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2018 Election Preview: District Attorney of Tulsa County, Oklahoma (GOP Primary)

Steve Kunzweiler faces primary challenge, with the prosecution of a police officer in background

Steve Kunzweiler faces primary challenge, with prosecution of police officer in background

This article is part of the Political Report’s coverage of the 2018 criminal justice elections.

Following the death of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black man shot by a police officer in 2016, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler pressed charges against the officer who shot him, Betty Shelby. But Shelby was acquitted in 2017, and her prosecution is now a central issue in the Republican primary for Tulsa County district attorney. Kunzweiler faces Ben Fu and Tammy Westcott, both former employees of the district attorney’s office.

The Tulsa Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which has warred with Kunzweiler since he charged Shelby, has endorsed Fu. Fu faults Kunzweiler for making the Tulsa police feel unsupported and for “erod[ing] the public’s faith in that institution,” as his website puts it, and says that he would have behaved differently. For one, Fu says that he would have waited to see the results of an internal investigation by the Tulsa Police Department, whereas Kunzweiler acted based on a report produced within the district attorney’s office. Kunzweiler has also faced attacks for questioning the practice of allowing police officers under investigation to take 72 hours before giving a statement.

Complicating matters, Fu has also campaigned against what he calls a “culture of overcharging.” He says that he will devote more resources to “alternatives to mass incarceration,” including for drug-related offenses. Whereas Kunzweiler opposed a state proposal to make simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony, Fu has responded that district attorneys should “find a way to inspire [defendants] without having to have the ‘stick’ of prison hanging over their heads.” In addition, Kunzweiler has sought to attack Fu’s standing as a police champion by going after him over a client he was defending, a teenager accused of firing at police officers; Fu then dropped this defendant, just days after receiving the local FOP’s endorsement.

Update: Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler prevailed in the Aug. 28 GOP runoff against Ben Fu. Kunzweiler faces Democrat Jenny Proehl-Day in November. (See here for a preview of the general election.)