Death of mentally ill man following arrest sparks calls for citizen committee

This image, taken from police body cam footage, shows Norman Police dragging Marconia Kessee away from Norman Regional Hospital last month. Kessee, a 35-year old man with a history of mental illness, was arrested and taken to the Cleveland County jail. About two hours after arriving at the jail, he was found to be unresponsive. He was then taken back to Norman Regional Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. 

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NORMAN, Okla. — While investigators search for answers in the death of Marconia Kessee, some Norman residents are looking for answers of their own.

Norman Citizens for Racial Justice leaders met with Norman Police Chief Keith Humphrey and Assistant City Attorney Rick Knighton on Wednesday to discuss Kessee’s arrest and subsequent death at the Cleveland County jail and what the community can do to help prevent similar outcomes in the future.

Both parties said it was a productive meeting.

“I felt that it was productive in the fact that the police chief and other leadership wanted to meet with us,” Norman Citizens for Racial Justice spokesperson Saché Primeaux-Shaw said. “Humphrey knows that there was an issue and that some things that were said [in the body cam video] were pretty egregious.

“He understands the culture of mistrust between the police and the community, particularly communities of color. They’re working on bettering those relationships, but this situation that happened with Kessee, it was kind of like a few bad apples slipping through the cracks.”

She said she feels that Humphrey is serious about addressing the issue and she recognizes the steps the department has taken, such as its pre-existing diversity training programs.

Norman Citizens for Racial Justice spokesperson Deon Osborne said the group is exploring options for the creation of a citizens advisory board. He said there are a lot of training initiatives that NPD is currently engaging in and the group wants to continue that partnership moving forward.

Osborne said the group aims to meet with Sheriff Todd Gibson and officials from Norman Regional, as well.

“I think [NPD’s] primary concern is finding out how it happened and they don’t want the community to think that this is endemic of the entire department,” Osborne said. “I think we agree that it’s not endemic, but we want to find solutions to be better prepared and prevent these situations.”

“They seemed open to the idea of some type of partnership … We’re not totally in agreement on how that would look, but we were given the go-ahead to come up with a proposal and come back to them with a more detailed plan in the hope of bringing it to the city.”

Humphrey said the group had some good ideas and he’s willing to do whatever the department can to improve on the programs already in place.

“One of the things we did come to at the end of the meeting was that me and my staff are willing to meet with them on a monthly basis, or quarterly basis, whatever they feel will be beneficial,” Humphrey said. “That was really helpful.”

City Attorney Jeff Bryant said there other communities in Oklahoma that have citizen advisory committees, but he said there are limits to the scope of what such a citizen group can legally do. When it comes to disciplinary matters, Bryant said those are governed by collective bargaining agreements required by the Fire and Police Arbitration act.

“They have specific due process procedures that are outlined in those bargaining agreements that include a fair, impartial investigation,” Bryant said. “They require notice and due process hearings and ultimately, once a disciplinary decision is made, then they have a right to arbitration, which is a trial-like proceeding before a neutral arbitrator.”

Bryant said Internal Affairs handles those investigations and presents their findings to the police chief. From there, he said the chief determines a disciplinary action and then officers have the opportunity to pursue arbitration.

“People have a right to a fair hearing before they’re disciplined,” Bryant said. “So, to the extent that [Kessee’s death] generated a call for a citizen advisory group that might have [a disciplinary] function, that would be very hard to implement and I don’t believe there are any cities across the state that have implemented that type of group.”

Humphrey said there’s a difference between oversight and advisory and Wednesday’s conversation clarified some of those distinctions.

“When people say they don’t understand the difference between oversight and advisory, I think advisory is proactive, where you’re working together with the community to be transparent and come up with solutions and to address concerns. When you start talking oversight, you’re talking about a mandate from the Department of Justice.”

Humphrey said he believes the department already has advisory measures in place through the department’s partnership with the city’s human rights commission, the Public Safety Sales Tax committee and the animal welfare committee, as well as the city council and the public.

“But if that’s something that the citizens and council believe Norman needs, then I wouldn’t be opposed to that,” he said. “I’m not opposed to any advisory, proactive partnership … We already have the resources in place to form that type of committee if the city sees fit.”

City Manager Steve Lewis said NPD has made strides in its community police efforts under Humphrey and since the first public safety sales tax was passed in 2008.

He said the PSST allowed the city to hire more officers and become more proactive instead of reactive. Like Humphrey, Lewis said forming an advisory committee could be another positive addition to the department’s ongoing focus on community policing, as long as it has a clear mission.

Echoing Bryant and Lewis, council member Bill Hickman praised Humphrey’s outreach efforts, adding that the city needs to do its part to provide NPD with the funding it needs to help prevent future incidents.

“Having an incident like this is not necessarily indicative of the entire department or the chief,” Hickman said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t have a conversation about enhancing our department.

“We need to make sure, as a city, that our officers have the training they need for interacting with the homeless and the handicapped. If there are additional things we need to do to make sure our officers are as well-trained as possible, then I would support funding that.”

Council member Stephen Tyler Holman said, one way or another, Norman has to do better.

“It is flat out unacceptable and we must demand that those directly responsible are held accountable and then make sure this never happens again,” he said. 

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