Culture & the Family

Citing ‘systemic racism,’ Democrats unveil police reform agenda

June 10, 2020

Ray Carter

Oklahoma House Democrats called Wednesday for creation of a new state entity to investigate complaints against local police, a new statewide registry of police who resign from office, and a citizens’ panel that will review law-enforcement standards.

Democrats stressed those proposals are just a starting point for legal changes that will be sought in response to complaints of “systemic” racism, and predicted House Republicans will support many of their proposals.

“We do have a system that is fundamentally flawed and desperately needs to change,” said Rep. Monroe Nichols, a black Democrat from Tulsa, who said his father and uncle are police officers in Houston and Dallas, respectively.

He said increased state oversight of police officers complements recent criminal-justice reform efforts that have been endorsed by Oklahoma voters that reduced penalties for various drug and theft crimes.

The police proposals, which Nichols dubbed “March for Reform,” include creation of a state “office of independent monitor” within the office of the state attorney general, additional citizen oversight through the creation of a “state law enforcement standards and training task force,” and creation of a state registry that will highlight all officers who “have either resigned or been dismissed due to disciplinary actions or internal investigations.” Nichols said the registry will prevent police who abuse their power from obtaining subsequent employment as officers on other police forces or at state law enforcement entities.

“These are not only necessary reforms, but they represent a new standard of practice and critical steps that Oklahoma must take to protect citizens and restore faith and trust in law enforcement,” Nichols said.

Nichols said he and a Republican lawmaker have requested a legislative study on his proposals.

Nichols also predicted his proposals would be embraced by House Republicans.

“The ground has shifted on these issues quite a bit,” he said.

Although Democrats currently hold just 23 of the 101 seats in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, they have wielded considerable sway in that chamber in recent years, advancing many of their major priorities. House Republicans substantially deferred to House Democrats in drafting massive tax increases in 2018, and during the 2020 session House Republicans held a joint press conference with House Democrats to tout passage of an unfunded increase in retirement benefits for retired state government workers. The pension raid, which increased Oklahoma government’s unfunded liabilities by hundreds of millions and reduced the financial stability of state pension plans, has been a longtime goal of House Democrats. This year House Republicans also supported Democratic legislation to mandate implicit bias training for Oklahoma health care workers.

Democrats said additional measures will likely be pursued to address what they consider “systemic racism.”

“The reforms that I am sharing today, I consider them to be a first-start set of reforms,” Nichols said. “They represent foundational pieces for what I believe should be a new normal in law enforcement across the state.”

“We see this as a starting point, and so we are going to be having some conversations not just with this list, but taking this and talking to the entire caucus about what we want to see in terms of police reform and racial-equity policies for the next session,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “I think that, of course, these are great reforms within the police, but this problem is also one that we want to look at from a number of angles.”

She said increased state spending on mental health agencies will likely be part of the agenda, and policies may also be proposed impacting education and broader health care. Democrats indicated expansion of Oklahoma’s Medicaid program is also a needed response to racism.

“It feels that people are waking up about the systematic disparities and the systemic racism that is built into many of the systems that we have in place not just in Oklahoma, but in our nation,” Virgin said. “And so we’ll be having, as a caucus, a much larger conversation that of course encompasses these ideas but expands beyond them.”