on other calls.
“If there's areas where the police are going to respond to a call that doesn't necessarily need a police officer, but they're having to because they're the only option, then it seems like it would be logical and reasonable that we would be supportive of a program that helps reduce that responsibility,” Holman said.
Although Holman feels the 988 number and crisis program are effective solutions, Ward 6 councilmember Elizabeth Foreman said she considers the issue through the perspective of a former finance director for OU’s Health and Sciences Center campus police department and councilmember who wasn’t present for the initial vote on the city’s 2020 budget.
Foreman said she felt the original allocations of $235,000 toward the internal audit function and about $630,000 to community services was “obscure” and “sloppy accounting.” She also worried about the $865,000 decrease to the proposed increase because Norman, the third-largest city in the state, has struggled with police response times. She cited Ward 5 as an example, which she said experiences 15-20 minute wait times.
“I don't feel that it was thought out. It was 3 o'clock in the morning. What do you do,” Foreman said. “So, when it comes to refunding and all that, (I'm) totally in favor of doing whatever we need to do to keep the public safe. But, before we make any move, we hastily went into making that decision — excluding me because I wasn’t elected yet — let’s not hastily back out of it.”
To fund the positions, Foreman proposed the city turn to the public and seek their approval for an increase in public safety sales taxes during the Oct. 19 study session. Pyle said during the session that the sales tax is currently operating in a deficit after the city paid $15 million upfront to replace the City Emergency Communication System. He estimated the debt service will be paid in full by 2027.
Norman’s government lives paycheck to paycheck, Foreman said. She feels a decision of this magnitude should require public opinion and a public safety study to fully understand what the department requires and the public desires.
“We couldn't afford them in the first place,” Foreman said. "We can't afford it. We just cannot afford it. I'm happy to give it back, but we have to pay for it somehow.”
If the city conducted a public safety study, Foreman said council could approve a third-party external source to contextualize Norman’s population size and determine how many officers the city needs. She also said this could fulfill Foster’s request to reevaluate officers’ salaries, as the external source could compare NPD salaries to officers in other college towns.
“The chief did talk about (how) we need to pay them more, and I do not disagree with that at all,” Foreman said. “But, in order to do that, we have to stick it out and let someone figure this out for us so we can justify whatever decision that we make.”
Regarding the future of Norman’s response to mental health crises, Foreman said she has the “unpopular opinion” on the council, as she doesn’t want to see officers put in positions where they can’t protect themselves. She said she doesn’t think the public will lean into the 988 number, as de-escalation “is more difficult than (most) think.”
Foreman, who used to be a nurse, said if someone is having an episode, it takes a lot to walk them back. If they’re in immense distress, they don't think about “their safety or others'.” She sees a solution in plain clothes uniforms, like those worn by the Crisis Intervention Team in Austin, TX, which allow officers to respond in a less intimidating manner.
“Every single one of those calls is completely different,” Foreman said. “It might start as something, but then it winds up being something else. … You don’t know what you’re walking into. The calls that do come into dispatch are usually much different when the cop gets dispatched and arrives on the scene. So, I wouldn’t say that (the 988 number) would eliminate anything, because it won’t. It really just won’t. That’s the world we live in, and it’s really unfortunate.”
Ultimately, Foreman said she feels it is incumbent on the police department to demonstrate good faith measures to gain the complete trust of their community. She said she is ready to see the boiling pot of Norman politics taken off the burner, allowing community members and NPD alike to “lower their swords” and “hear each other out.”
“I think (both sides) can come to a good solution. … I’m optimistic,” Foreman said. “I think if we could do a study and then determine that and keep moving forward and see how that's going to look for our community, I think we can come to a really healthy balance. But, it will not be because of anything council does. There's nothing we could do that would make anyone feel better. I wish I could, but we can't do it.”