Former Tulsa Police Officer Shannon Kepler gets to keep his monthly pension despite being convicted of manslaughter.
The Oklahoma Police Pension and Retirement System was going to terminate the retirement benefit on the recommendation of the Attorney General’s Office in November, four weeks after a jury found Kepler guilty of in the death of his daughter’s boyfriend, Jeremey Lake, according to public minutes of the system’s board meeting.
But Tulsa Police Maj. Ryan Perkins spoke up during that meeting and argued that Kepler’s off-duty actions weren’t within the function of his police employment. A month later the board revisited the matter and took no action after a 13-minute executive session, allowing Kepler’s monthly payouts to continue.
Perkins said the AG’s Office then told the board at the December meeting that Kepler’s conviction doesn’t rise to the statutory standard to disqualify his pension benefits.
The AG’s Office declined a Tulsa World open records request for any records related to its review and decision on Kepler’s case, citing “attorney-client privilege” with the pension board. But Senior Deputy Attorney General Tom Gruber issued a brief statement Friday indicating the review isn’t a done deal:
“We are currently working with the new leadership at the Oklahoma Police Pension and Retirement System and the board to review the law applicable to this case. After our review is complete, we will give our formal advice to the board.”
State law stipulates that a municipal officer found guilty of a “crime related to the duties” of his or her employment will forfeit their retirement benefits unless the punishment is a deferred sentence.
Kepler was sentenced to 15 years in state prison.
TPD Maj. Perkins, who is chairman of the pension board, said the distinction is in at what point an unlawful act off-duty becomes an act under the scope of an officer’s employment.
In Kepler’s case, Perkins said, testimony determined Kepler was off-duty, not in uniform, in his personal SUV and with his private firearm when he fatally shot Jeremey Lake.
“Just because he committed a crime doesn’t mean he was acting as a police officer when he committed the crime,” Perkins said, emphasizing that none of Kepler’s actions that night were “within the scope of his employment.”
Kepler testified that he knowingly violated policy when he used an internal Tulsa police database to look up Lake’s history and figure out where the teenager lived. But that doesn’t necessarily matter, Perkins said.
“Just because he used a police system doesn’t mean he used it within the scope of his job,” Perkins said, noting that Lake wasn’t part of a criminal investigation so for Kepler to do so was “inappropriate.”
Kepler’s pension payment is approximately $2,600 a month, according to the formula for calculating an officer’s accrued retirement benefit.
Kepler, 57, retired in November 2014, less than two months after he was charged in connection with the off-duty shooting. He opted to take an immediate, lump-sum payout in exchange for a lesser monthly pension check.
Oath of office; case law
Perkins said he provided the AG’s Office with materials to review before the December board meeting, such as the department’s oath of office, rules and regulations, and training materials related to off-duty conduct.
TPD’s Oath of Office includes references to protecting the rights and lives of all citizens and obeying the law. The rules and regulations establish a standard of conduct for officers professionally and privately, which includes not committing crimes.
The oath in part states that “I will ... obey the Constitution and laws of the United States, the State of Oklahoma and the Charter Ordinances of the City of Tulsa.” It also states that “I will protect the rights, lives, and property of all citizens...”
The Department’s rules and regulations establish “standards of conduct which are demanded of police officers ... in the execution of their professional duties, as well as in their private lives.”
A subsection cites a duty to “know, enforce, and obey laws and ordinances,” placing responsibility on officers to know and obey them.
“Employees shall not commit a crime,” the standard states.
Perkins pointed to the 2003 assault and battery case against Prentiss Elliott as case law supporting his position. The case stemmed from a melee involving TPD Officer Josh Martin during halftime at a high school basketball game.
The officer was in uniform but not on duty. He was hired by Tulsa Public Schools to perform security and testified he acted under district regulations in trying to evict Elliott — a player — from the gymnasium, not arrest him.
A Tulsa County judge ruled during a motion hearing that the officer wasn’t in the performance of his official police duties, according to court documents.
“I think the board is taking the best option and, in this instance, deferred questions to the Attorney General’s Office, and ultimately it was their decision to allow Mr. Kepler to keep his pension,” Perkins said.
Sean Ruark, the pension board’s interim executive director, declined to reveal what advice the system and its board was given by the AG’s Office, citing a statute that reads “All information, documents and copies thereof contained in a member’s retirement file shall be given confidential treatment ... “
Kepler’s lump-sum payment upon his retirement was at least $168,000, of which about $21,000 was his own monetary contributions, according to his salary records and pension formulas.
The other $147,000 is made up of the $2,600 monthly pension payments (about $130,000) and half of the city’s contribution to his plan (about $17,000) in the 50-month period that made up his lump-sum payout. The estimates assume he made only the minimum required contributions to his retirement account and don’t calculate in the appropriate interest rates.