State, city officials meet with Ardmore community to discuss policing practices, racial inequality
State and city officials gathered at the HFV Wilson Community Center in Ardmore on Tuesday evening to have a conversation with the community, titled “Let’s Talk About it.”
“It” referred to a national concern recently spotlighted by protests regarding police brutality and racial inequality. Oklahoma State Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, organized the public forum, stating that she feels it is important to discuss what is happening within the local community.
Panelists at the forum included Ardmore Mayor Doug Pfau, City Commissioner John Moore, Police Chief Ken Grace and Carter County Sheriff Chris Bryant, with Cedric Bailey, an Ardmore native and national radio host, as the moderator.
The forum had a large attendance, with most of the room filled — all while practicing social distancing. Several questions came from the group, focusing the discussion mainly on mental health, systematic racism and the divide between the east and west side of Ardmore, as well as the budget for the police department and reallocating funds.
According to the city of Ardmore’s budget for the fiscal year of 2018 to 2019, the total budget for the Ardmore Police Department was $5,376,084.
Blake Gordon, an Ardmore local, was one of the first to address the panel, stating that he feels that money could be better spent elsewhere.
“My main concern is relocation of funds from the police into community services,” Gordon said. “What I want to see is a reduction in funding that goes to police and into things such as the HFV, into things such as mental health services, into things such as sidewalks.”
Gordon said he would like to see a mental health response team established at the department involving officers without guns or badges who are specifically trained to respond to such situations — a sentiment echoed by many in attendance.
Others questioned a cycle of incarceration they have been seeing where known individuals with mental health issues are not receiving treatment and are being repeatedly taken to jail. Those in attendance asked that more funds be allocated to mental health services to help these individuals.
”What I would like to see is our tax dollars not funding an economy of punishment, but instead funding an economy of care,” Gordon said. “We don’t have that.”
Ardmore Chief of Police Ken Grace responded by first stating that he is extremely embarrassed by the recent police brutality incidents. Grace then addressed the budget, explaining that a lot of funds have been allocated into training for the officers at the department in areas such as mental health and use of force.
Officers are required to have 25 hours of continued education each year, Grace said, adding that he believes the training has been “very successful.” However, multiple audience members argued that more training won’t fix the problems being discussed and maintained that funds from the department should instead be funneled into other community services such as mental health.
Grace then recalled a practice he had observed during his time at the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, where a mental health squad would respond to specific incidents. “They didn’t have guns and they didn’t have badges, they were like community service officers,” he said.
The crowd responded positively to this suggestion, many shouting “that’s what we want.” Carter County Sheriff Chris Bryant also chimed in on the topic of mental health, agreeing that mental health service is very important and needs to be well funded.
Bryant condemned the recent police brutality incidents receiving national attention in Georgia and Minnesota, calling the actions of the officers “despicable” and told the crowd, “I will walk with you" in reference to the protests.
“Do we have all of the answers? Absolutely not,” Bryant said. “And I am asking you in this room to help me. I don’t have all of the answers — I need the answers, that way we can work on this together.”
Ardmore Middle School teacher Mary Johnson also addressed the panel, putting emphasis on reallocating funds into community services such as the HFV Wilson Community Center. Johnson said the center once had an important impact and was a positive space for the community to learn when it was free.
However, the center now costs too much and has been moved out of the reach of the community, Johnson said. “Something’s holding us down. It’s those policies. We need to look at those policies and change them — all you need is a pencil and an eraser,” she said.
Several others chimed in, bringing up the disparities between the west side of Ardmore and the east side. Many described the dilapidated houses, torn-up roads, run-down parks and lack of sidewalks, street lights and public transportation on the east side of Ardmore.
The attendees compared this description to the west side of Ardmore, calling it “pristine” and listing off the new developments such as the club house and the well-kept condition of Regional Park.
“This is what needs to be addressed in this city,” an individual in the crowd stated. “You’re exactly right,” Mayor Doug Pfau said in response. Pfau said he wrote down the ideas mentioned at the discussion and wants to work with the community to fix the problems.
“Obviously this has struck a nerve and people want to fix things,” Pfau said. “We’re going to have to work together and we’re going to have to continue to meet. If we don’t have sidewalks, we need them, if we don’t have street lights, we need them, we have to figure out how to make those things happen.”
Many agreed that the community will have to continue to meet in order for the issues discussed to be resolved and asked that the city and state leaders put their words into action.
“We can talk all day long. You can promise us what you’re going to do, but until we get some policy — some things on paper — that’s when you start to see a change in the community,” a local pastor told the panel.