To the Tulsa PD

From everything I know about retired Tulsa police investigator Tyrone Lynn, he’s a modest sort of guy. Lynn spent 20 years working for the Tulsa PD, his last stint as a sex crimes investigator and hostage negotiator. I am certain that when Lynn was called in to help with a desperate situation that unfolded on national television, he never foresaw how it would affect the perception the public has of the Tulsa PD, or police in general, but it has.

The drama started in mid-August when a disturbed man named William Boyd Sturdivant II climbed a Tulsa tower and refused to come down. News operations across the country trained their cameras on Sturdivant, who balanced on an impossibly thin perch in the terrible heat of summer for an amazing 128 hours. Many times he appeared to slip and nearly fall. For the most part, he refused food and water, and even took short catnaps on his narrow perch.

Police say that in addition to reporters and emergency personnel, dozens of spectators—some bringing their children—came to take a look at Sturdivant. It’s disturbing to think that watching an individual who obviously needs treatment for mental health issues would become a spectator sport, but as any law enforcement officer knows, people can be cruel and unpredictable. Observing the foibles of human nature is a puzzling part of the job.

But that’s not really what Sturdivant’s story is all about. What it celebrates (and yes, it was a victory of sorts) is both how far police agencies have come in their attitudes toward handling situations involving the mentally ill while providing a portrait of a department that did all the right things.

Let me stop a moment and talk about

mental illness in general. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2008 about five percent of the adult population in this country suffered from serious mental illness. It’s an expensive condition to treat, not simply because the medications and sessions cost a bundle, but also because there is no single best approach to these illnesses. Successful treatment is as unique as the individual and not participating in treatment methods by taking medication or going to counseling can lead to relapses.

These figures won’t surprise law enforcement professionals. From the local bag ladies who haunt the streets with their shopping carts piled high with possessions to the homeless wino passed out in the gutter, police have long dealt with individuals the rest of society would just as soon forget. And jails are full of the mentally ill: A 2002 Department of Justice study of mental illness in jail populations concluded that a whopping 64 percent of local jail inmates “satisfied the criteria for a mental health problem currently or in the previous year.”

For many years police did a poor job of dealing with mental subjects, but all of that began to change when the Memphis PD developed a protocol for handling these call-outs with compassion and an eye to better community relations. Although not every department is more enlightened when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill, things are getting better, one officer at a time.

And that brings us back to the Tulsa PD

and Tyrone Lynn. Supervisors, afraid that a misstep on their parts could cause the whole situation with Sturdivant to sour, called Lynn (the father of several grown boys) in to try his hand in talking the distraught 25-year-old man into coming down. Lynn stood in a cherry picker in the blazing Tulsa sun and prayed with Sturdivant, speaking to him like a father and mentor. And when it was all over, the man whose situation mesmerized a nation climbed down to get the help he really needed.

Good job, Tulsa PD.

Good job, Tyrone Lynn.