A poor, elderly black man with a heart condition was sitting in his room at a cheap Tulsa, Oklahoma, motel the night of May 28th, using his drug of choice, minding his own business, and not bothering anybody when police arrived at his door. Now he’s dead, and his death raises questions not only of law enforcement use of force, but of race, class, and predatory policing.
Ollie Lee Brooks
As the Tulsa World reported, Ollie Lee Brooks, 64, died at the Oklahoma State University Medical Center after a pair of Tulsa police officers tased and pepper spayed him during an arrest attempt at a Super 8 Motel in east Tulsa. Police said he struggled with them when they tried to arrest him after spotting drug paraphernalia “in plain sight” in his motel room.
Brooks becomes the 22nd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.
He “immediately resisted arrest by actively fighting officers,” the police report said. They then pepper sprayed him, but it didn’t “have the desired effect,” so one officer then tased Brooks, who “continued to fight,” so he tased him again. At one point, Brooks broke free and ran down the stairs, but the officers tackled and cuffed him, then called medics to the scene.
The officers were not wearing body cams, and there is no surveillance video to verify their account.
But there is no reason to doubt their explanation for why they went to his room in the first place: They had gone to the motel “to search the register for guests with outstanding warrants, police spokesman Leland Ashley said.”
You read that right: Police in Tulsa are going around to motels and hotels and checking guest lists against their lists of people wanted for warrants. Or at least they’re going to some motels and hotels and doing that. Like motels in minority neighborhoods that attract a non-wealthy clientele. There are no reports of police running warrant checks at the Tulsa Hilton Garden Inn or the Tulsa Marriott Courtyard.
This looks to be a race- and class-based predatory policing practice, targeting the poor, who often have arrest warrants not just for alleged crimes but for the crime of being unable to pay fines for past offenses. It has the same sort of stench about it as the now well-known predatory policing in Ferguson, Missouri, that culminated in massive civil unrest after the killing of Michael Brown nearly two years ago.
And a list of outstanding warrants for dangerous felons is one thing, but that’s not what the Tulsa police officers were carrying. Instead of keeping society safe from criminals, the officers were essentially acting as bill collectors.
Ollie Lee Brooks was on the list not for being an escaped fugitive or a dangerous criminal, but for an $874 bench warrant in connection with an DUI/open container charge from Okmulgee County in 1991. (It had been a $642 warrant, but a $201 “collections fee” and other fees had been added in 2012.) That DUI/open container charge was never prosecuted, and Brooks had had several run-ins with the law since then (he was last arrested in 1999), yet somehow that warrant was still on the books, was reissued in 2005, and had never been served.
(In a Friday press conference, Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan said it wasn’t the Okmulgee warrant, but a 2015 Tulsa warrant for failure to pay a jaywalking fine. In either case, the point remains that cops acting as bill collectors, went after Brown, and now he’s dead.)
The comments section of the initial Tulsa World article contains numerous messages from Tulsans who knew him as a sometimes homeless man who frequented a custard shop and who also picked up occasional work in landscaping and odd jobs. Here’s one:
I knew this man as “Richard”. He slept behind a dumpster at 61st and Sheridan several years ago when I worked for my parents business, Custard King Frozen Custard. I used to give him free custard and talk to him. I even bought him a pair of shoes and some clothes one time. Actually he’s a pretty nice guy! This is very sad news indeed and serves as a warning that police have no hesitation about shocking the **** out of you and killing you. I was told that he had just gotten out of the hospital a few weeks ago with a heart condition. My father talked with him recently. He would occasionally stop by their business. Several years ago, I tried to help this guy out. I am totally shocked because I never knew him as a violent guy. He just frequented our area sometimes. He told us he had a son which he helped with tree work sometimes. He was always very friendly to us.
Ollie used to come to our store and buy a sirloin steak with all the fat on it. We wouldn’t see him for awhile and he would just show up. Friendly guy, mannerly, sometimes you could tell he had been drinking and sometimes he appeared to be under the influence but before he got sick he had a tree trimming business and did some landscaping on the side so he wasn’t a complete bum. It is sad that this is how he left this Earth and how he will be remembered.
Let’s recap here: An elderly black man living on the margins of society manages to scrape enough money together to get a motel room to do his thing in peace, the police run a warrant check on the guests at the motel, they find a trivial warrant, they discover evidence of another criminal offense (drug possession), a struggle ensues, and Ollie Brooks is dead.
Police Chief Jordan said Friday that the two officers involved had been suspended with pay, but had been returned to active duty the day before and had done nothing wrong. But there’s something very wrong indeed with a criminal justice system that generates results like this.
And speaking of things being wrong, just a few days ago, AlterNet published “May Was One of the Worst For Drug War Deaths in Recent Memory,” which listed seven people killed by police enforcing the drug laws that month. Ollie Lee Brooks wasn’t on that list, not because he didn’t deserve to be, but because the Tulsa Police didn’t bother to publicly announce his death at their hands.
News of his death came only when the Tulsa World ran a story after an affidavit for a search warrant for his room after his death was officially filed last Wednesday. When asked by a reporter whether the department should have notified the media and the public that someone had died after an encounter with police that involved physical force, Jordan said, “In hindsight, after today, yeah, I probably would. Yes, sir.”
Brooks’ family has retained legal counsel. But he’s still dead.