In light of recent national and local events involving confrontations with police and residents, the Norman Police Department and the people it protects recognize there is a gap that needs to be bridged.
“[The Norman Police Department] is very special in that they are willing to have open dialogue,” University of Oklahoma student Madison Lovell said. “It shows that they are trying to improve community policing.”
Lovell is a member of the advocacy group Norman Citizens for Racial Justice, in addition to other organizations like the Xenia Institute for Social Justice, that has hosted multiple dialogues to improve community-police relations during a time when it’s severely strained.
These open dialogue sessions have discussed a range of topics, including school safety and harassment, as well mental health, which was discussed at an event Thursday featuring University of Toledo economics professor Gbenga Ajilore.
Several department representatives have attended the discussions, and Thursday was no different.
Norman Police Capt. Eric Lehenbauer and retired Sgt. John Stege, who is now the department’s police standards administrator —overseeing police policies, department accreditation, writing grants and projects identified by the police chief — attended the session seeking community feedback.
Lehenbauer said before going out on the streets, officers go through a strenuous 26-week academy, where 200 hours is devoted to use of force training including firearms, defensive tactics, use of force decision making, de-escalation training and handling suicidal subjects.
After finishing the academy, each commissioned officer is required to complete 30 hours of in-service training every year.
Despite the amount of training each Norman officer receives, Lehenbauer and Stege recognized that interacting with mentally ill residents presents a unique challenge.
“We are trying to be proactive with mental health training,” Stege said.
Ajilore said police and gun culture, as well as the so-called “cult of compliance,” or where an authority figure gives demands and expects immediate compliance from subjects, create mental health barriers.
“People who suffer from mental illness may not be able to comply with officers’ demands, and that’s one main reason why most of these police shootings occur,” Ajilore said.
About three months into this year, there were two occurrences where Norman police found themselves in a situation dealing with someone who appeared to suffer from mental illness.
In February, Marconia Kessee, a homeless man, was examined, released by Norman Regional Hospital personnel, dragged off hospital grounds by Norman police and found dead two hours later in a Cleveland County jail cell.
At this point, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Oklahoma City hasn’t released a cause of death for Kessee.
More than a month later, Lt. Clay Bolin and officer Chris Allison shot Ronnie Lewis Miller III, 31, of Norman, while initiating a welfare check.
District Attorney Greg Mashburn determined the use of force used by Bolin and Allison was justified. The two officers have since been released from administrative assignment and are back to work.
The latest update on Miller said he was “in critical but stable condition under the care of OU Medical personnel.”
Despite those unfortunate incidents, Ajilore said Norman is on the right track and is in a better place than most cities.
“[NPD] has taken a big step forward with its utilization of an open data portal,” he said. “This is one of those first steps in figuring out what is happening [between police and residents] and how to fix it.”
In 2016, the Norman Police Department became the first, and to this point, the only, police department in Oklahoma to participate in the Police Data Initiative.
Data including complaints made against the department, whether those by residents or within the department, and reports regarding use of force are kept in the portal.
NPD recently released its 2017 use of force statistics, which reveal 83 occurrences where use of force was used, 72 of which resulted in residents going to the hospital. This includes verbal, physical and a combination of the two.
One of those occurrences where lethal force was used was in February when Norman Officer Joshua Hard shot Marc David Watson, 38, in the Cleveland County Habitat for Humanity ReStore parking lot, following a home burglary and short pursuit.
Watson later fully-recovered and pleaded guilty to charges surrounding the incident.
The charges were attempted first-degree burglary, second-degree burglary, possession of a firearm after former felony conviction, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony and possession of burglary tools. He is serving a 10-year prison sentence.
In 2016, there were 59 occurrences where use of force was used, and 10 resulted in residents going to the hospital.
Norman Public Information Officer Sarah Jensen said there were no officer-involved shootings in 2016. She said the last time Norman had an officer-involved shooting before the one that occurred at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore was Nov. 15, 2015.