As the Norman Police Department is preparing to face the possibility of violence on election day, it sought approval from the City Council Tuesday night to accept a $26,226 grant to help replace outdated protection equipment.
The grant provided for “crowd management equipment, software, and audio visual equipment,” according to a city staff report. Gear for crowd control would include padded clothing, helmets and plastic shields, NPD Chief Kevin Foster said. If accepted, the equipment and training would be provided “by election day.”
Warnings from federal authorities about election day violence prompted the need for the equipment, Foster said. Mayor Breea Clark said she also has heard similar alarms from other mayors during conference calls.
“As you all know, I’m involved in a variety of mayors’ networks,” Clark said. “All of them have hosted multiple webinars on preparing for potential violence and riots in and around election day. So, I asked if this is normal, because I have clearly never been mayor during a presidential election year. My perspective and the training we’re receiving is that it seems very unique.”
Ward 3 Alison Petrone asked if the equipment appeared to be riot gear similar to those seen on news coverage in cities that have experienced violence. She said was concerned that riot-like gear creates an “adversarial” presence and poses an “imbalance of power” while people are expressing their constitutional rights.
Ward 1 Kate Bierman said she was concerned the grant sent the wrong message, that “basically indicates violence happening elsewhere means we need to be prepared for violence here,” which she said is a different perspective than what the council has tried to bring.
Both councilors said they believed that protests in Norman have been peaceful because officers have not responded in a militaristic way.
Foster said the threat of violence does not come from protests alone and that crowds are only a threat when they turn violent.
Some councilors did not believe they had enough information about the “strings attached” to the federal government upon acceptance of the grant.
Citizens spoke up that the grant was unnecessary and would incite violence. Others called it a “militia move” or a grant that would militarize the police department.
Michael Blond in Ward 4 said he marched in a peaceful protest in eastern Oklahoma City but that the presence of the “[Oklahoma Highway Patrol], police and how they handled that” raised tension.
John, whose last name was inaudible, said he supported accepting the grant to “protect the officers from rocks and bricks.”
Several other residents also spoke in support to do “what they need to keep a civil society,” one said.
Ann Gallagher wondered if the city would use firetrucks to protect citizens from danger, “why wouldn’t you have safety equipment for police officers to protect lives and property?”
At least two people who asked the council to vote no were not residents of Norman and described their experiences with protests in Oklahoma City.
Mayor Breea Clark said during a difficult time as the council is attempting to “reimagine” policing, she did not believe the grant would be helpful.
“My concern is that this equipment isn’t going to move our community forward,” Clark said. “Not today. Maybe in 2019, maybe in 2021. Right here, right now, in this moment? I don’t think it’s worth $26,000 to move our community backward.”
The motion to accept the grant failed to pass 4-5 with Clark, Petrone, Bierman, Ward 4 Lee Hall, and Ward 7 Stephen Holman voting no.
Other police business was on the table, but it was on the consent agenda. The item was a contract with Axom Enterprise to replace outdated taser equipment. The $27,300 would be paid for with asset forfeiture funds. Holman voted no against the entire consent docket because of the item.
“I personally did not want to see seizure fund items on the consent docket ever again, and I really don’t want to see it on the city council ever again,” Holman said. “I think that’s something the council needs to continue having discussions about.”
The vacancy for Ward 2 was filled by appointment of the council after members previously declined a selection committee’s recommendation.
Former Ward 2 Councilman Joe Carter was appointed to the seat as an interim with Ward 5 Michael Nash voting no. Nash took exception to the appointment because he said Carter had been absent or tardy to 36 out of 99 meetings between Jan. 8, 2019, to June 23, 2020. Carter replied that he had experienced two deaths in his family, exposure to COVID-19 and other circumstances.
City spokeswoman Annahlyse Meyer said Carter will serve until a special election in February for the seat according to the City Charter. The appointment is subject to a special election, according to the charter.
“Article II, Section 22 says any vacancy occurring shall be filled by Council for a period extending until the next regular municipal election, at which time an election shall be held to fill any balance of the unexpired term,” City Attorney Kathryn Walker said. “If the council didn’t fill the vacancy within 60 days, they would be required to set a special election for filling the vacancy instead of using the regular election date.”
Mindy Ragan Wood