Park Perps

D.O.C. employees enjoy harming people

by Keith Purtell

Tree near incident site, southeast corner of park

Does the spirit of Nature move through wind and leaves? Is God revealed in the natural world? I'm looking at a tree rooted in a carpet of grass. The park is warm and peaceful this morning.

A friend has loaned me a digital camera to try out. Looking through the viewfinder as I sit in my car, I'm wondering if changing a setting on the lens will make photos sharper. The first image isn't aimed—I'm just holding the camera at shoulder level pointing straight ahead—so I delete that one. Then I focus on a hackberry tree to my left. The radio is on and guests on the TED Radio Hour are talking about computers.

There's a knock at the passenger side. I look over my right shoulder to see two women about age 30. I roll down the window.

"Are you taking pictures?" one asks. I start to answer, but the other woman interrupts: "Are you from around here?"

I realize they need directions.

Most men are happy to be knowledgeable and useful. So I take another breath to ask what place they're trying to find.

Spewing hostility

For licensing/permission: licensing@jukinmedia.com - Sherri Hastings

That's when they attack. It's a hail of accusations alleging assault on their children. (Any children would have been a block away—more than 90 yards.) They also repeatedly claim "We're in law enforcement! We're in law enforcement!" Their faces twist as they build to a frenzy. "Are you a registered sex offender!?" "Do you have a D‑O‑C number!?"

Sticking their faces into my passenger window, their pony tails lashing as they cock their heads first right then left like deranged clowns, they rant in stereo: "Do you have a D‑O‑C number!?" "Are you a registered sex offender!?" Their glee is obvious.

Context

My family has lived nearby for decades. The trees and creek are like an oasis. These natural features are meaningful to me; evoking the spiritual feelings I first had as a child.

In my 30s I began to realize that nature was where I most often connected with a timeless beauty of subtlety and grace; an unfolding of deeper meaning.

This park had always seemed to be a safe place. The east side was much more peaceful than the busy west edge.

The attack erased that sense of peace. I kept trying to answer their questions, believing a calm answer would make everything alright. That did not work. The one shouting the most virulent accusations told me I could "either leave immediately or wait for the police!"

Waiting for the law

That sounded good, because I was starting to get angry, and I believed there would be an accounting when police found out what the attackers had done. High on the adrenaline rush of the attack—the thrill of the kill—the two strutted back to rejoin their associates.

An officer arrived and asked for photo ID, and a description of what happened. I handed him the camera and showed him how to look through the images. Then I sensed movement behind me at the passenger's side window, and saw another officer peering at my vehicle contents.

Suddenly they had me out of the car and lifted my T-shirt to check for weapons. While we stood in the hot sun, shouting-woman No. 1 and shouting-woman No. 2 had returned to a group on the opposite side of the park. They had a good view of what they had started; a well-timed sucker punch.

Perps' perspective

Pick a side

One officer walked across that distance to interview the women. His return in less than 10 minutes surprised me. Two months later I would learn that the two had identified themselves as employees of the state penal system (not law enforcement), so "D‑O‑C" meant Department Of Corrections. I would also later learn that a man in the company of the women had lied to a 911 operator in order to lure police to the scene.

But on that day, I only knew that when the officer returned, he had become strangely disinterested in the attack and verbal harassment I experienced. In fact, he and a second officer shifted the tone of their remarks to focus on me. My image of police as defenders of public safety was fading.

They said I was "not a suspect," which I already knew, because the suspects were on the other side of the park. The officers added several remarks:

Shock & reckoning

Safe Place

They asked if I had questions. Dazed, I answered no. As I got back into my car, one of their vehicles headed south. That left their SUV and possibly a third vehicle. Each bore a logo: "Broken Arrow Police".

I looked in my rear-view mirror. The officers were closing up shop. No shirt lifting or vehicle searches for the people who staged the scenario. Nothing.

I've heard theories that the officers took sides with the perps to avoid inter-agency conflict with the Department Of Corrections, or that they saw the D.O.C. shouters as fellow government employees whose crimes could reasonably be overlooked. That ignores the fact that protecting the public from criminal aggression is a police officer's duty. The perps wanted armed men to act on their behalf, and they got exactly that. If ordinary citizens had done this, they would have ended up in front of a judge. The law should apply equally to everyone.

For days I couldn't calm down. On a Friday I called the police department records division. A friendly voice said enough time had passed for an incident report to be in the system, but my name did not result in a match. Why would they not have anything in their system?

The strangest thing I remembered was the way the shouters rotated their heads while hollering in tandem; as if their faces were windshield wipers at war with each other.

On a Thursday, I took a long lunch break and drove to the police department to fill out a Citizens Crime Report. Through thick glass, the ladies at the front desk told me they no longer offered that procedure but could have an officer speak with me. Instead, a young female employee named Yasmine called my smartphone from inside their offices. I told her I worried about what might happen next time I was at the park, that I did not understand what I had done that might have led to this.

'We will respond'

"You did not do anything wrong," she said. "If you are ever there and believe something is not right or that someone might be trying to create a problem for you, call us. Just call us and we will respond."

Wow. She was really nice. I walked out the front entrance. As I passed the few vehicles parked out front, one caught my attention. Where had I seen that compact black SUV before? With unique features on the roof and expensive metallic hubcaps? That raised a flag. At home that night, I used software to recover the image discarded as useless. I enlarged it.

There the vehicle was next to the group the attackers had been part of: Same color, same make and model, same features on the roof, and same hubcaps.

There is a long strip of asphalt named Interstate 435 that winds through the east side of the Kansas City metro. Late one afternoon in 2005, I traveled north there, returning from a job search in another state. Off to the right, I saw hillside homes and businesses lit up in the coral hues of a setting sun. I had a vivid impression of the lives of all the people there; their hopes and dreams and the stories of their local history. I was separated from them by the geographic distances of city life.

I remember that moment in my car, in relation to another moment 10 years later in the same car, in a park on a Saturday morning. As the attackers looked across some distance and beheld a person they did not know, they refused to recognize that I had a human life. They sought to impose on me the darkness in their own lives.

Public safety

Nature marks the beginning and end of this narrative: From the perspective of trees, history has propelled people into conflicts. As people abandoned green places and massed by the millions in gray places, they also specialized and became strangers to each other.

Two such strangers were in a park that day, and they leveraged their relationship with local law enforcement to add guns to the mix. The trees had no influence in this assertion of power, because the power of green things is diffuse. So, the conflict escalated.

Our cultural ideas of compassion have a provenance; a history of ownership by people willing to reach across emotional barriers. We see the benefits of understanding as self evident. But what of those like the park perps who view interconnection among all humans as a type of weakness? Those whose model of right and wrong is forged in violence?

It's unclear whether we can dissuade those who choose belligerence. But we can do our best not to be diverted from the shared truths that sustain human beings in healthy communities. There are safe places, especially in our hearts.

The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves.
—Terry Tempest Williams

Related: My camera work

A few past and current photos


FAQ

Could the D.O.C. people have been from another state?
I didn't get into that, but they were probably Oklahoma D.O.C. Here are some thoughts:

  1. In 2017, I got through to a top media relations person at the Oklahoma D.O.C.: Matthew Elliott. He apparently read this article. He expressed sympathy for what I experienced, and then he asked "Do you have any other photos of the individuals?" That raised a flag. There are no photos of the individuals on this page. So, what did he mean by "other"? Someone there paid close attention to how I described the only three images I captured that day. I wondered if he was fishing around to find out if I had evidence that would be strong in court. The only way to test this theory was send him the three pictures: Two of a nearby tree trunk, and one with a lot of dashboard included because I clicked the shutter while holding the camera at chest level. I sent the images and never heard from him again. Not strong in court.
  2. Penal systems in other states probably have a standard of ethics for employees. No, I'm not trying to be sarcastic. With Oklahoma's extreme fondness for locking up people of color, poor people and women, it's not a surprise that some of their employees enjoy randomly selecting other human beings to be their personal crime victims. And then, use their quasi-relationship with local police to avoid explaining themselves in open court, as would any other citizen under similar circumstances. It seems reasonable that D.O.C. people from other states would be less likely to go that crazy, or to assume such a degree of familiarity with police across the border.
  3. Physical access. I'm guessing that most people who visit a small park either live or work nearby.

Didn't the the police department employee offer to help?
Yes, she did, but the offer was only good for the future, and phrased that way for a reason. The odds of anyone else being aggressive enough to launch an attack in the park are low, and the odds that they also would be government employees are even lower. So, the kindness I was offered in that phone call does not extend so far as to hold D.O.C. employees responsible before the same laws that you and I obey.



Two years later -- no perps

Two years later—no perps

One year later, in August 2016 -- no perps

One year later, in August 2016—no perps

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