Policing, Poverty, and Racial Inequality in Tulsa, Oklahoma

By Brian Root

Tulsa, Oklahoma is a case study in abusive, overly aggressive policing in the US.

Being poor or Black makes you much more likely to be a target of aggressive policing in Tulsa, Human Rights Watch research shows. Communities in North Tulsa – which tend to have larger Black populations, poorer residents, higher rates of unemployment, and lower life expectancies – experience more frequent and lengthier police stops, and have higher arrest rates than areas in the rest of the city. Throughout Tulsa, Black residents are 2.3 times more likely to be arrested than white residents.

The following maps depict the geographic correlations between race, poverty, and policing practices in Tulsa, based on our analysis of Tulsa Police Department and US Census Bureau data from 2012 – 2017.

Tulsa is a highly segregated city. North Tulsa, (defined here as north of Highway 244) home to 17% of Tulsa’s population, holds 41% of Tulsa’s Black population. Many census tracts in northwest Tulsa are over 80% Black.

More than 35% of north Tulsa’s population lives in poverty compared with 17% in the rest of the city. Citywide, the Black poverty rate is 34% while the white poverty rate is 13%. (These rates differ slightly from rates included in the Human Rights Watch report due to variation in the methodology to calculate poverty rates.)

The unemployment rate is 12.2% in north Tulsa and 5.7% in the rest of the city. The unemployment rate for Black Tulsans is over twice the rate for White Tulsans.

There are stark disparities in life expectancy in Tulsa. The life expectancy in the average census tract is 70.7 years in north Tulsa and 76.5 years in the rest of the city.

HRW found Tulsa police more frequently stopped drivers in areas that tend to be poorer and with predominantly Black populations than the rest of the city.

Traffic stops are not only more frequent in the predominately black and poor sections of the city but they also last longer, with a greater likelihood of removal from the vehicle, search, questioning and arrest.

Black people in Tulsa are far more likely to get arrested than white people in the city - 2.3 times more likely on a citywide per capita basis. There were 49.5 arrests per 1,000 north Tulsa residents compared to 32.6 arrests per 1,000 residents in the rest of the city, according to Human Rights Watch analysis.

Warrant-only arrests were concentrated in north Tulsa. Throughout the city, police arrested Black people for warrants alone at 2.6 times the rate they arrested white people, a reflection of poverty and policing patterns.

People arrested or given citations by police are usually ordered to pay fines, fees and court costs. These assessments can add up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Poor people struggle to make payments. Failure to make payments leads the courts to issue arrest warrants and police to make arrests. People arrested for failing to pay are often assessed even more money, and sometimes lose jobs due to the arrest. This cycle contributes to poverty in Tulsa.

Warrants were the leading arrest charge by Tulsa Police, making up almost 40% of the total. “Court costs” was the third leading booking charge in the county jail for people arrested by Tulsa police, indicating that a large percentage of warrants resulting in arrest were for court debt. Many of the warrants were for minor city violations and traffic tickets.

Modern day policing in Tulsa exists within Tulsa’s unique history of racial oppression, just as policing in many other US jurisdictions exists within the context of their own, often oppressive, racial and class relations.

The confluence of race, poverty and crime documented in the analysis calls for inquiry into larger questions of structural racism: why are black people in Tulsa, and in the US as a whole, relegated to poverty at such a high rate? What power dynamics and policies have created and perpetuated this situation? Is policing, even with more community-oriented officers, a proper response as opposed to allocating scarce resources directly toward addressing the problems leading to poverty?

Human Rights Watch recommends shifting public policy away from policing as the primary answer to many of Tulsa’s most challenging public safety problems. Effective change requires investments in local community economic development that bring wealth and opportunities into poor sections of the city and significant improvements in services for people with mental health conditions, substance abuse disorders or those experiencing homelessness.

The following interactive map allows you to explore policing, demographic and economic data within Tulsa’s census tracts. Click on a tract to view the data.

Choose a statistic from the menu to display on the map.

Click on a census tract to see the data for that tract.

Sources: Human Rights Watch analysis of Tulsa Police Department and US Census Bureau data. Census data from 2013 - 2017 5-year American Community Survey (ACS) estimates. Life expectancy data from National Center for Health Statistics. U.S. Small-Area Life Expectancy Estimates Project (USALEEP): Life Expectancy Estimates File for {Jurisdiction}, 2010-2015]. National Center for Health Statistics. 2018. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/usaleep/usaleep.html.

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