Scott Ritter did some research on Major Travis Yates and the Tulsa Police Department.
By Scott Ritter
Special to Consortium News
In an essay penned for the online magazine LawOfficer.com (a self-described “industry leader in law enforcement news, original content and training…a true advocate for the profession”), Major Travis Yates, a 27-year veteran of the Tulsa Police Department, put the nation on notice: “America, we are leaving.”
Major Yates’ essay pulls at every heart string imaginable in building the case that the crucifixion of his fellow men and women in blue — “these super heroes” — at the hands of “cowards” (i.e., police chiefs, sheriffs and politicians) who no longer have “our back” when the going gets tough.
Yates invokes an evangelical air in couching his argument (indeed, as he told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, “it was almost like God was with me when I wrote it”), painting a disturbing picture of an “us versus them” confrontation where the “good guys” (the police) are being wrongfully cast as the “bad guys” by a society increasingly indifferent to the harsh reality of life as an American police officer.
- “Kids used to be taught respect and now it’s cool to be disrespectful.”
- “Supervisors used to back you when you were right but now they accuse you of being wrong in order to appease crazy people.”
- “Parents used to get mad at their kids for getting arrested and now they get mad at us.”
- “The media used to highlight the positive contribution our profession gave to society and now they either ignore it or twist the truth for controversy to line their own pockets.”
- “We used to be able to testify in court and we were believed. Now, unless there is video from three different angles, no one cares what you have to say.”
“I would never send anyone I cared about into the hell that this profession has become…I used to talk cops out of leaving the job. Now I’m encouraging them. It’s over, America. You finally did it. You aren’t going to have to abolish the police, we won’t be around for it.”
I read Major Yates’ essay. I then took a pause to reflect on what he wrote, before reading it again. And again. Then I did some research on Major Yates and the Tulsa Police Department.
Resume of Consummate Professional
At first blush, this is a harsh indictment of a man who has spent nearly three decades serving and protecting his community. Major Yates’ resume paints a picture of the consummate professional — the ideal, even, of what America should want a police officer to be.
He is highly educated, beginning his law enforcement career only after completing a four-year degree (the Tulsa Police Department is one of but a handful in the United States that require a bachelor’s degree for all potential recruits — most police departments require only a high school diploma or GED certificate). Yates went on to get his master’s degree in criminal justice and is currently completing his PhD in military and strategic leadership. Yates is a graduate of the FBI National Academy.
Yates spent the first 18 years of his career either in a patrol function or assigned to specialty units such as gangs, media relations, training and planning. In 2014 he was promoted to the rank of major, and placed in the elite Special Operations Division of the Tulsa Police Department, with responsibilities over SWAT, K-9, motorcycles, bomb squad, helicopter unit, reserve program, dive team and disaster response unit. Major Yates currently oversees the records division.
Yates has been a crusader of sorts for the cause of police officer safety, especially when it comes to the operation of emergency vehicles. In 2004, Yates — who at the time was a sergeant with the Tulsa Police Department and a supervisor within the Tulsa Police Precision Driving Unit — began writing articles to address the issue of emergency vehicle safety for the online magazine PoliceOne.com (described as an “online environment for the exchange of information between officers and departments across the United States and from around the world.”)
Yates eventually went on to write a monthly column for PoliceOne.com on driver safety, and his opinions became sought after by his fellow officers, for whom he provided tailored training, and the media, for whom he provided sound bites. By 2007, Yates began writing for LawOfficer.com, focused on “tactical driving tips.”
In 2010, at a conference for law-enforcement instructors, Yates observed to his colleagues “If we would just slow down, wear our seatbelts and clear intersections, we could get our line of duty deaths to below 100 a year.” Thus began Below 100, a program designed to reduce traffic-related police officer deaths by changing the culture of policing.
“Below 100 means supporting a culture of safety throughout your department,” the organization notes in its web site. “Make doing the right thing so ingrained in your personnel that it becomes the norm and not the exception. Just as importantly, hold accountable those who stray outside what should be common sense. Often, a private word with a misguided officer is all it takes to correct his or her misperception. Below 100 is committed to providing you the tools and resources you need to make a culture of safety thrive throughout your department.”
This is the Travis Yates his supporters want you to see — the consummate professional, focused on safety and improving the culture of policing for the betterment of the community he serves. And it is all true.
Another Side to the Coin
But there is another side to this coin. In his LawOfficer.com article, Major Yates noted that “With all this talk about racism and racist cops, I’ve never seen people treated differently because of their race. And while I know that cowards that have never done this job will call me racist for saying it, all I’ve ever seen was criminal behavior and cops trying to stop it and they didn’t give a rip what their skin color was.”
This sentiment was echoed the day after that article was posted when, during a regular Monday evening appearance on a radio show with Pat Campbell, a conservative talk radio host, entitled “Behind the Blue Line,” Major Yates (in his role as “private citizen”) addressed the role of law enforcement and the perception of systemic racism among the ranks of police officers across the country.
While acknowledging that there are racist cops, Yates points out that the Tulsa Police Department carefully screens each and every applicant, and if someone has exhibited any questionable behavior (“told a bad joke,” Yates noted), they would be denied employment.
This may be true. But Yates ignores the fact that there is a difference between racist police officers and a police culture that is systemically racist. At a time when the entire country is being torn asunder in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, Yates exhibits a level of tone deafness that hints at a larger problem of racism so deeply ingrained into American police culture that it is invisible to officers who hide behind statistics, and ignore reality.
Major Yates is a textbook case in point of this phenomenon. When Pat Campbell opined that “George Floyd has nothing to do with our community, Tulsa,” a clearly agitated Travis Yates shot back, “Tell me what that is doing other than furthering the divide between the police and the community.”
His Case for Exonerating Derek Chauvin
Yates then went on to articulate a case for the exoneration of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, noting that his actions were in complete conformity with departmental policies calling for the restraint of suspects resisting arrest.
Yates noted that both Chauvin and former Officer Thomas Lane, a rookie, can be heard discussing “excited delirium,” a condition which Yates claims meant George Floyd was a “dead man walking” unless the police intervened and tried to save his life by restraining Floyd and calling for paramedics.
Yes, you read that right — Yates was making a case that the Minneapolis Police charged with murdering George Floyd were trying to save George Floyd’s life.
[Note: LawOfficer.com, for which Major Yates serves as the executive director, has published an article entitled “The Acquittal of Derek Chauvin,” which echoes Yates’ comments to Campbell about George Floyd’s murder. It should also be noted that “excited delirium syndrome” is not a recognized diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s leading diagnostic manual, commonly known as the DSM, and its use by police is believed by skeptics as merely providing a convenient excuse to lay the blame for an officer-related death on the victim instead of the police.]
For Major Yates, the protests over George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police are part of a larger campaign organized and funded by Black Lives Matters (or BLM, whom Yates refused to name during the interview, citing legal concerns) in an effort to defund police departments over the issue of police brutality against blacks.
“Over the years,” Yates said, “because of this money, because of the marketing, they’ve [BLM] made regular Americans believe that cops are just hunting blacks down in the street and killing them, and its completely the opposite of what the research says and what the data says.”
The data, Yates notes, is what is important. “You get this meme of, ‘Blacks are shot two times, two and a half times more,’ and everybody just goes, ‘Oh, yeah,’” Yates told Campbell. “They’re not making sense here. You have to come into contact with law enforcement for that to occur. 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,” Yates 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.”
Then came the clincher. Citing research conducted by former Harvard University economist Roland Fryer, Heather Mac Donald of the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute and the National Academy of Sciences, 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.”
Statement Under Attack
Almost immediately, Major Yates’ statement came under attack. In a Facebook post put out two days after the interview, Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin and the Tulsa Police Department expressed their collective desire “to make it very clear we do not endorse, condone or support Yates’ comments made on the show,” adding “This matter has been referred to our Internal Affairs Unit.”
The mayor of Tulsa, George Bynum, similarly condemned Yates’ comments, noting in his own Facebook entry that what Yates said “goes against everything we are trying to achieve in community policing. He does not speak for my administration, for the Tulsa Police Department, or the City of Tulsa.”
For his part, Major Yates was unapologetic. When asked by a local Tulsa news affiliate if he believed black Americans weren’t being shot enough, Yates said, “That is absolutely nuts. I’m amazed that anybody would even ponder that. That’s crazy. I was citing data, that said they’re underrepresented in that data. And so, I don’t want anybody to be shot. Nobody does, but the data that most people are believing, there is alternative data out there and that’s the data I was citing.”
The data, however, isn’t that clear. Roland Fryer’s study, cited by Yates, has been challenged by the results of two major academic studies, which found that “Fryer’s analysis is highly flawed,” suffering “from major theoretical and methodological errors” which Fryer communicated to the media “in a way that is misleading.”
According to a Harvard blogger, Justin Feldman, “While there have long been problems with the quality of police shootings data, there is still plenty of evidence to support a pattern of systematic, racially discriminatory use of force against black people in the United States.”
Moreover, Heather Mac Donald, who has “devoted her career to the proposition that anti-white racism is a far more serious problem than anti-black racism,” and is employed by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank which, among other ideas for urban reform, promotes “proactive policing” as a means of combatting crime.
In Tulsa, “proactive policing” has generated serious controversy in the aftermath of a pedestrian stop of two black teenagers by members of the Tulsa Police Department Organized Gang Unit (OGU).
These officers, along with members of the department’s Crime Gun Unit (CGU) are tasked with interdicting and removing illegal firearms from the streets of Tulsa — the epitome of “proactive policing.” Major Yates, whose resume includes service in the Tulsa Police Department OGU, is fully aware of the realities of “proactive policing” and the skewing effect it has on police statistics.
“You have to apply law enforcement with people you are coming in contact with,” Major Yates told Patrick Campbell. “Are you going to look at population or crime? When you talk about demographic parity, that is very difficult.” But there is nothing about the Tulsa Police Department’s takedown of the two black teenagers that can be explained by anything other than racial profiling.
And in a state with one of the highest police shooting rates in the country (42 shootings per million people, with 165 shootings since 2015), the reality is that by violently detaining those black teenagers in the manner they did, the Tulsa Police Department’s OGU needlessly created a situation that could have rapidly escalated out of control, resulting in a scenario which had one or both of the black youth’s shot dead by police.
Just ask Major Yates.
In a 2016 article published in LawOfficer.com entitled “Follow Commands Or Die,” Yates argued thus:
You can debate all day long about what proper police force is, when it should be used and if the entire criminal justice system is racist but there is one thing in common with every so called ‘excessive force’ video you have seen in recent years.
The suspect is not following commands.
Should there be a discussion about police training and police reform and making sure our officers have all the tools they need to do their job as safely as possible? Of course, but let’s be honest, there is a responsibility on the citizenry to follow the instructions of a police officer in front of them. It is a basic premise that every law-abiding person should be able to adhere to.
The way I see it, we have two options to stop police use of deadly force. Police stop being police or…citizens can do what an officer says to do.
Tell that to George Floyd. Or the two unnamed Tulsa youths detained by the OGU. Or any number of black males gunned down by police officers carrying out the kind of “proactive policing” which creates “police contact” under circumstances that are far more nebulous than the black and white scenarios Yate’s draws upon in making his points.
Yates, through his company SafeTac, teaches police officers around the country a course entitled “Seconds 4 Survival: Win the Ambush.” Promoted as “a dynamic, media intensive course designed to reduce the reactionary gap that can lead to deadly consequences in law enforcement interactions with suspects,” “Seconds 4 Survival” provides “real life scenarios combined with tactical considerations…that will give the student the knowledge to survive attacks.”
When you add a mindset pre-programed to treat every encounter with a citizen as a potential ambush, and the resultant hair trigger response Yates promotes as part of his approach to policing, you get a recipe for disaster —one that, statistically speaking, places black lives at risk far more than white.
Every new police officer joining the Tulsa Police Department takes an oath of office which contains the following statement: “I will protect the Right, Lives, and Property of all citizens and uphold the honor of the Police Profession, with my life, if need be.”
If you join the Tulsa Police Department, you have to be aware of the city’s troubled past with its black residents. The Greenwood massacre of 1921 left between 200 and 300 blacks murdered at the hands of a white mob, and the entire black suburb of Greenwood burned to the ground. Tulsa is still coming to grips with the horrific reality of that event, with its current mayor only now ordering a renewed investigation.
The Tulsa Police Department, recognizing that there is an inherent distrust among the black community of the police, has made efforts to bridge this gulf through community policing. These efforts, however, have been undermined by the efforts of Major Yates and others like him, who seek to eradicate racial disparities in the use-of-force within the Tulsa Police Department through the misleading use of statistics — “data,” as Yates would say.
Major Travis Yates, while claiming to defend this oath, has in fact betrayed it through his actions and words, which promote the very racism he denies.
“I wouldn’t wish this job on my worst enemy,” Major Yates concluded in his essay, “America we are leaving.”
After digging into the details of both Major Yates and the history of systemic racism that exists in the Tulsa Police Department today, all I can say is, “Good riddance.”
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.