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How a debate over police funding escalated in Norman, Oklahoma — and divided the town

“It was just built up to be something it should have never got up to be,” one resident said.
Demonstrators march to police headquarters to protest the death of George Floyd in Norman, Okla., on June 2.
Demonstrators march to police headquarters to protest the death of George Floyd in Norman, Okla., on June 2.Sue Ogrocki / AP file

In the three months since Norman, Oklahoma, City Council member Kate Bierman voted to redirect money meant for the police department, she has been accused of participating in a leftist conspiracy.

She’s been screamed at from a car passing by her home. Opponents have tried to force her and her fellow council members from office. The police union has filed a lawsuit accusing the council of abusing its power. There have been protests, counterprotests, and protests against those counterprotests.

Sometimes, it feels as if the town has been split in two.

“This has brought quite the divide to our city,” Bierman, 33, said.

Council Member Kate Bierman outside City Hall, in Norman, Okla.
Council Member Kate Bierman outside City Hall, in Norman, Okla.Christopher Creese / for NBC News

Since the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody triggered a wave of street protests across the country, cities have responded with proposals to curb police use of force, confront systemic racism and rethink law enforcement’s role in society. Many local governments have moved to cut police budgets or shift money from police to social service programs.

But as the reform movement spreads, so has the resistance, with the rhetoric largely falling along partisan lines: progressives clamoring for change and conservatives accusing them of undermining public safety. President Donald Trump has sought to capitalize on that disunity in the Nov. 3 election, warning of chaos if those he calls “radical” reformers have their way.

In June, that battle came to Norman, a largely white college town of 121,000 with a history of racial oppression. Norman, which is less than 5 percent Black, now harbors a streak of liberalism that contrasts with most of Oklahoma, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump and his law-and-order message in 2016.

Under pressure from racial justice activists, the all-white Norman City Council held two heated public hearings and then voted to divert $865,000 — or nearly 4 percent of the police department’s proposed $23 million budget — to create new community outreach programs and to hire an auditor. The move set in motion a cascade of events that has left some residents wondering if the city has lost sight of the problem — police abuse of Black people — that Floyd’s death represented.

“I don’t know that this would have started in Norman without that powder keg,” said James Chappel, 59, a retired utility company engineer who recently served for a year as the city’s first Black councilman. The budget vote and the backlash that followed “generated more negativity than it did positivity. As for the issue of Black men and women getting killed, I don’t know much much it did toward that.”

James Chappel was the first Black councilman in Norman. Christopher Creese / for NBC News

‘The narrative got lost’

On June 9, the Norman City Council, whose members do not run under political parties, met for what was supposed to be a vote on the city’s budget, including a proposed $1.1 million increase for the police department. But the council ditched those plans after hundreds of residents and activists, most of them white, flooded the municipal building and asked that the police budget be cut.

“We would like to see the city invest in social programs and things that don’t rely on violence and coercion to get people where they need,” Sarah Warmker, 35, who is white, said later. She’s a Spanish instructor at the University of Oklahoma and a member of Norman Citizens for Racial Justice, which formed in 2017 to oppose gas pipelines and expanded into other local issues.

Their calls echoed those of protesters across America galvanized by Floyd’s death May 25, who took to the streets to demand that communities rein in police by scaling back their responsibilities and shifting some functions elsewhere. The movement had a catchphrase, “defund the police,” which activists deployed to advocate a range of remedies, from disbanding police departments to moving some of their funding to social services.

Many Norman protesters used “defund the police” in their demands to the City Council, but they also made their case in more personal terms, sharing stories of negative encounters with local law enforcement officers and facing racism in Norman, a former “sundown town” where until 1967 Black people were not allowed to live or visit past dark.

Protesters arrive at a Norman City Council meeting on June 9, 2020, to present a list of demands to the council which included defunding the police.
Protesters arrive at a Norman City Council meeting on June 9, to present a list of demands to the council, which included cutting the police budget.Sue Ogrocki / AP file

The Norman Police Department had adopted some reform measures already, prioritizing community-oriented policing and trying to curb implicit bias. But protesters said those measures had not addressed their concerns about excessive force and racial profiling. In the 343 times police used force — defined as physical techniques, a gun, Taser or other “control device” — on people in the last five years, 14 percent of the targets were Black, according to department data.

Some protesters complained about the presence of police officers in public schools. Some cited the death of Marconia Kessee, 34, a homeless and mentally ill Black man who in January 2018 refused to leave a local hospital after being treated for a headache. The hospital called Norman police, who dragged him away and charged him with trespassing; a few hours later, Kessee died in jail from what medical examiners said was a toxic combination of antidepressants, medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and methamphetamine. An internal investigation concluded officers did not contribute to Kessee’s death.

Some protesters were also upset about a leaked May email from a Norman police officer to colleagues that critiqued the department’s policy on wearing masks to protect against the Covid-19 pandemic with a meme that included an image of a hooded lynch mob taken from the film “Django Unchained.” (The officer was disciplined, according to the police department.)

The council agreed to take the protesters’ pleas under consideration and postponed its budget vote.

“When you are faced with so much heartache and anger and frustration from people largely disconnected from what’s happening in the city, it’s hard not to feel compelled to act,” Bierman said in an interview.

In the days that followed, the police budget became a political flashpoint. The budget-cutting campaign gathered momentum, and with it an opposition effort that included residents already angry at the council that had prohibited large gatherings and closed businesses to stem the spread of Covid-19.

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The two sides faced off at the council’s June 16 follow-up budget session, denouncing each other and shouting each other down, according to interviews. One council member, Alex Scott, said she’d recently called police after being stalked and officers “blatantly disbelieved me.” (The Norman Citizens Advisory Board, a police oversight agency, later said the officers behaved appropriately.) Scott, who is white, proposed cutting the police’s $23 million budget by $4.5 million. The rest of the council rejected that as too extreme.

In the crowd that night, Samuel Woodfork was in shock watching his fellow residents treat one another poorly. Woodfork, 56, who is Black and has lived in Norman for 34 years, had served on a committee that persuaded the city to hire a diversity officer and formally apologize in January for once being a sundown town.

He believes in holding police accountable, in part because of his own experience with officers in town. About four years ago, Woodfork recalled recently, he and his adult son stopped to help an elderly white woman having car troubles and were followed home by police who said an off-duty officer had said they were accosting the woman. The officers eventually realized it had been a misunderstanding, and his son filed a complaint, but nothing came of it, Woodfork said.

Woodfork agreed that Norman’s police department needed to make changes. But the fight in the council chambers in June made it impossible to hold a meaningful debate, he said.

“The narrative got lost behind ‘defund the police,’” he recalled. “It was just built up to be something it should have never got up to be.”

In the end, the nine-member council voted after 11 hours to reduce a $1.1 million budget increase earmarked for the police department by $865,000 to create a community program that would respond, instead of police, to public-health emergencies such as homelessness and mental illness, and hire an internal auditor to monitor the city’s spending, including police overtime.

The police department said reducing its budget increase would leave it unable to fill seven open positions and another two left available by recent resignations. Police Chief Kevin Foster declined requests for an interview, but told reporters in August that the reduction would not hurt the department’s ability to respond to calls.

Many protesters wanted deeper cuts to the police budget, but conservative-leaning residents condemned the vote as a dead-of-night sabotage. Some formed a group called Unite Norman and began collecting signatures — with help from Norman police officers and Republican political strategists — to recall Mayor Breea Clark, Bierman and three other council members whom they saw as “ringleaders” in advocating for the cuts.

The group blamed the council for caving to a “loud mob” aligned with a movement that had nothing to do with Norman.

“What happened in Minnesota, we all agree that was a horrible event. But that doesn’t mean we have to jump and have the reason to do that in Norman, Oklahoma,” said Sassan Moghadam, a Unite Norman co-founder and a commercial real estate developer.

Image: Unite Norman co-founders Russell Smith and Sassan Moghadam.
Unite Norman co-founders Russell Smith and Sassan Moghadam.Christopher Creese / for NBC News

The local officers’ union, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit seeking to restore the reductions, accusing the council of failing to provide proper public notice of the vote and violating provisions of a voter-approved sales tax program that partially funds the police department.

“We would have welcomed the opportunity to sit down and discuss changes, ideas, anything to make our job easier or make our service better, but they went straight for our throat and took money away from us,” Robert Wasoski, the union’s president, said.

Wasoski, who retired from the department in July to take a job elsewhere but remains the union president, said the issue wasn’t about politics. “It’s about sane versus insane. Are we going to have law and order in our community or are we going to have chaos?”

The fight escalates

Not long after the vote, Bierman was watering her front yard when a car slowed down and a woman inside asked if she was the council member. Bierman said yes, and she said the woman hollered at her, “Ha, ha, f--- you, Unite Norman.”

Bierman said she also began receiving angry messages on social media calling her a “libtard” and a communist and accusing her of being on the payroll of George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who has been falsely accused of secretly bankrolling protests against police brutality.

“It was all the crazy right-wing talking points you hear about national elected officials,” Bierman said. “You just don’t hear that about local elected officials here. It was stunning and concerning.”

Scott, 26, whose council term expired in July, says she was also targeted by people who disagreed with her. She accused police officers of sharing her personal information on Facebook, including documents related to her stalking complaint and her June 20 arrest while protesting a Trump rally in Tulsa.

On June 27, while Scott was staying overnight in Oklahoma City, the woman who lives next to her in a two-apartment house was allegedly raped by a stranger. Scott, who is now running as a Democrat for the Oklahoma state Senate, said she believes that the release of her personal information and her role in the debate over police funding led the rapist to target her — but instead resulted in the assault on her neighbor.

“My sentiment is that they intended to attack me and mistakenly attacked her,” Scott said.

The assault remains under investigation by state authorities. Norman police said an internal investigation into the release of Scott’s personal information found no evidence of misconduct by officers — the information was originally posted by a person who’d obtained it legally through open records requests, and it did not include her home address. The citizens advisory board agreed.

Activists who pressed for a cut to the police budget said they have received online threats, as well. Some expressed fear of being quoted in this article by name.

One of them was Ashley, a Black woman and member of Norman Citizens for Racial Justice, who asked that her last name not be used. She said the “defund the police” debate brought into the open rifts that already existed.

“It’s always been racially divided, but there’s been a certain level of quiet and propriety that people are used to,” Ashley said. Airing the grievances in public “is a newer experience for Norman. We just shined a big-ass flashlight on it.”

In mid-July, a Facebook group called the Norman Police Accountability Project popped up, with its initial post suggesting it was formed in response to the release of information about Scott. Since then, the group has posted pictures of officers and links to their addresses.

Unite Norman members, in turn, have accused protesters of harassing and threatening them, both online and in person, and stealing the group’s campaign signs.

Ultimately, Unite Norman produced enough signatures to force a recall election for one council member who voted for the budget cut, Alison Petrone.

Petrone’s lawyer, Joel Wohlgemuth, called the recall petition “a farce” and Unite Norman “an extreme right-wing organization that is totally abusing the recall process to achieve their political objectives.”

The council, meanwhile, hasn't yet launched the program that would respond, rather than police, to emergencies involving homelessness and mental illness.

And the debate now includes a proposal to expand the number of police officers in city schools next year, when presumably school will return to normal following the Covid-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, the council is expected to vote on whether to accept a matching grant from the Department of Justice to hire more of the officers. Critics of the police say the offer should be rejected. Proponents, including Unite Norman, say the officers are necessary — and that reformers are opposing the grant as another way to “defund the police.”

Clark, Norman’s mayor, declined requests for an interview, but said in a statement that the city has “never been afraid to lead the way in implementing changes that build a better future for our community.”

A lingering divide

The policing debate in Norman has also illuminated the isolation of Black people there.

Partly because of the city’s past, many Black residents don’t feel comfortable speaking up or taking part in civic functions, Black activists and public officials say. That also means that many white residents don’t understand Black residents’ concerns about the police.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators chant outside the Norman Police Department on June 2.
Black Lives Matter demonstrators chant outside the Norman Police Department on June 2.Sue Ogrocki / AP

“Our community of color has been historically marginalized, and without actively encouraging their participation so that they feel it isn’t going to have a negative consequence, you can’t solve the problem,” said Merleyn Bell, a Democrat who represents parts of Norman in the Oklahoma state House of Representatives — the first Black woman to do so.

At the heart of the recent divide, she sees confusion over the phrase “defund the police.”

“I had a lot of constituents saying, ‘What does it mean when people say defund the police?’” Bell said.

Chappel, the Black former council member, said he didn’t see cutting police budgets as a solution. In his experience, he said, many Black people don’t want to see less policing. He believes the police ought to be doing more to interact with Black residents, including expanding the existing community policing efforts.

“I think we have to figure out how to get the relationship between the police and the community to a place where if I as a Black person get pulled over, I’m not nervous — and the officer isn’t nervous,” Chappel said. “I don’t know if ‘defund the police’ is going to solve it. I don’t think it will be that easy.”