Commission leaves ordinance proposal on the table, but will create exploratory committee of racial data

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Alexander Ewald, Enid News & Eagle, Okla.
·6 min read
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Apr. 7—ENID, Okla. — Enid City Commission has decided to create an advisory committee to explore allegations of systemic racism and racial profiling with Enid Police Department rather than un-table, then pass a proposal to change police policy.

Mayor George Pankonin said during Tuesday's meeting that information would be made public once racial demographic data already provided by EPD are interpreted.

The results of whatever study is conducted would be divulged later in the summer, Ward 1 Commissioner Jerry Allen said.

An announcement of more details will be made once the two newly elected city commissioners of Wards 3 and 4 are seated in May, Allen read from a statement Tuesday night.

"This is not a process to be taken lightly and is nothing to rush into," he said.

The announcement side-stepped existing attempts to change the police department's data collection policy, as the commission voted 5-2 to not remove from the table a proposed ordinance that would require police officers to record specific demographic data such as race or ethnicity in all major interactions.

Other commissioners had hoped summaries from collected data would identify if the department even had a problem with racial disparity in public interactions.

Commissioners during March 16's meeting had voted — 5-2 as well — to table the proposal Ward 3 Commissioner Ben Ezzell had drafted in the wake of receiving what he said was incomplete and problematic demographic data.

Ezzell said during the meeting's later public comment that the police department's "stalling and putting up barriers" for the last year in providing any statistical reports also raised serious red flags to him and Commissioner Jonathan Waddell.

The commission would've first had to un-table the proposal before discussing and voting on it, according to the city attorney. But Ezzell and Waddell were the only two votes in favor of doing so.

"Not even agreeing to talk about this in a public meeting is disgusting. The five of you that voted no, I am appalled," Ezzell said, who also told Allen an appointed body would both have no teeth and cause more problems later.

"Having some panel that you're thinking of putting together, Jerry, at some point in the future — I'm sure out of the public — doesn't exactly make a statement to our community that we care about this. Your actions in the coming months as I'm gone — I've got one more meeting after this and I'm out of here ...," he said, to which about half a dozen audience members started clapping.

Continuing, Ezzell said demographic data on race is necessary to provide a "better picture" if any problems do exist in the community.

"Data is important. In every part of what we do in this body. Don't half-ass it," which again prompted shouts of "point of order" from an audience member, as has been done during previous meetings.

The motion from Robert's Rules of Order parliamentary procedure — granted to voting members of a governing body — is raised to a chair if rules have been broken.

Other audience members also began standing from their seats to yell at Ezzell for his language or to tell the mayor to tell him to stop talking.

Kevin Carmichael then walked to the speaker podium in front of the commissioners, saying to Ezzell, "You don't need to preach, you've been elected out!"

An EPD officer staffed at the meeting approached the podium, while another EPD employee approached a still-yelling Carmichael and brought him back to his seat.

Ezzell was not voted out, but would be terming out in May after two four-year terms on the commission.

Carmichael's wife, Marie Landwehr, later said after Pankonin allowed her to speak without having signed up that she hoped officials would hold one officer accountable, not the entire department.

"You do not throw the whole Enid Police Department under the bus. We need them," she said.

Rather than allowing more speakers who had since signed up to come forward, Pankonin instead moved forward with commissioners deciding to convene in executive session and discuss possible litigation concerning the Kaw Lake project. No action was taken after the executive session.

Newly appointed Ward 6 Commissioner Scott Orr said he hoped more order would be brought to the commission meetings' public comment in the future.

"It can't be a free-for-all. We've got to have some kind of organization, and hopefully that's the way it'll be going forward," Orr said after the meeting.

Orr, who was elected in February, was appointed and sworn in Tuesday through May before his elected term officially began. His predecessor, Jeff Funk, stepped down Monday to let him take the seat early.

Enid Police Chief Brian O'Rourke didn't attend Tuesday's meeting, but told the News & Eagle on Monday he was opposed to any outside attempts to control the department.

"What we have to record and what we don't have to record is internal policy," O'Rourke said. "That's not for (Ezzell) to decide."

Allen showed his disagreement with the proposal by reading from a 1994 document describing the roles and history of the Enid City Commission, the Police Civil Service Commission and the chief of police.

From 1893 to 1937, 27 chiefs were appointed by the mayor. Allen's own great-grandfather, John J. Allen, served as mayor from 1935-1939 and led the creation under the city charter of the Police Civil Service Commission.

The city commission now oversees the department's budget and occasionally creates ordinances such as traffic code changes.

In the 84 years since, Enid has had 14 chiefs of police, "checked" not by the city commission but by the civil service commission, which can remove the chief for good cause shown.

Made up of four Enid residents and a member of the department, the commission primarily hires, fires, promotes and disciplines officers or recruits, but does not dictate department policy. Day-to-day operations and department policies are left to the chief and subordinate leadership.

"This was done in order to take the police department out of political patronage and place it on a merit system," Allen read.

Ezzell said O'Rourke and Allen had both made "failed" arguments by linking accountability with politics.

Enid resident Lucille Bitt, who spoke twice, told the commission she was amazed that information hadn't been publicly presented already.

"Those figures will continue to look skewed so one group continues to look bad," said Bitt, who is Black, "while another group that looks like you will continue to look good."

"Amen," said a man she'd been sitting next to who also was Black.

"As long as we try to hide things ... we're never going to resolve those problems," Bitt said. "And we're going to continue to have meetings like this where nothing gets done and things get swept under the rug."

Ewald is copy editor and city/education reporter for the Enid News & Eagle.

Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Send an email to aewald@enidnews.com.