In a 14-month span, state troopers led seven vehicle chases that resulted in eight deaths — two were uninvolved motorists, and the latest was one of their own lieutenants.
No discipline was handed down in any of the seven pursuits as all troopers’ actions were deemed to be within policy by the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, according to records.
In a recent interview with the Tulsa World, DPS Commissioner Rusty Rhoades said he found “nothing that concerned me” after reviewing trooper actions in those fatal pursuits. Rhoades emphasized that courts have ruled law enforcers aren’t responsible for what violators do in chases.
“When you look at the time frame that you just mentioned, there’s no technical reason or operational reason for that,” Rhoades said. “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.”
Lt. Heath Meyer’s death
Lt. Heath Meyer died July 24, 10 days after suffering critical injuries when a trooper’s cruiser struck him as he attempted to remove stopsticks from the interstate during a high-speed chase.
Statements from troopers involved and those who reviewed the videos emphasized the pursuit’s “extreme danger” and its “reckless nature” — but in the moment no one called it off.
Documents also reveal the chase’s secondary trooper tried to overtake the lead trooper when the wreck occurred — an action prohibited in policies of the two largest law enforcement agencies in Tulsa County unless specific permission is given before attempting to pass another pursuing vehicle.
Trooper Rodney Rideaux pulled over a 1998 Honda Civic for following too closely after 10 p.m. July 14 on Interstate 35 in Moore.
The Civic’s driver, later identified as D’angelo Burgess, sped off after he allegedly told Rideaux that he had no driver’s license and Rideaux had walked back toward his cruiser.
A captain who responded to the pursuit blockade location described the chase’s hazards in his written statement:
“Rideaux further stated that the vehicle was swerving in and out of traffic at 100 mph,” Capt. Garrett Vowell wrote. “Rideaux continued advising OHP dispatch that the vehicle almost hit someone and was passing vehicles on the shoulder, and Rideaux stated that the vehicle was going to hurt someone.
“This pursuit caused an extreme danger to the public.”
Trooper James Lowe, a traffic homicide investigator, reviewed footage and also noted the tremendous dangers.
“Lowe also observed a heavy amount of civilian traffic on the interstate during the pursuit, adding to the reckless nature of the event,” according to his statement.
In response to questions of whether the chase was too hazardous and should have been terminated, Rhoades said he won’t publicly address the matter until it has gone through the court system.
“I worry anything I say could have an influence on that criminal case, and I certainly don’t want that to occur on behalf of either party involved,” Rhoades said.
Meyer’s devastating injuries happened after the Civic went through another trooper’s stopsticks in the center lane.
Meyer, on the inside of the interstate, and another trooper on the outer edge had each tossed out stopsticks to try to cover all three northbound lanes.
Rideaux, the lead pursuit car, slowed to avoid the stopsticks and began to move left toward the inside. Trooper Clint Painter, driver of the secondary pursuit car, began to overtake Rideaux on the inside shoulder.
The two collided, and Painter’s vehicle then struck Meyer, who had stepped over the concrete center divide to remove his stopsticks from Rideaux’s path.
The impact threw Meyer over the barrier and into the southbound lanes of the interstate.
The Highway Patrol’s collision report found no improper action by Rideaux or Painter.
In a news conference three days after the wreck, an OHP official stressed that the incident happened in four-tenths of a second and “wasn’t avoidable by the part of our troopers.”
As documented in the collision and investigative reports, however, Painter, in the second cruiser, attempted to overtake the lead pursuing vehicle.
The Tulsa Police Department’s policy bars one unit from passing another without authorization: “No officer shall pass the primary pursuit vehicle or any other pursuit vehicle unless requested to do so by the pursuing officer, pursuit monitor, or other supervisor.”
The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office also has a ban: “There will be no attempt to pass any other law enforcement vehicle involved in a pursuit unless permission has been granted by that unit or the field supervisor.”
Commissioner Rhoades declined to tell the Tulsa World whether OHP’s policy prohibits that type of maneuver during a chase or if it even addresses the issue. An exemption specific only to the Department of Public Safety allows the Highway Patrol to keep secret items of a “tactical nature.”
Documents the Highway Patrol provided to the Tulsa World included statements from other troopers but not the two who collided: Rideaux and Painter.
Burgess, 28, was arrested a couple of minutes after the collision, with other troopers taking up the chase. Burgess stopped at a closed gate of a nearby private property.
He is charged with felony first-degree murder, attempting to elude law enforcement, possession of marijuana, and possession or selling of paraphernalia. His district court arraignment is set for May 11.
Pursuit records, policy
The Tulsa World filed requests for records related to each of the fatal pursuits as the tally mounted from May 2016 to July 2017 under former DPS Commissioner Michael Thompson.
The newspaper didn’t receive the bulk of the records until after Rhoades, an OHP major, was appointed as commissioner by the governor in November.
The reasons given by OHP for initiating each pursuit were: speeding (91 mph in a 70 mph zone) and suspected DUI; speeding (81 mph in a 65 mph zone); expired tag; following too closely and no driver’s license; stolen vehicle; stolen vehicle and attempted assault and battery with a deadly weapon against a police officer; and another that isn’t stated in documents.
Names of participating troopers were redacted or not included in some of the documents, making it difficult to track who was involved.
And because OHP cites the “tactical” exemption in state open records law, the public can’t scrutinize its chase policy, unlike some other agencies.
For example, the Tulsa Police Department posts its entire 593-page policy and procedure manual online for public consumption and examination.
Rhoades isn’t open to that level of transparency. He said OHP’s pursuit protocols are guided by court decisions and have never been found to be “inappropriate” in criminal or civil proceedings.
“I really have no interest in pushing that out or online,” the commissioner said. “Obviously in a criminal case or even a civil case, it’s accessible by those that require it or ask for it in those scenarios.
“I don’t want to do anything that gives a fleeing suspect — or any of our other tactics within our exemptions — the opportunity to defeat that tactic, which would allow them to potentially hurt one of our troopers or the general public.”