Black cops in Oklahoma work for change from inside

Ellie Melero The Oklahoman
Keri Overstreet, left, and Jarvis Nash are two Black officers with the Midwest City Police Department who are working to make a difference from inside the law enforcement profession. Ellie Melero/The Oklahoman

Carl Pendleton grew up with a healthy fear of cops.

Young and Black in Tulsa, Pendleton heard horror stories about the Ku Klux Klan and law enforcement’s sordid history with people of color. From an early age, he was taught about the dangers he would face as a Black man in America, and he was told to be cautious around police. He had no love for the institution that was meant to protect him.

But that changed when he was 8 years old.

One night, an officer from the Creek County Sheriff’s Office responded to a call at Pendleton’s home. The officer took Pendleton and his brother, sister and mother to a domestic violence shelter and made Pendleton feel safe for the first time in a long time.

After that night, Pendleton decided he wanted to be a policeman when he grew up. He wanted to make people feel safe the same way that officer had made him feel safe.

He began attending task force meetings about gang problems in Tulsa, and he fell in love with his future profession at 9 years old. But even at that young age he was able to tell there were problems within law enforcement.

At one of those meetings, the officers present talked about different indicators that signaled a person was involved in illegal activity. The conversation reminded him of the things his father and grandfather told him about why he should fear police.

“I was raised and trained and taught to fear law enforcement, and law enforcement was being trained and taught to fear people of color,” Pendleton said. “That’s a problem. I decided very early on that I wanted to figure out a way to fix that.”

And he has been working on it. He got involved with local law enforcement agencies in middle school and high school before playing football at the University of Oklahoma, where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 2009, Pendleton was sworn in as an officer with the Norman Police Department, where he still works.

Black Lives Matter

Almost 11 years later, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought renewed attention to issues of police brutality and institutional racism throughout the country.

Protests occurred in all 50 states and several countries in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and many people, politicians and lawmakers have called for police reform. Law enforcement has become one of the most hated professions in America.

That hasn’t fazed Pendleton. He’s been aware of these problems since he was a child. He has been working almost his whole life to fix it, and he has made progress.

He has had conversations with other officers, within his own agency and outside it, to try to educate them about their own cultural ignorance and to inform them that certain behaviors are not OK.

Pendleton knows things are getting better, but he also knows there is still work to be done.

Pendleton is one of the hundreds of Black police officers in Oklahoma who are proud to serve their communities and who work to improve their profession from the inside. But that doesn’t mean it’s not hard.

One of the hardest jobs

Detective Jared Loggins has worked in law enforcement since 2000. He has worked in a few police departments over the years, including the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office and at the University of Oklahoma’s Health Sciences Police Department, but he has been with the El Reno Police Department for almost nine years. According to Loggins, being a Black cop is one of the hardest jobs a person can have.

As a Black police officer, Loggins gets scrutinized more than most cops, and he gets this scrutiny from all sides.

Sometimes people he tries to help ask to speak to a different officer, and he knows they mean they want to speak to a white officer. At one of his previous institutions, he was the only minority officer, and he was disciplined harder and more often than his white counterparts.

Training isn’t enough

Loggins is one of the many Black cops around Oklahoma who believe racial problems within police departments can’t be fixed with training alone. He believes part of the solution is to get more minorities involved with law enforcement.

Sgt. Leterrill Cole shares this philosophy.

Cole is one of several Black officers with the Midwest City Police Department. Like many, he grew up hearing horror stories about bad cops. Even though he personally had never had a bad experience with law enforcement, he still didn’t see anything good about the profession.

The idea stuck with Cole, and he went on to work with the Oklahoma City Police Department for two years before joining the Midwest City Police Department.

Working as a Black cop in Oklahoma hasn’t always been easy. There have been times when he has been videotaped and called a pig, and he has been called slurs in the past. He knows there are people in the Black community who think of him and other Black officers as sellouts. But he doesn’t let any of that bother him.

And he has made a difference. Cole has worked as a patrol officer and an investigator in Special Investigations for Midwest City.

Most cops are good people

Pendleton, Loggins and Cole know from their own experiences most cops are good people, but that doesn’t stop them from calling their fellow officers out when they make insensitive comments or promote stereotypes.

Seeing what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis horrified, saddened and infuriated the Black officers from Oklahoma, but it also reminded them why the work they’re doing to fix racial problems from inside the institution is important.