The Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s “confidential” vehicle pursuit policy includes prohibitions against wrong-way chases and overtaking the lead pursuit unit that appear to have been broken in separate chases that killed an OHP lieutenant and an uninvolved motorist.
Both fatal crashes also appear contrary to the pursuit policy’s overarching aim to “promote the safety of all persons” and strike a balance between “law enforcement effectiveness and the risk of injury to the public.”
The Highway Patrol didn’t hand out discipline in either fatal crash, which involved people who hadn’t committed a violent crime prior to fleeing and were unarmed.
In the first, two troopers chased a stolen utility truck the wrong way in May 2017 on U.S. 75 in Tulsa while passing numerous oncoming vehicles. Moments after they disengaged, the truck crashed head-on into a vehicle, killing a married father of three children.
In the second, a trooper was driving about 100 mph only seconds before coming to a partial road block set up for a traffic violator in July 2017 on Interstate 35 in Moore. The trooper side-swiped the nearly stopped lead pursuit cruiser while trying to pass on the inside shoulder to continue the chase. He ricocheted off and slammed into an OHP lieutenant on foot, inflicting devastating injuries.
The Highway Patrol has zealously defended and kept secret its vehicular pursuit policy, citing an open records law exemption on “tactical” items applicable only to OHP.
But public defenders cast the policy into the spotlight during a recent felony murder trial in the pursuit-related death of OHP Lt. Heath Meyer. As a defense trial exhibit, that policy became an open record obtained by the Tulsa World through the court clerk’s office.
Department of Public Safety Commissioner Rusty Rhoades, who oversees OHP, declined to be interviewed by the Tulsa World for this article. He also didn’t respond to written questions.
OHP’s 12-page policy addresses pursuit maneuvers — such as tactical vehicle interventions, ramming and road blocks — and responsibilities — such as assessing environmental factors and communication. In four spots it stresses the importance of evaluating the evolving hazards of a pursuit against benefits from a potential arrest.
OHP spokeswoman Sarah Stewart said the agency still doesn’t consider its pursuit policy to be an open record.
In denying interview requests, Stewart conveyed that the commissioner said he previously spoke to the Tulsa World about the wrong-way chase on U.S. 75 and that the trial testimony in Meyer’s death should suffice.
The copy of the policy the Tulsa World received was in effect from April 2014 until at least the time of Meyer’s death. Stewart said the policy underwent some changes after Meyer died.
Previously, the agency offered a general statement that its policy appropriately balances the need to apprehend offenders for justice with the need to protect citizens from pursuit hazards.
“Our policy cannot be compared to, or judged by, any similar policy of another agency because there are a variety of philosophies that exist among pursuit policies of law enforcement agencies,” according to OHP’s statement. “The policy of the OHP takes into consideration the unique mission, responsibilities, training and equipment of the Patrol and also incorporates the standards imposed by state and federal law.
“No state or federal court has ever held the pursuit policy of the OHP to be unconstitutional, inadequate, insufficient, ineffective, or contrary to law.”
Eleven months ago, Rhoades said he found “nothing that concerned me” after reviewing trooper actions before his interview with the Tulsa World about seven chases that killed eight people in a 14-month span. Two fatalities were uninvolved motorists. Meyer, 43, was the last death.
“When you look at the time frame that you just mentioned, there’s no technical reason or operational reason for that,” Rhoades said at the time. “I would also say, you brought seven roughly into that 14-month time frame, remembering there were hundreds of pursuits in that time frame.
“So there’s always that conversation after each one, someone is having that conversation to ensure that we did things correctly.”
Expert: Chase should have stopped based on policy
Jurors convicted D’angelo Burgess, 28, of felony first-degree murder in Meyer’s death for eluding troopers as Meyer was struck by another trooper.
Legally, felony murder in Oklahoma is defined as when a person dies as “a result of an act or event” during the defendant’s commission of a dangerous felony.
The public defenders tried to portray troopers as acting too aggressively and failing to adhere to policy and training, creating a situation too dangerous to continue chasing.
Geoffrey Alpert, the defense’s expert witness, told jurors he doesn’t like OHP’s policy unless there is an “enormous amount of training” to go with it. He said the agency’s policy is balanced more toward catching suspects than safety of motorists and pedestrians.
Alpert, a criminology and criminal justice professor from the University of South Carolina, has researched high-risk police activities — such as auto chases — for more than three decades.
“You can’t chase until the wheels fall off; that’s not appropriate,” Alpert said.
Alpert testified the pursuit began with only the knowledge of two safety violations — following too closely and failure to wear a seat belt — and quickly evolved into speeds over 100 mph in heavy traffic.
“And that’s the point at which it should be terminated by national standard and their own policy,” Alpert told jurors.
OHP Capt. Ronnie Hampton was the case agent for prosecutors during the trial. Hampton testified that the policy played out as designed but that troopers did fail to broadcast environmental conditions — specifically vehicle and pedestrian traffic — that are weighed in whether to call it off.
He added that he saw no other issues related to training or policy.
Trooper Clint Painter and the other troopers knew the partial road block was near the 27th Street overpass on the concrete barrier-divided lanes of I-35. Painter was the secondary pursuer, with the responsibility to radio in speed, location, direction and other pertinent information.
The car being chased avoided the tire deflation devices at the partial road block that — along with flashing emergency lights — prompted other motorists and the lead OHP cruiser to slow down or stop.
But Painter testified he wasn’t certain why Trooper Rodney Rideaux was slowing and not still going after the suspect. Painter said he didn’t have time to stop before rear-ending Rideaux and that he refused to swerve right into another motorist.
So he went left onto the inside shoulder thinking he could overtake his slowing partner on “this wide open shoulder” and continue the chase. The OHP’s policy stated that troopers in a pursuit “shall not pass the primary unit unless requested to do so” by the primary car’s driver except for “extenuating circumstances.”
The data recorder in Painter’s car logged him at 97 mph 5 seconds before he side-swiped Rideaux’s cruiser and plowed into Meyer and the wall.
Painter was driving 82 mph at 2 seconds before impact. There was no anti-lock braking system activity until 1.3 seconds remained, and his speed was 59 mph when he hit Rideaux’s car.
Meyer was flung into the opposite lanes of the interstate and ultimately died 10 days later from his debilitating injuries. Neither Painter nor Rideaux filled out reports or gave statements on the pursuit, while the other troopers who were involved or responded to the crash did.
Alpert found it odd that the two troopers who actually engaged in the pursuit didn’t write reports because as an agency “you want to know what happened.”
‘There was no need to chase him period’
Jerry Lee Newman stole an Oklahoma Natural Gas truck from a repair shop in Sapulpa and eluded law enforcement for about a half-hour through Tulsa and the Tulsa International Airport grounds.
After two troopers passed about 30 oncoming motorists on U.S. 75, a supervisor radioed, “Just make sure we’re not following the wrong way on 75.” That prompted the troopers to peel off after going the incorrect direction for about 1 minute and 40 seconds.
Agency policy stated a trooper “shall not pursue a suspect vehicle the wrong way or in the opposing lanes of traffic unless extenuating circumstances exists (sic) that can be justified by the (trooper).”
The DPS commissioner told the Tulsa World in April 2018 that the supervisor’s warning not to chase the wrong way wasn’t an indicator the supervisor disapproved of what the troopers had done.
Rhoades said he wasn’t bothered by the troopers pursuing in the opposite direction on a divided highway and that the warning was part of the supervisor’s evolving assessment of the risks.
“He made that decision to drive that car the wrong way,” Rhoades said of Newman. “We’re duty-bound to do everything we can to stop that.”
Melissa Bruckman still disagrees.
She is the widow of William Bruckman, the 23-year-old man who was killed as he drove to work that morning. After reading the policy, she questioned who gets to decide what constitutes an “extenuating circumstance.”
Newman didn’t shoot at anyone, she said. Nor did he have a hostage or rob a bank.
“It was a simple property theft,” Melissa Bruckman said. “A vehicle that had GPS and an in-dash camera. There was no need to chase him period, let alone backwards on the highway. They would have recovered the truck.
“Was it worth the life of everybody on the roadway that day and ultimately my husband?”
As she and her three children cope with their loss, Bruckman, 36, has resigned from her job at the Customer Solutions Center for BH Media, parent company of the Tulsa World.
A Tulsa County District Court judge denied Newman’s defense attorneys the ability to use OHP’s pursuit policy in his trial. Newman, 26, was convicted of first-degree felony murder and sentenced to life with a possibility of parole.