John Whitfield was just a mile or two away from his home in northeast Oklahoma City when he noticed police lights in his rear-view mirror during a spring night in 2016.
Whitfield, who is black, said he didn’t think he was speeding or had committed any other traffic infraction. He said he had gone to the store because he was out of soap.
“Initially, he didn’t tell me why he stopped me and just ordered me to get out and asked if I had a gun or anything in my car,” said Whitfield, who works as a caricature and graphic design artist. “It just didn’t make any sense. … If I wasn’t black, I don’t think this would happen to me.”
Whitfield was released 10 minutes later without a ticket. But he decided to file a racial profiling complaint against the Oklahoma City Police Department. His complaint was dismissed months later after an internal investigation did not substantiate there was racial profiling.
Whitfield’s complaint was one of 58 alleging racial profiling filed since 2008 with law enforcement agencies and processed through the state Attorney General’s Office or the now-defunct Oklahoma Human Rights Commission.
An Oklahoma Watch review of state reports found that every complaint was dismissed.
A spokesman for Attorney General Mike Hunter, whose office includes the Office of Civil Rights Enforcement, said he isn’t aware of a single officer ever being charged with racial profiling, a misdemeanor. A law that explicitly banned profiling by law enforcement officers was passed in 2000.
Civil rights groups and activists contend racial profiling remains a significant problem across the state, with numbers far exceeding the formal complaints. They attribute the incidents to both overt discrimination and implicit bias.
Law enforcement leaders say officers are given training and instructions to avoid racial profiling.
Spokesmen for Oklahoma City and Tulsa police departments both said that, along with body cameras, this made officers more conscientious of the law and how they make stops.
“I personally don’t see (racial profiling) as a problem, but I guess it depends on who you ask,” said Tulsa Police Department Public Information Officer Sgt. Shane Tuell. He said he’s not aware of a single substantiated case of racial profiling within the department in the 21 years he’s been on the force. “I think we’ve been a very progressive as a department and we offer people multiple ways to make a complaint … and each one of them is investigated thoroughly,” he said.
But it is difficult to measure the extent of racial profiling in Oklahoma.
Unlike many other states, Oklahoma does not require police to collect and publish statistics on race for traffic stops and searches. That data can be analyzed for patterns that indicate possible racial profiling. The state also leaves investigations of complaints solely up to law enforcement agencies that employ the accused officers; some states have special panels that review the incidents.
Civil rights leaders and the state chapters of the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations say if Oklahoma’s laws were stronger, more people would come forward with valid complaints. A lack of trust causes people not to report, they say.
“The system is unjust, and I believe it’s designed to be unjust,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., senior pastor of the predominantly black East Sixth Street Christian Church in Oklahoma City. “I think just about everyone in my congregation has a racial profiling story, but I don’t think many people make complaints because it is just part of the social fabric of our lives. We expect to be stopped and profiled for no reason.”
Limits on State Oversight
In a move to consolidate agencies and save money, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill in 2011 that dissolved the Human Rights Commission, which since the 1960s was charged with “removing friction, eliminating discrimination, and promoting unity and understanding among all the people of Oklahoma.”
The attorney general’s Office of Civil Rights Enforcement is in charge of overseeing the state’s anti-discrimination laws. But it was given no expanded powers in handling racial profiling complaints.
The office must have a process to receive citizens’ complaints but has no authority to investigate them or make sure internal police investigations were sufficient.
The unit forwards complaints to law enforcement agencies for investigation, waits for the results and publishes the findings in an annual report that’s submitted to the Legislature and the governor. If a citizen complains directly to a police agency, the agency investigates but doesn’t report the result to the state.
Amy Gioletti, a staff attorney with the Oklahoma ACLU, said allowing police or sheriffs’ departments to investigate their own officers creates at least a perception that the process isn’t impartial.
“Why would someone even want to make a complaint when they know that the department they are complaining about is going to be doing the investigating?” she said. “Quite frankly, the state law is terrible, and the process is terrible.”
Gioletti said assigning an independent body, or even the AG’s office, to investigate would add credibility and likely prompt more people to come forward.
Oklahoma NAACP Conference President Anthony Douglas said he wants the Legislature to restore the Human Rights Commission and give it the power to investigate complaints.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t trust the attorney general’s office since when you look at the people there,” he said, noting the political nature of the office. “It’s lawyers wanting to protect the state and not the constituents.”
Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for Attorney General Hunter, said the office’s hands are tied unless lawmakers direct them to investigate complaints.
But the chances of that happening soon appear slim.
Creating a new independent group to investigate complaints or giving that authority to the AG’s office would likely cost money for investigative staff. Some lawmakers are also reluctant to take that responsibility away from local law enforcement agencies.
These and other issues doomed a legislative proposal last year that would have required the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to investigate police-involved shootings for police or sheriff departments in communities with 150,000 or fewer residents.
Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, who co-sponsored the bill, said his main focus now is to make sure it’s easy to file a complaint and that data can be collected to track possible racial profiling.
A Scarcity of Data
Matthews said he believes he had been racially profiled and pulled over while driving in Tulsa before he became a lawmaker. He said he routinely hears stories of racial profiling from friends and family.
Proving intent can be difficult, he said, but even a large number of unsubstantiated complaints can signal a problem.
“Once we get them documented, we can show what is going on,” he said.
But reaching Matthew’s goal will be a challenge.
The attorney general’s annual racial profiling report is an incomplete picture of profiling complaints in Oklahoma. That’s because state law doesn’t require law enforcement agencies to report complaints made directly to them. The only way to track the incidents is to request copies and the results from hundreds of police and sheriffs’ departments.
Proposals to collect data on police stops also have foundered.
According to a 2014 NAACP report, at least 18 states have passed laws requiring law enforcement groups to collect race, gender, age or other details for traffic stops and searches.
An Oklahoma legislative proposal of that kind was rejected in 2001, the last time lawmakers took up such a bill.
Oklahoma Watch submitted open records requests to the attorney general’s office and police and sheriff departments seeking documents for all 12 racial-profiling complaints filed with the attorney general in 2017. In all cases, the AG’s office and the law enforcement agencies denied the requests, citing investigatory or personnel exemptions under the state’s Open Records Act.
In past years, the AG’s annual report named only the law enforcement group accused of racial profiling, the complainant’s name and the status of the case.
Thanks to legislation passed last year, the report no longer includes complainants’ names. Rep. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, and Matthews sponsored the bill with the intent of protecting complainants from reprisals.
Gioletti, of the ACLU, suggested letting the complainants choose to make their names public. She said the attorney general and law enforcement groups should make public as many details as possible public, including in cases where officers are cleared.
Jackson, the Oklahoma City pastor, said he has been pulled over by officers a number of times in which he believes racial profiling was a factor.
But one that returns to his thoughts is an incident 14 years ago on Easter Sunday, when on his way to church while wearing his clergy collar, he saw an officer quickly make a U-turn as they passed each other.
Jackson said he wasn’t speeding and couldn’t think of any traffic violation that would warrant a stop. The officer, Jackson said, shined his light through Jackson’s vehicle and questioned him extensively before letting him go without a ticket.
Jackson said he hears similar stories frequently from members of his congregation and the community.
“It is literally laughable,” he said when told that every profiling complaint filed with the attorney general had been dismissed. “For those that are involved with social justice issues here in Oklahoma, that is just really very hard to believe.”
Veronica Laizure, civil rights director with Oklahoma’s Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the issue also extends to Muslim Americans and other minority groups.
Since 9/11, she said, her group has noticed an uptick of complaints of racial profiling by police, especially for Muslim women, who often are noticed when driving while wearing a hijab. She said it is hard to believe that police rarely corroborate claims of racial profiling.
“I just don’t think that this is how things are playing out,” she said. “But I do think it’s indicative of how police believe things are playing out.”
Laizure credited the Oklahoma City Police Department for holding training sessions, which she participated in, that focused on identifying and dealing with implicit biases. She hopes small law enforcement groups around the state follow suit or the state makes similar training mandatory.
“I would love this be a statewide program,” she said.
Oklahoma City Police Department spokesman Bo Mathews said the department takes racial profiling complaints seriously and stresses training, including implicit biases workshops, for its officers.
Complaints, he said, are thoroughly investigated by the department’s internal affairs unit and the results work their way up to the chief of police, who makes the final determination.
Mathews said body cams have become a useful tool in proving or dismissing claims that police stopped someone without proper cause.
“That has changed things a lot,” he said.