TULSA, Okla. – Racial profiling by law enforcement still exists according to testimonies by Native Americans Sept. 30 before Amnesty International USA at the Greenwood Cultural Center.
The hearings, designed by the Domestic Human Rights Program, are intended to collect new data on the possible “ineffectiveness of law enforcement policies that focus on race or ethnicity.”
AIUSA heard from victims of racial profiling from Native American, African American, and Islamic communities in Oklahoma. Direct testimony, face-to-face, is a key component to AIUSA’s national series of public hearings on racial profiling.
“From my position, the threat and humiliation of racial profiling appears to be an everyday experience for the Oklahoma Indian. And if the following reports are true they paint a nation-wide problem of racial profiling by law enforcement at every level,” said Louis Gray, president of Tulsa Indians Against Racism, who spoke to the panel at the beginning of the formal hearing.
“This is the lifeblood of Amnesty (AIUSA) – to be able to hear and communicate directly from the people,” said Gerald Lemelle, executive director of Amnesty International USA.
Direct testimony from Indian victims touched on racial profiling on several levels and left many of the AIUSA panelists speechless.
Among those to testify as a victim was Lou Spencer, from the Euchee and Creek Nations. Spencer’s testimony brought members of the AIUSA panel and people in the audience close to tears as she described the limited events known to her family that led to the death of her stepson.
“This is hard because I still have anger in me,” she said through tears. “He could not walk. He was drug, police were on both sides of him, but he was being drug – just like a dog.”
In October 2001, Shane Spencer, then 26, was arrested at or near his home located a few blocks from the David Moss Detention Center where Shane was eventually taken two hours after his arrest. Tulsa police responded to a disturbance call and hand-cuffed Shane then loaded him into a paddy-wagon, according to the limited information Shane’s family has able to gather.
“Where was he at between 11 p.m. and 1:18 a.m.? These unknowns are what trouble our family. They said racial slurs that I won’t repeat but they did say, another dead Indian,” Spencer struggled through tears to explain the scenes caught on video tape by a surveillance camera. “It’s all on tape so they cannot lie about what was said about him while he lay lifeless on the floor.”
Shane (Seminole, Creek, Osage, Cherokee, and Blackfeet) laid on the floor “lifeless” for several minutes while officers laughed and joked around his body. A nurse from the jail refused to treat Shane and insisted the officers call for more medical assistance because Shane needed emergency care. After finally being examined he was pronounced dead at 1:18 a.m. – the exact time he arrived at the jail.
Shane’s family is filing a lawsuit against the Tulsa Police Department and the jail where he died.
Spencer’s testimony left the panel quiet with disbelief.
“I am finding it hard to find the words to respond. No one in this country should ever die at the hands of those who are sworn to protect them and those are the police,” said the Honorable Timothy Lewis who served as the moderator for the panel.
Tulsa police were invited to attend the hearings but were advised by legal counsel not to attend.
“We talked to our Chief yesterday and he basically said that our legal counsel advised at this time it would not be prudent for the department to participate because of some legal issues the department has going on right now,” said Officer Andy Phillip from the Tulsa Police Department’s Public Information Office.
Phillip did say the department has on-going cultural sensitivity training for all staff, supervisors, and officers.
“It’s not a one-time thing. We’ve had it since ’91 or ’92. It’s pretty much available year-round. It’s mandated by most departments,” Phillips said about cultural sensitivity training.
Mary Culley, from the Creek and Seminole Nations, spoke as an advocate about the religious persecution of Indians by law enforcement. She talked about police cars lining country roads outside of their jurisdiction waiting to harass Indians leaving cultural and ceremonial activities. Alice Whitecloud, from the Cheyenne and Ponca nations, talked about harassment by law enforcement because of tribal tags. Whitecloud is also a member of TICAR and longtime activist for Native American Rights in Oklahoma.
Lori Penner, from the Cheyenne and Sac and Fox nations, spoke about the first time her house was “ransacked” by law enforcement from her community.
“On Aug. 12, my door was broken down. They pointed guns at us and told us to get on the floor. I had a gun at my head. I kept asking, what are you doing, why are you doing this. They kept shouting, shut-up and be quiet,” said Penner.
Members of Penner’s family were present during this first incident. Penner is angered most by how the younger members of her family were treated.
“My 15-year-old daughter was jerked out of the shower and forced to stand naked in front of three male officers. She was taken to her room to put some clothes on where she had to get dressed in front of three officers. And my 6-year-old grandson was forced to sit with everyone while the house was tore-up. The police laughed and smirked at us when no drugs were found. One police officer had the audacity to tell my daughter she, cleaned-up nice and looks good for a 15-year-old girl,” Penner said.
Penner’s home is still being monitored by one of the alleged offending officers from Thomas, Okla. She said he continues to circle her home on a regular basis and her home has been forcibly searched twice since the Aug. 12.
Tulsa was the third city to host the series of the public hearings. Tulsa’s race relations history between its African American citizens and Anglo citizens was fundamental to bringing the international human rights organization to the city. It was a logical location to hold the hearing said one AIUSA panelist referring to the Race Riots of 1921.
“You might say, why Tulsa. Well, why not? Tulsa has a very powerful history in regards to race relations. Anyone who has studied the history knows about the race riots,” said Lemelle.
By the end of hearing, the panel had gained a broader perspective of race relations in Oklahoma which now includes of the voices and concerns of American Indians.
“The Oklahoma experience is a difficult one. Life for Native Americans is one built on institutional racism,” Gray said speaking on behalf of TICAR, victims and advocates. “We believe that when it is the goal of the institution to minimize a people, they no longer exist as a real people. If you are not real, the offender believes he can do whatever he wants to you.”
The victims and advocates spoke out against racial profiling and police brutality for one reason – change.
“We want people to stop being quiet about this and we want the police department to know they are supposed to protect us and help us when things are going bad. But more than anything we want children to be educated about good cops and bad cops. This has been going on for way too long – it needs to stop. Don’t just sit back and let things like this happen to our loved ones,” Spencer said. “That’s why I testified. That’s why I went public and that’s why we’ve gone public. When one family does it more of them will start coming out.”