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Top Tulsa police officer: 'We're shooting African Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be'

A top official with the Tulsa Police Department this week said that systemic racism in policing “just doesn’t exist” and suggested research shows police are shooting African Americans “24 percent less than we probably ought to be.”

Tulsa Police Department Maj. Travis Yates, who is white, spoke to podcast host Pat Campbell on Monday about the ongoing national protests against police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white Minneapolis officer was seen kneeling on his neck.

"You get this meme of, 'Blacks are shot two times, two and a half times more,' and everybody just goes, 'Oh, yeah,'" Yates said on the podcast. "They're not making sense here. You have to come into contact with law enforcement for that to occur.”

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"If a certain group is committing more crimes, more violent crimes, and law enforcement's having to come into more contact with them, that number is going to be higher,” he continued. “Who in the world in their right mind would think that our shootings should be right along the U.S. census lines? That's insanity.”

Yates added that some research states that “we're shooting African-Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be, based on the crimes being committed."

The officer faced severe backlash over his comments, originally reported by Public Radio Tulsa (PRT).

Yates on Wednesday defended himself, saying the radio outlet "misquoted" him and included a libelous claim reading: “...according to his interpretation of crime data, police should actually be shooting black Americans more frequently.”

"I never said actually. This is plainly false and factually inaccurate," Yates said in a statement to KTUL in Tulsa. "And to think that beyond a discussion of comparative statistics that I would suggest that the 'police should actually be shooting' anyone is simply outrageous."

"Clearly the published article does not reflect my hypothetical discussion of statistics based on the research of others," Yates continued in the Wednesday comments. "It makes no mention of the sources I cited. And it absolutely does not factually reflect my words."

On the podcast, Yates cited research from former Harvard University economist Roland Fryer, conservative political commentator and Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald, and the National Academy of Sciences.

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The officer's interview came just days after Mac Donald published an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal entitled “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism,” which argued there is no evidence of widespread racial bias in law enforcement. 

Yates, in the podcast, knocked the protests that have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death and the subsequent arrest of the officers involved.

"The officer was arrested the next day. They were prosecuted, they were fired. What are you doing? What do you mean, 'justice?' Justice at this point has been done," Yates said on Monday. "Well, then it turned into systematic racism, systematic police brutality."

"This is what they're trying to say that all these changes need to come from: this is why we're protesting, this is why we're rioting. Because of systematic abuse of power and racism. That just doesn't exist," he added. 

Yates also specifically cites a Washington Post database on police shootings and encourages listeners to review the data. However, that analysis found that although half of the people shot and killed by police are white, black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate

“They account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans. Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate,” the database states.

U.S. police officers are almost four times more likely to use force on black people than white people, according to a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Health. Black men are nearly three times more likely than white men to be killed by police intervention, according to the study.

The comments from the Tulsa officer are particularly striking given the city’s history with racism, including the 1921 Tulsa race massacre that featured a white mob attacking the predominately black Greenwood business district known as “Black Wall Street.”

Modern estimates from historians suggest that possibly 300 people were killed and more than 800 were treated for injuries. More than 35 city blocks were destroyed.

Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook, a former player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, on Tuesday announced that he was producing a documentary about the massacre.

"It's upsetting that the atrocities that transpired then, are still so relevant today. It's important we uncover the buried stories of African Americans in this country,” Westbrook wrote on Twitter. “We must amplify them now more than ever if we want to create change moving forward."

Public Radio Tulsa noted that in the podcast interview Yates alleges without evidence that journalists and an unnamed group are being paid to lie about policing, saying “they've made regular Americans believe that cops are just hunting blacks down the street and killing them.”

"It is so mind-boggling to me. That it is so over-the-top. It's not happening, but everyone believes that it is happening,” Yates said.

According to the outlet, Yates has been criticized in the past for statements about race.

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He faced backlash in 2016 for writing in an essay that American police were "at war" and implied Black Lives Matter activists should not be allowed to visit the White House.  

“Would we even know where Ferguson was if Michael Brown would have simply got out of the street like the officer had asked him to do?" Yates wrote in a 2016 essay, titled "Follow Commands or Die."

The Tulsa Police Department said in a statement that it does not “endorse, condone or support” Yates’s comments on the show and has referred the issue its Internal Affairs Unit.

“We want to make it clear the statements made by Yates are not a part of any curriculum or training provided by the Department. Yates’ comments do not align with the mission, values or policies of the Tulsa Police Department,” the department said.

It added that Yates is a major in the records division of the Tulsa Police Department, which is primarily staffed with civilian employees. His appearance on the podcast was done while he was not on duty and is not an official representation of the department or his fellow officers, the department noted.

“We respect the diversity in our ranks and the diversity in our community,” its statement said. “We are striving to do our part to heal pain in our community and we ask our community to continue to work with us as we endeavor for improvement.

The department in January named its first African American chief, Wendell Franklin, who spoke candidly about his personal experiences as a black man during a virtual town hall hosted by the Tulsa World last week. 

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“If I go into a store there and they don’t have what I need, I feel like I have to purchase something, because I don’t want to walk out empty-handed,” he said. “Because there’s that stigma that goes along with my race. Again, I don’t expect everyone to understand that.”

The chief said he was shocked by the footage of Floyd’s death.

“The images are just incomprehensible,” he said. “It’s not something that any law enforcement officer, to my knowledge, can stand there and defend.”

Tulsa police Capt. Richard Meulenberg told Public Radio Tulsa that “everybody’s got a right to their opinion” when asked about Yates’s comments.

“Obviously, he being a major with the Tulsa Police Department, it carries some weight that he has his opinion, and we'll have to just kind of go through this. I mean, I can't speak upon the thing that he talked about here because I don't have the data. I can't refute or substantiate what it is that he said here," Meulenberg said.

--This report was updated on June 11 at 7:05 a.m.