The new head of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety defended the highway patrol’s pursuit policies this week in an interim study.
DPS Commissioner Tim Tipton, in his first week on the job, told lawmakers the agency must balance keeping a civil society by catching bad guys with protecting the lives of innocent bystanders, troopers and the suspects they chase, in that order.
Tipton said there is no “high-speed chase” mentality within the Oklahoma Highway Patrol; troopers set out to close the distance between their vehicles and the person’s they’re pursuing, then stop them with the appropriate use of force.
"You know, a lot of times, we hear the term that 'the trooper started a pursuit.' Well, the trooper didn't start the pursuit, the criminal started the pursuit, and then the trooper had to make a decision on how to handle that, what's the best way to apprehend that criminal," Tipton said.
The study was requested by Rep. Ajay Pittman, who cited a law firm’s study showing police pursuits killed 52 Oklahomans from 2014 through 2018, four of them bystanders. An ongoing Tulsa World investigation has found 18 people have died during OHP pursuits in the last five years, with five people completely uninvolved.
Tipton said OHP has what’s called a restrictive pursuit policy, meaning troopers can initiate them, but a monitoring supervisor can call one off for a variety of reasons.
"And we have to remember, at any moment during this chase, the criminal — the fleeing criminal — has the opportunity to submit to the lawful orders of that trooper," Tipton said.
Factors like the weather and traffic are among those considered when deciding whether to end a chase. But pursuits allowed to continue have ended with tragic consequences.
In May 2017, 23-year-old William Bruckman was killed when a man fleeing from police and OHP in a stolen Oklahoma Natural Gas truck hit him head-on on Highway 75. Troopers were chasing the man the wrong way.
Bruckman’s widow, Melissa Bruckman, told lawmakers ONG was tracking their stolen truck via GPS, and officers passed dozens of cars before the crash.
"It's easy to sit back and ... go, 'Yep, should have done that. Yep, should have done that. Yep, should have done that,' but I'm pretty sure chasing somebody backward onto the highway is something all of them should have known they shouldn't have been doing," Bruckman said.
Bruckman told lawmakers she accumulated $90,000 in debt because of the crash that killed her husband.
The severity of the crime committed is another factor OHP says it considers in a pursuit, but the Tulsa World reported stolen property or traffic violations started all but one of the agency’s chases ending in death.
In February of this year, a 31-year-old woman and a girl were killed in Tulsa when OHP’s high-speed pursuit of a stolen pickup ended after 15 minutes with the 14-year-old driver crashing into the woman’s SUV on 21st Street.
And OHP is not the only agency with a pursuit policy being questioned. Taletha Henderson told lawmakers she and her brother were badly injured in March 2020 by a driver fleeing from Oklahoma City Police who hit her car as she was pulling into her driveway.
When I looked up the charges that this man had, they were drug charges, which are very important, but it wasn't nothing violent to where I felt like a high-speed chase should have been in pursuit because that then put the citizens at risk," Henderson said.
Henderson said she still can’t pay her medical bills from the crash, and no attorney will take her case because a police department is involved. OKC PD representatives at the study told her to look into the state victims compensation fund.