Over a four-year period, Oklahoma’s two largest police departments and two state agencies received about 60 complaints alleging unlawful racial profiling by officers.
Investigators substantiated none of the allegations, according to data obtained by Oklahoma Watch.
All of the complaints were probed by the law enforcement agencies against whom the complaints were filed, but investigators found insufficient evidence that officers had treated the person differently because of race or ethnicity.
The absence of any finding of profiling contrasts with assertions by many blacks that police detain, arrest, follow or frisk them for little or no reason except their race.
“If it’s a black person and they (officers) see you walking, they’re going to pick at you,” said Daran Steele, who recounted how two officers, saying they had a complaint, stopped and frisked him in his northeast Oklahoma City neighborhood in 2013, then let him go. Steele is black. “Now, if it’s a white person, they aren’t really going to mess with them. A person like me, yeah, they figure I’m up to no good.”
Steele, pastor of New Union Baptist Church, did not file a complaint.
Law enforcement officials train officers not to engage in racial profiling, which is a violation of both federal and Oklahoma laws. Under state law, racial profiling is a misdemeanor and “means the detention, interdiction or other disparate treatment of an individual solely on the basis of the racial or ethnic status of such individual.”
In this video from a special project, "Talk With Us," Oklahoma City resident Daran Steele alleges he was harassed by police officers.
Oklahoma City Police Department Chief William Citty said the reasons are complicated as to why there are no substantiated reports of police racial profiling.
“Bias-based complaints are difficult to prove. Most of them are merely ‘the officer stopped me because of my race,’” Citty said. “Unless the officer says something to the complainant to indicate the stop is racially motivated, then they are hard to prove, because the officer will usually have a justified legal reason for the contact.”
Oklahoma City Police spokesman Paco Balderrama's response after viewing the video of Daran Steele, above.
Filing of Complaints
From 2011 to 2014, a total of 62 complaints alleging racial profiling were filed with the Oklahoma City and Tulsa police departments and either the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office or the now-defunct state Human Rights Commission, both of which handled bias complaints, the agencies reported. All but three complaints were unsubstantiated; those three were listed as “pending” in annual reports.
Outside of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, complaints were made against police departments in Edmond, Del City, Hugo and the McLoud Kickapoo Tribal Police, and sheriff’s offices in Texas, Logan, Payne and Wagoner counties, as well as the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and other agencies.
Until 2012, profiling complaints could be made to the Human Rights Commission. After the commission was abolished, the complaints were taken by the civil rights division of the Attorney General’s Office. Profiling allegations are referred for investigation to the law enforcement agency named in the complaint, and that agency must report its findings to the attorney general.
The circumstances of profiling complaints lodged against the Oklahoma City and Tulsa police departments and other agencies are unclear, because authorities refuse to release the records or did not respond. Oklahoma Watch sought copies of the complaints and findings, but Oklahoma City police said the records are confidential because they involve a personnel investigation; the Attorney General’s Office cited an exemption in the Open Records Act for its investigative reports. The Tulsa Police Department did not give a reason.
Tulsa Police Capt. Cathy Reynolds, of the internal affairs division, said profiling complaints can be filed online and anonymously. All cases are investigated, whether the complaint originates from internal or external sources.
"Either way, we're going to look at them and investigate them the same way," Reynolds said.
“We look at them on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “There isn’t a yard stick we use on our investigations that they would have to meet (criteria) X, Y, Z. It’s all individual.”
A Streetside Frisk
Steele said when police stopped him while he walking in his neighborhood near N.W. 23rd St., officers told him they had received a complaint that he was selling drugs, which he denied.
The officers also said he looked like a gangster because of the hoodie and stocking cap he wore, Steele said. The red hoodie had “Sooners” on the front. Steele said he often dresses in warm clothing because of a health condition.
Steele says they told him to place his hands on the hood of the patrol car and asked if he had drugs or a weapon on him. “I told him, ‘No sir, I don’t.’ And then he told me to shut up. ‘Shut your mouth, we got this,’” Steele recalled. The officers frisked him, didn’t find anything and left.
Steele said he has no criminal convictions. Oklahoma court records do not show he has a felony conviction. Steele said police had never harassed him before, but that time he felt they targeted him because he’s black.
Steele said he was unaware he could have filed complaint with police. He said most people probably don’t complain because they’re afraid of potential consequences.
NAACP Oklahoma President Anthony Douglas compared the fear of filing a racial-profiling complaint with the fear of filing a sexual-assault complaint felt by victims of former Oklahoma City Police Officer Daniel Holtzclaw. Holtzclaw was convicted Thursday of 18 counts, including rape.
“How are you going to complain against the same officers who abuse you?” Douglas said.
Brady Henderson, legal director for ACLU Oklahoma, said his office also receives racial profiling complaints. He said he believes the number of incidents is likely higher than the number of filed complaints reflects.
"Because they don’t feel there is any relief there, they don’t feel like they’ll have much chance of getting a better result," Henderson said. "And because they do fear potential retaliation, I think there are a lot of people who really don’t report it to the police.”
However, Oklahoma City Police Capt. Bo Matthews, of the internal affairs division, said the numbers of complaints filed shows people are willing to come forward.
“The numbers reflect citizens feel secure in reaching out to our police department to report biased-based incidents,” Matthews said.
‘Very Hard to Confirm’
Henderson said proving that race was the sole reason for a traffic stop or other contact, as state law requires, is difficult to prove, even if that was indeed the case.
“It’s very, very hard to confirm these things without some pretty specific evidence," Henderson said.
“Effectively, what they’ve got to prove after the fact speaks to the subjective intent of that officer. “All (an officer) really has to do is come up with some other reason and say, ‘No, it was this.’”
Citty, the Oklahoma City police chief, said new technology being used by police, such as body cameras, would probably reduce the number of biased-based complaints.
“Simply having video footage of what actually took place in any given event,” Citty said, “will more resolutely determine if there was a policy violation or not.”