02/22/2006

Tulsa chief put on leave: Mayor says report that was critical of SWAT team was withheld

John Dobberstein

Copyright 2006 Dolan Media Newswires
The Journal Record (Oklahoma City, OK) 

Tulsa Police Chief David Been has been placed on administrative leave after a report critical of the city's SWAT team - and the police department's overall leadership - didn't immediately make it to Mayor Bill LaFortune's desk.

During a hastily called press conference Monday, LaFortune said the report, authored by Ron McCarthy of the National Tactical Officers Association, described the actions of some SWAT team members as "ethical violations, if not potential crimes," and if changes weren't made in the department, "there would be significant exposure to the city.

"There is disunity, tension and disagreement within the police department family that is unacceptable and counter to the best interest and safety of the people of Tulsa and department personnel," LaFortune said, reading from the report.

"This situation has existed for several years, and is growing, not diminishing."

The preliminary NTOA report, requested in November by Been, hasn't been released yet to the media or the public. LaFortune said a retired police officer, who still has strong ties to the department, informed Chief of Staff Clay Bird of the report. Bird then contacted Been to get a copy of the report.

LaFortune said that preliminary inquiries showed that Been, "attempted to withhold the report from leadership within his own department," including Been's two deputy chiefs.

"It was Chief Been's duty to provide me with this report immediately upon his receipt of it, and he failed to do so," LaFortune said Monday.

Been is on paid leave indefinitely, until an independent review is done to study the issues raised in the report and determine why the report was allegedly withheld, LaFortune said. He declined to say who might do the investigation.

Appointed in Been's place Monday was Deputy Chief Bill Wells, a 30-year veteran of the department who has led uniformed patrol, detective, and gang and narcotics divisions before becoming a deputy chief three years ago.

Wells said more changes in the department's leadership are likely, but he declined to elaborate on them. He emphasized the report criticizes the SWAT team and police department leadership but doesn't impugn rank-and-file officers.

"I've got a police department now to run, and that's what I'm going to spend my time on," Wells said.

"I think we need to look at it from a public safety standpoint, for the good of the 800 excellent police officers that the city of Tulsa is blessed to have. I think it's time to look forward, and not a whole lot back."

Been was promoted to chief of police on Nov. 12, 2002, replacing 10-year veteran Ronald Palmer. Been could not be reached Monday for comment.

NTOA was created in 1983 and is the leading nonprofit association dedicated to the advancement of the Special Weapons and Tactics profession. With 35,000 members, NTOA provides training, knowledge and information to qualified law enforcement agencies and individuals.

NTOA's services were requested by Been in early November, Wells said, after two separate incidents in which Tulsa's SWAT team was called in. The latest incident raising concern happened in late October at Lakewood and Admiral, where a suspect shot a woman and also fired at responding police officers.

McCarthy, a director at NTOA and a retired tactical commander from the Los Angeles Police Department, visited Tulsa at least twice in early January, interviewing various police officers and doing an in-depth study of the Tulsa SWAT team's operations and performance.

A preliminary report authored by McCarthy contained some scathing criticism of the SWAT team and police leadership, LaFortune said. Neither Wells nor LaFortune would go into more detail, except to say concerns were raised about the tactics used by the SWAT team.

LaFortune said the report was already in Been's possession on Feb. 13, when he met with Been to go over unspecified public safety issues. There was no mention of McCarthy's report, LaFortune said.

The mayor said he didn't learn about the report until Feb. 17, when he was contacted by Bird. LaFortune said Bird was tipped off about the report by a former police officer.

After that, LaFortune said he met with Been and asked why the report hadn't been shared with him.

"He had reasons. He believed it was a report to him, and he was taking action," on the recommendations, LaFortune said. "My response to him was 'That's fine.' However, this report is a very serious, serious report, and as the police chief, he has the duty to get it to me immediately."

LaFortune faces four challengers in his re-election bid this spring, including two Republicans. Some candidates have criticized LaFortune recently for the recent spate of homicides and violent crime in Tulsa, and for having too few cops for the city's population of nearly 400,000.

But the mayor denied politics were involved in Been's discipline. He said the decision was based not just on the report, but also on phone conversations he had with McCarthy.

"The issue came to me and I had to deal with it appropriately," LaFortune said. "I am the leader of this city and this is what I have to do every day."

John Dobberstein reports from The Journal Record's Tulsa bureau. 
 
February 21, 2006

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