Discredited Tulsa volunteer sheriff’s deputy program revived

An Oklahoma volunteer sheriff’s deputy program shut down after a member fatally shot an unarmed black man is back in business with tougher requirements, new Tulsa sheriff Vic Regalado said, although every one of the new reserves was in the old force that was riddled with cronyism and all but three are white in a city with fraught race relations.

The reserve program was shuttered at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office after 74-year-old volunteer Robert Bates said he mistakenly reached for his gun instead of a Taser and fatally shot Eric Harris during an illegal gun sales sting in April 2015. It quickly emerged that Bates was in no physical condition to be a reserve deputy, hadn’t been properly trained, was friends with then-Sheriff Stanley Glanz and appeared to leverage that relationship and his personal wealth as an insurance executive to wield considerable influence within the agency. Bates donated thousands of dollars in cash, cars and equipment, leading some critics to accuse him — as well as other wealthy reserve deputies — of “buying a badge.”

Glanz resigned after being indicted in part because of the Harris shooting, and a scathing report by an outside consultant in February recommended that the volunteer program be terminated and completely rebuilt. The report said many volunteers “feel they are exempt from or do not have to follow various policies because of who they are or who they are friends with in the agency.”

But Regalado, elected on a promise to reform the agency, opted not to shut it down completely, and recently announced it would be revived as a leaner version of its discredited predecessor.

All 40 of the new reserve force served under the previous sheriff, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. One of the new reserves, local aerospace executive T. Hastings Siegfried, contributed $2,300 to Regalado’s campaign, according to the sheriff’s campaign reports.

Harris family attorney Dan Smolen said the contribution sends the wrong message to citizens.

“Questions concerning at least one reserve deputy who contributed to Sheriff Regalado’s campaign raise the specter of cronyism once again,” Smolen said in a statement. “We are not convinced that sheriff Regalado has the leadership skills necessary to safely reinstate the program.”

Siegfried didn’t return a message seeking comment on the donation. A spokesman for the sheriff’s office, Justin Green, said Siegfried isn’t getting special attention because of the contribution and had to meet the same training criteria as other reserves.

Marq Lewis, a founder of We the People Oklahoma, an activist group that pushed for a grand jury investigation of the sheriff’s office after last year’s killing, said the new force is also lacking in diversity.

Of the 40 volunteers, two are black and one is Hispanic, according to Green. That is 8 percent of the program compared to a Tulsa County population that is roughly 12 percent Hispanic and 11 percent black, according to latest Census estimates.

“You have to be a reflection of your community. They don’t care about diversity. They just don’t care, period,” Lewis said.

Green said the reserves are volunteers and the agency can’t actively control its recruiting for those positions, but added it was possible it could enhance recruiting efforts of minorities.

“When the time comes, we can let you know what the strategy and the plan is,” Green said. Green said he couldn’t make available a demographic breakdown of the previous class of reserves, which numbered about 120 at the time of the Harris shooting, because most have left the program.

Even though Harris’ family said they believed race was not an issue in his shooting, it followed a long history of troubled race relations in Tulsa, dating to the city’s 1921 race riot that left about 300 black residents dead. As recently as 2013, a city council vote to rename the city’s glitzy arts district, which had been named after the son of a Confederate veteran and Ku Klux Klan member, drew vehement opposition.

Regalado has tightened management of the program: Reserves will no longer patrol alone — only with a sworn deputy; they will not serve on specialty units, such as SWAT, and all must meet physical fitness exams.

Volunteer police programs are in place across the country in part because they save money on overtime and save manpower of regular officers for tasks such as assisting with crime scene investigations, crowd control, extra security at state fairs or other events.

In Tulsa County, reserves wear similar uniforms to their sworn counterparts, carry firearms and are charged with performing some of the same duties when necessary, such as roadside safety checks, security for special events, prisoner transports and working jail shifts. Regalado estimated savings could equal at least $200,000 a year.

He also said the new program has enough teeth to be effective.

“Mistakes are made in law enforcement, but at the end of the day, it won’t be because (the reserves) were put out there untrained. It won’t because you can’t go back into a personnel file and see they didn’t have the documented training necessary to perform in that law enforcement capacity,” Regalado said. “Those are the things that worried me (under the old system).”

comments powered by Disqus