Attorney Daniel Smolen is a founding partner of Smolen, Smolen & Roytman (ssrok.com), a Tulsa civil litigation firm founded in 2004. Smolen represents the family of Eric Harris, the Tulsan shot and killed by then-reserve deputy Robert Bates during an undercover sting operation on April 2, 2015. The Harris filing is one of a number that Smolen has brought or plans to bring against Tulsa County on claims that include civil rights violations and medical malpractice at the Tulsa County Jail.
The Harris fallout included a citizen petition effort led by Tulsan Marq Lewis and We the People Oklahoma with the help of attorney Laurie Phillips (not of SSROK). The highly contested effort led to a grand jury investigation that handed down misdemeanor charges against Sheriff Stanley Glanz, who resigned on Sept. 30.
Beyond Belief recently sat down with Smolen at his office to talk about the Harris case, the importance of citizen engagement, and some of the continuing challenges facing county government.
BB: Your firm has some legal history with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. Now that Stanley Glanz has resigned, do you feel a sense of accomplishment?
DS: We had been litigating with them for almost a decade. And some of the very same issues that became interesting to the community all of a sudden had been going on for years, and no one knew they were going on.
It certainly wasn’t our goal to get Glanz specifically out of office, but it was our goal to remedy a system that we felt was killing people unnecessarily. If that’s what had to happen for people to wake up and see there was a real problem, and if it had to be as startling and undeniable as the Harris shooting, then that’s what had to happen, and Glanz had to go from office.
But it really isn’t just one person. The whole system is broken. It’s a multitude of factors and people in decision-making positions who could easily alter their thinking, recognize the past problems, and come up with pretty simple ways to solve the problems. And ultimately, it would save the taxpayer a lot of money.
BB: What still needs to be fixed?
DS: Jail operations and jail medical absolutely have to be addressed. When you’re spending $700,000 on vacations in a year but don’t have enough money to hire a medical professional to supervise medical, or you don’t have enough money to hire staff to keep the staffing levels appropriate, then bad things happen. It snowballs and ends up costing people their lives, and costing money, and it’s so unnecessary.
Whoever becomes sheriff needs to look at the contracts that have been entered into and see if they’re in the best interests of the county, such as the ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] contract for housing inmates on ICE holds that increase the jail population way above what it should probably be, but only because there’s profit to the Sheriff’s Office in having that contract.
In property foreclosure situations, there’s misapplication of the appraising rules happening, for people’s benefit. That affects everybody. That is taking advantage of the poor, taking advantage of someone who came on bad times because their house was in foreclosure, only to benefit people who have money. It’s wrong. And it slows your community from developing. People complain about the roads, but I’m looking at the millions of dollars that are being wasted [through abuses].
BB: Is anyone addressing these problems?
DS: What’s disappointing is that right now, we’ve seen a void in any kind of leadership from the County to come in and make a decision and ask, “How do we fix the problem?” A lot of the problems aren’t that hard to fix. How do we get the victims compensated? How do we end the litigation? How do we end the cost and end the bad exposure that’s going on, and actually recognize the system has had some serious flaws? What they’ve done for years is just run from it, and it’s snowballed.
The way the Board of County Commissioners interacts with the functions of the County – like the Sheriff’s Office – needs to be revamped. There needs to be some sort of review system in place to make sure the county commissioners are doing what they’re statutorily responsible to do. They actually do have a job, and it’s statutorily mandated that certain things happen, and I don’t believe those are happening.
BB: You’re a civil litigator. Can you push policy change through your cases?
DS: One aspect of our work is that we are trying to get compensation for victims of civil rights violations – loss of a loved one. The other aspect of it is that I live in Tulsa County; I love Tulsa as a city, and I hate to see the good old boy cronyism system in place, because I think it slows the community down as a whole. If you’re a human being and you’re seeing the things we’re seeing – the deaths that are occurring – you should have a higher purpose than just winning cases. I’m seeing things that are very troubling as a person who lives in the City of Tulsa.
BB: What role do church communities have in effecting the kind of reform you’re talking about?
DS: These are community issues that are appropriate for any church to discuss. These are not issues that should divide based on religious beliefs or backgrounds. As a whole, the community should not want people dying in the jail. As a whole, people should want the deputies in the streets trained, and not to be there because of their financial donations. People in the community as a whole – rich, poor, black, or white – should want to make sure the county government is running as efficiently as possible so those resources can be available to help out where they are needed to help the community. Everyone has an interest in that. This stuff is very basic.
BB: What are your thoughts on the We the People petition and grand jury process?
DS: I was very happy with the process, because it had a lot of community involvement from the beginning. It was nice to see the community react and become educated. Tulsa’s had that voice repressed for so long that it will be great to have it, and I think it needs to be still stronger. I think Marq Lewis has done a great job with that, and, again, to have community involvement is really rewarding for me. Because sometimes it feels like I’m banging my head against the wall, and no one’s listening, and why do people not see how wrong this is, or how bad the system is right now?
To have someone in the community get other members of the community engaged and educated about it is important. We can’t do it all through litigation. The media plays an important role in it. Community leaders play an important role in it. Activists, churches… it has to be something that everyone recognizes.