NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

City council members react to analysis of homicide cases in Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City Councilman John Pettis says the reason why some people don't trust the criminal justice system is because of what they have seen or heard or experienced.

"But somehow we have to move away from not trusting the system and begin to trust the system, and I think that one of the ways you can begin to start trusting the system is you start … opening up dialogue and really being transparent with everything," Pettis said.

Pettis' comments come in the wake of a yearlong analysis by The Oklahoman that examined homicide investigations from January 2008 through June 2015. The analysis found that nearly half of all potentially prosecutable homicides committed in Oklahoma City during that period ended up with the killer walking free. Outcomes were even worse in cases involving minority victims.

The Oklahoman sought the comments of members of the city council in the wake of the report and after a public forum in which many participants complained about mistreatment by and a troubled relationship with police.

Three council members, Mark Stonecipher, Meg Salyer and Ed Shadid, as well as Mayor Mick Cornett, did not respond to interview requests. Councilman James Greiner said he was unfamiliar with the report and had few thoughts on the matter.

Among those who did respond, recommendations ranged from increasing the number of police officers to promoting “good character” among Oklahoma City residents.

Others, including Pettis, talked about a need for police and residents to work together to hold killers accountable.

“We have to continue to talk about it,” said Pettis, who represents Ward 7 in northeast Oklahoma City, where many killings go unsolved. “When we don't talk about it, people forget. People go on about their lives.”

The analysis included all homicides committed in Oklahoma City between January 2008 and June 2015, excluding cases in which it was unlikely anyone would be prosecuted for a crime, such as officer-involved shootings, murder-suicides and cases in which it was determined the act was in self-defense. The analysis also didn't include 30 cases that still were pending in court.

In only about 53 percent of the remaining homicide cases was a suspect arrested, charged and convicted of a crime. The suspect was convicted only about 46 percent of the time in cases where the victim was black and 44 percent of the time in cases where the victim was American Indian.

In a particular section of northeast Oklahoma City, bounded by N Lincoln Boulevard, Interstate 35, NE 10 and NE 36, homicides go unpunished about two-thirds of the time, the analysis showed.

The results of the analysis bothered Pettis. He said the responsibility of working to lower the rate of unsolved homicides lies with the entire community — not only the police department and district attorney's office, but also witnesses and residents who live where those crimes take place.

Witnesses may be afraid to come forward because of a fear of retaliation or because they don't trust the judicial system, Pettis said. 

Ward 5 Councilman David Greenwell, who represents a section of south Oklahoma City, said one way to help lower the rate of unsolved cases is to encourage people who have information about a crime to share that information with authorities.

“It's everybody's responsibility to step forward,” Greenwell said.

The more people get involved in their communities, look out for their neighbors and report suspicious activity when they see it, Greenwell said, the greater success law enforcement will have in addressing crime in general, including homicides. He said members of the city council and other community leaders have a responsibility to help foster that type of thinking.

“I think if we could work together to protect and watch out for our fellow person, that would go a long way,” Greenwell said.

Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee, whose ward includes much of western Oklahoma City, said he'd like to see the police department hire more officers. Having more police on the streets would not only mean more officers solving crimes, but also more opportunities for positive interactions between police and residents, McAtee said.

Those interactions could build greater trust in the community, which could lead to more witnesses being willing to cooperate with investigators, he said.

Ultimately, though, McAtee said the issue of unsolved homicides, and violent crime in general, stems from “a lack of good character” — a problem the entire community has a responsibility to fix, he said. McAtee said he was troubled by the findings of the analysis.

“If that's true, that disappoints me,” he said. “Any case that's not resolved disappoints me.”

During last month's public forum focusing on unsolved homicides organized by The Oklahoman, several northeast Oklahoma City residents said they felt a disconnect with the police, leading to a lack of trust among many residents in the area.

Ward 4 Councilman Pete White, whose ward includes far southeast Oklahoma City, said he hasn't heard that complaint from his constituents.

But he said part of that lack of trust may come from the fact that police have “a bigger PR problem” than most other public agencies, simply because of what they do.

“Police have a difficult job,” he said. “Most of the time, when they come in contact with them, they're not getting a cat out of a tree. They're not putting out a fire. They're not cleaning up a street or fixing a water main. They're there because there's been some criminal activity.”

White said he thinks the police department does a good job of trying to build relationships with the community. He cited several outreach events the department has held, including a series of Coffee with a Cop sessions, as ways the department has sought to build trust.

Although White said he was troubled by the number of homicides that go unsolved, he thinks police and prosecutors are doing all they can.

“If you had one unsolved, it would be too many,” he said. “Given the world we live in, I think they're doing what they can.”

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›

Darla Slipke

Darla Slipke is an enterprise reporter for The Oklahoman. She is a native of Bristol, Conn., and a graduate of the University of Kansas. Slipke worked for newspapers in Kansas, Connecticut, North Carolina and Oklahoma, including a previous... Read more ›

NewsOK has disabled the comments for this article.