It was a decision that Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum called “one of the most important” he could make during his tenure: appointing the next chief of the Tulsa Police. The department has been beleaguered with claims of racism since long before the high-profile 2016 killing of Terence Crutcher at the hands of then-Tulsa, Okla., cop Betty Shelby. Late last year, those claims appeared to be confirmed by a report from Human Rights Watch, which found evidence of racial bias in Tulsa PD’s policing.
“This report is, in many respects, a case study of abusive, overly aggressive policing in the US,” it read.
So criminal justice advocates were eager to work with the mayor to ensure that the new police chief marked a truly fresh start for the city, which has been looking to build its international profile and address the roots of its longstanding racial tensions.
This week, Bynum announced Tulsa’s new top cop, Major Wendell Franklin, making him the first black police chief of the Oklahoma city. Far from the dawn of a new era, however, reform-minded activists say Franklin is a disappointing choice—a longtime vet of the department who will ensure more of the same in a city where black people are arrested at least twice as often as white residents.
Among those expressing disappointment in the new chief of police was Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, Terence Crutcher’s twin sister and founder of the Terence Crutcher Foundation.
“Mayor Bynum and the newly appointed chief, Wendell Franklin, stated they don’t believe racially biased policing exists within Tulsa’s police department, which means they don’t believe their very own data from the Equality Report the City released, stating blacks in Tulsa are five times more likely to be victims of use of force,” she told The Root via email.
“When my twin brother Terence was killed by officer Betty Shelby, another Tulsa Police officer in a helicopter that flew over the scene stated that he looked like a ‘bad dude’. All he could see was that he was a black man,” she continued. “So for the top two officials we entrust with our lives to not acknowledge that race is an issue within [Tulsa’s] police department is quite disturbing to me and my family.”
In Greenwood, the neighborhood where the 1921 Tulsa Massacre occurred, residents complained about being shut out of the process. In an interview with KTUL, Kristi Williams of JustTulsa was even more dismissive of the Mayor’s choice.
“Now I guess you just want to put a black police chief as if he’s Bass Reeves, to say ‘Hey, we’ve changed,’” Williams said, referencing the trailblazing black law enforcement officer. “We have not changed, this is lipstick on a pig. Enough is enough.”
The anger around Bynum’s choice stems in large part from the way the search process was conducted. Crutcher and other community advocates repeatedly asked the mayor for a transparent, inclusive, nationwide search process for the new police chief. They don’t believe they received one.
Earlier this month, a group of black elected officials comprising Oklahoma state representatives Regina Goodwin, Monroe Nichols, Kevin Matthews and Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper carefully laid out a list of specific recommendations for the mayor. They wanted all internal candidates to hold public forums. Not only would this allow Tulsans to vet the potential chiefs, they said it would give the mayor the added benefit of observing “how each candidate receives scrutiny and responds to public accountability.”
Further, residents should be part of a search committee that narrows down the candidate pool, so those “most adversely affected and directly impacted by disparate policing” could shape the search itself. In that vein, the letter also asked for a chief who could shift the Tulsa police department “from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality” by committing to de-escalation as a primary approach to law enforcement, as well as addressing racial disparities in policing.
The black elected officials expressed skepticism that a candidate who meets these criteria could be found without doing a nationwide search.
The letter also folded in a request for the mayor to cancel the city’s contract with Live PD—A&E’s version of the controversial hit TV show, Cops.
“Tulsans will not allow their black, brown and poor communities to be reduced to a spectacle for public entertainment,” the black lawmakers wrote.
Tellingly, the letter was presented to Bynum during a meeting about Tulsa’s mass graves—a symbolic move meant to play to the mayor’s stated commitment toward racial healing in the city.
“The community’s trust in the next chief will be shaped by how they earn the job: if Tulsans do not trust the hiring process, they will not trust the outcome,” they warned in the letter.
Bynum, however, didn’t appear to search outside of Tulsa PD, recommending four candidates from within the department. Panel interviews with the candidates were closed off to the public, who were instead given an informal reception to try and speak to the potential chiefs. Bynum ultimately selected the sole black person in the running, Franklin.
Franklin, who hails from North Tulsa, a historically black section of the city, said his background has shaped his views on policing, and that he is “intentional” in his outreach as a police officer.
“I am fearful but because I don’t want to mess up,” Franklin said about the new position. “I know what the expectations are and I know I won’t be able to meet everyone’s expectations, but you know I want to move our department forward.”
But some black Tulsans are concerned about Franklin’s record when it comes to addressing racism on the police force. Referring in 2003 to a discrimination lawsuit filed by black police officers in 1994, Franklin denied that he ever experienced or witnessed racial bias within the department.
“(Franklin) is on record as being against the lawsuit brought by black officers,” Gregory Robinson II, director of family and community ownership at the Met Cares Foundation, told Tulsa World. “We want to see if he would renounce that position.”
At a community policing forum held last Friday, Franklin also defended police use of force.
“There are evil people out there and we touch them on a daily basis,” he said.“And some of us have a difficult time enduring, some of us stumble, some of us fall, we fall under the weight of applying the words that are written on paper, applying those words sometimes with force.”
And just as concerning to police reform advocates, Franklin spoke in support of Live PD upon his promotion—casting further doubt that the city’s contract with the show will be canceled.
“Where else can I for free as a chief of police, show transparency? Where else can I showcase the work of what TPD is doing on a national stage?”
Underlying the disappointment in Franklin’s selection is the sense that Bynum cast him in the position for the optics: the city’s first black police chief, a homegrown hero coming into one of the most powerful positions in Tulsa as it approaches the 100-year anniversary of the destruction of Black Wall Street.
“It is intellectually dishonest and disingenuous to believe a black chief alone can eliminate racism from a police department, just like it was naive to assume merely having a black president would eliminate racism from America,” said Dr. Robert Turner, Pastor of Historic Vernon AME Church. “It would help if the new black police chief would even admit that TPD has a problem with racism, something he has yet to do.”
Mayor Bynum categorically denies that race played into his decision-making.
“Chief Franklin was hired because he is the best leader for the Tulsa Police Department moving forward,” the mayor told The Root in a statement. “He is a 23-year veteran of the Department who has a demonstrated personal commitment to community policing, he is passionate about innovation, and he is known as a strong team builder who sets high expectations and holds the team accountable.
“Attempts by some to characterize his selection as having anything to do with his race do a real disservice to a career of hard work and service to our community,” Bynum continued. “He earned this opportunity on his own merits, and he will be a great Chief of Police.”
Bynum has been greatly concerned with repairing Tulsa’s reputation during his tenure—and addressing the city’s traumatic racial history has been part of that. Among his most well-known initiatives is his commitment to uncovering the sites where hundreds of black Tulsans were buried during the 1921 massacre, widely regarded as the worst event of racial violence in U.S. history.
But on top of reconciling with the ghosts of Tulsa’s past, Bynum had a chance to ensure a fairer, juster and more equitable future for black Tulsans, says Tiffany Crutcher. His failure to hire a progressive, reform-minded chief signals a hollow commitment to racial reconciliation in the city.
“Tulsa does not need another symbolic gesture that emits the image of resolving racial tensions,” Crutcher said. “Tulsa needs tangible and radical reform of its police department, and a police chief whose career has demonstrated a willingness and ability to implement the policies necessary to accomplish it.”