(Part 1 of 2)
Me: What’s something people might not know about the Oklahoma City Police Department?
Major Nick Elias (Commander, Oklahoma City Police Department, Southwest Division): All across Oklahoma City, we now have about 200 body cameras for our officers. These body cameras are utilized by evening shift officers. We expect to expand the program in the future when funds are available. These cameras have been extremely beneficial. Our officers turn the body cameras on for Priority 1 & 2 calls for service and traffic stops. Once the cameras are on, everything goes on record. If there is a review process, for example, if an officer is involved in use of force or if there is a complaint filed, we will review the body cam video. Most of the time, our officers have done nothing wrong. When we go back and look at the footage, it’s great, because it tells the whole story. Most of the time, the complaints are not substantiated. Regardless, use of the body cameras can go a long way to establish transparency and build trust with the people we serve and protect.
Our policy as police officers is to always treat people with respect, even in stressful situations or situations where we have to make split-second decisions. Like anyone else though, we police officers are human beings. Human beings make mistakes. For instance, sometimes you might be in the heat of battle or in a dangerous situation, strong words may slip out. When we do make mistakes, our actions are reviewed. The review process is then reviewed up through our chain of command to the Chief. The officer involved may need to be disciplined, take remedial training, etc.
The Oklahoma City Police Department as a whole has been growing and moving in a positive direction. I have not seen one problem case here at this division. I’ll be real honest with you, I’m really glad we have the body cameras. I prefer to have my actions on camera. That way you know the truth. There’s no he said, she said or ‘Well, of course you’re going to take the officer’s side.’ It is what it is. I have all the confidence in the world my officers are doing the right thing, so I’m really not worried.
Me: Tell me about something you’ve been through that sticks out in your mind?
Maj Elias: After the Murrah Building Bombing in 1995, I was working at the Hefner Division. The FBI had called and asked, ‘Hey, do you have any officers that can come up here?’ At the time, we didn’t know what it was for. We went to the FBI office and met with Agent Chuck Choney. I wasn’t expecting it to happen, but we then went to US Marshall’s office to pick up Timothy McVeigh and transported him to Tinker (AFB) for his arraignment.
McVeigh didn’t have the confident look on his face as depicted in the media back then. This guy was extremely scared and in a bulletproof vest. In person, he looked like a young kid right out of the military, worried and not grasping what was really happening to him. If you were to just go off of his appearance, it wouldn’t have raised any red flags. Right there’s one of the scary parts to policing. What does a bad guy look like? You never really know. Anyway, the memory of being part of something like that so randomly has stayed with me since.
Another incident that comes to mind happened when I was dealing with a guy really putting up a fight and resisting arrest. A different guy, one I arrested and put in jail on a different day, saw what was happening, ran over, and started to help me. Later on when talking with the guy that helped me, he said, ‘No, (the arrest) was my fault. You were fair with me.’ That has always stuck with me. Just treat someone fairly. I’m not a judge. We as police officers have a job to do. The fact that this guy, someone I arrested during another day’s work, thought enough of me as a police officer to come help me had me wondering if I should start treating everyone extra, EXTRA nicely!
Me: What didn’t you hear early on in your career that you try to communicate with your officers now?
Maj Elias: Slow down. I was always quick, take the next call, go to the next one, look for this, and look for that. I wanted to accomplish a lot. Looking back, I wish I would’ve known to slow down. I only thought about looking for the criminals. Now the culture of our department is such that our officers look for opportunities to connect with and help the community out. They see some kids out in the neighborhood, they take the time to stop, maybe play some ball with them and talk with them. When I was first hired on, my Lieutenant or Sergeant would see that as goofing off.
The perception, being engaged with the public, we do a lot better job now than before. We were a lot more standoffish when I first came on. You didn’t talk to the police or call them unless you were in trouble. Now we’re actively engaged in the community and doing other things besides stopping people, checking them, and writing them tickets. I think that’s the right attitude. I do wish that I would’ve been more perceptive earlier on in that regard.
While the culture of policing has changed over time, the common theme has always been helping people. We get to help people by holding them accountable. For the most part though, it’s helping citizens who need advice or don’t know who to ask for help, or how to receive services. The best part is being able to provide assistance to people that might not be a police issue. It’s like being there for your mom or your dad, being that person to turn to when he or she has nowhere else to turn.
Me: What have you struggled with the most in your career?
Maj Elias: My biggest obstacle was dealing with the needs of many different people in society. Their perspectives, life experiences, culture, values and beliefs can be very different. Trying to alleviate their problems or issues can become very complex. The law does not cover every incident an officer deals with. I’ve had the greatest amount of success by listening and building relationships in our community. I’ve met many people who are in the business of helping others. One example is Jan Peery who runs the YWCA’s Battered Women’s Shelter. She has provided services to many women and children who had nowhere else to go in a domestic situation. Without people like her, our job would be extremely difficult.
Me: What are you not really a fan of in your line of work?
Maj Elias: Paperwork. Police work is probably 95% paperwork and 5% excitement. Paperwork, that’s what keeps this place going. It’s the highlight of my day whenever I get to get out from behind the desk, show up with my officers, take a call, and feel like a real policeman. Most of the time for me, I’m in meetings and doing paperwork. I’m not as engaged as I used to be at this level, but I sure do miss it.
Me: What’s something you feel really proud of, something you’d consider a huge win?
Maj Elias: I’d say my best victory has been seeing others succeed, which is often. I used to just focus on myself and what I wanted to achieve in life. Then I realized it’s not about me, it’s about helping other people succeed no matter what your job is. If you help yourself, you’ve helped only one. If you help others, everyone wins. I’m a big believer in teamwork and diversity. The team will overcome many difficult obstacles. Having a diverse group ensures we don’t get stuck in single minded thinking and we stay on track. It’s like having a football team. You wouldn’t be very successful if you had all quarterbacks.
Me: How would you like to be remembered?
Maj Elias: Our police department is extremely employee-centric. That’s who we are. The leaders serve our officers more so now than we ever have before. Before, you didn’t talk with your Captain, your Major, or anyone in your executive command. You talked maybe to your supervisor and you didn’t look at the other senior officers. Now we try to figure out what our officers who are actually doing the job need. How can we support them? How can we best help them to perform optimally? It works out really well for all of us. I think it’s a generational shift and technology has helped a lot.
I’d like to be remembered as someone who was supportive, honest, fair, and gave good advice. I want people to know it’s important to foster an environment where it’s ok to mistakes. You learn and grow from your mistakes. I’d be happy to just be remembered as someone who was supportive and helped others along in their careers.