Officers, prosecutors discuss mental health, McGirt at roundtable
By Ken Childers
At the request of Senate Appropriations Chair Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, and Senate Majority Leader Kim David, R-Porter, an interim study on police reform has been scheduled for later this month.
In advance of the study, scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 17 at 9:30 a.m., Thompson hosted a luncheon last Wednesday to hear the challenges law enforcement and prosecutors are facing, and what changes need to be made so they can do their jobs more effectively. About 30 people, including law enforcement officers, district attorneys and state officials, attended the luncheon and offered input.
“When we say there will be a conversation, there will be a conversation,” Thompson said as he opened the meeting. “I’d like for this group to be part of that conversation. We have an opportunity to guide true reform, so we’re very interested in listening to you.”
Thompson explained that the interim study will focus on three areas: Mental health, the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET) and the recent Supreme Court Decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which changed the jurisdictional landscape of eastern Oklahoma.
“We plan to spend about two hours in an interim study, just simply saying this is what we believe will make law enforcement better in our areas,” Thompson said. “I want to hear from you guys about what would make your office function better. Maybe you see some deficits that are out there and you want to have a conversation on a true reform.”
Okmulgee County Sheriff Eddy Rice opened up the discussion by saying training methods need to be updated. “Of course everybody needs money, but we need other training,” he said. “I believe mental health is one of the huge issues that we have. We’re all dealing with it, and it’s been neglected for years. CLEET is now starting to get some new training methods, but for years, we’ve watched the same videos.”
Okfuskee County Sheriff Rasmussen said reform is needed within the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health, specifically in the area of available hospital beds for mental health patients.
“My jail is becoming a mental health facility because the state doesn’t have places for them,” Rasmussen said. “We can charge them with a crime, then feed them and care for them for a year and a half, then they’re deemed incompetent. I think a big part of the mental health problem is the department of mental health.”
Senator John Haste R-Broken Arrow, said he is “very passionate” about mental health and is working on getting more beds. “I’m actually working with the department of mental health because this is taking up a lot of your time, and I know that. I’m hoping that through this process we get some adjustments made to help the mental health department get a better understanding of that.”
Luncheon attendees also heard from Laura English, Peace Officer Certification Academy Program Director at Metro Technology Centers. She informed the crowd that PELL grants are available through the state’s career-tech system to help officers get certified.
Lori Carter, Deputy Attorney General for the State of Oklahoma, was invited to the luncheon by Thompson to discuss the implications of the McGirt decision, which Thompson called “the most impactful decision ever” for the state.
“We currently have 45 cases that have been remanded back to district courts for evidentiary hearings where the convicted defendants are challenging their convictions, saying there was no jurisdiction,” Carter said. “We are challenging all convictions. We are not just ‘olly olly oxen free, you win, we’re done.’ That is not the stance we’re taking. We want to protect public safety and protect all the hard work you all have done on those cases. It’s our position that [McGirt] applies only to the Creek Reservation. If there are other tribes, those need to be individually proven.”
When asked by an attendee if the Oklahoma Congressional Delegation will step in and “fix” the issues that have resulted from the McGirt decision, Carter replied, “We hope. It has to be fixed at the federal level. The state can’t do that.”
Max Cook, District Attorney for Okfuskee and Creek County, echoed Carter’s sentiments. “The only fix is coming from the U.S. Congress. They’re the only ones that can fix it. They’re the ones that created the problem over 100 years ago by taking no action, now they must fix the problem by taking action,” Cook said.
Law enforcement agencies represented at the luncheon included the Okemah Police Department, Okfuskee County Sheriff’s Office, Henryetta Police Department, McIntosh County Sheriff’s Department, Oklahoma Highway Patrol, Checotah Police Department, Eufaula Police Department and the Okmulgee Police Department. Mark Nelson, State Fraternal Order of Police President was also in attendance, accompanied by Lisette Barnes, FOP Government Relations.
District Attorneys attending Wednesday’s luncheon included Carol Iski (McIntosh and Okmulgee Counties); Max Cook, Mike Loeffler and Kell Kelly (Okfuskee and Creek Counties) and Orville Loge (Muskogee County). Becky Gooch, Senate Committee Staff, Deputy Director, assigned to Public Safety, was also in attendance.