The Oklahoma Highway Patrol needs to take a closer look at when its troopers get involved in vehicular pursuits — and it ought to be facing the public when it does so.
Last Sunday, Tulsa World reporter Corey Jones showed that 18 people died in 15 OHP pursuits in the past five years, but that none of the chased drivers were suspected of violent crimes when the pursuit began.
The U.S. Justice Department says the state had the nation’s 11th deadliest rate of pursuit deaths from 1996 to 2015. When the Tulsa World examined National Highway Traffic Safety Association numbers for the years 2016 to 2019, the state had the fifth deadliest rate.
Innocent lives are at risk in every pursuit. Of the 18 deaths Jones considered, five were uninvolved motorists and one was an OHP lieutenant who was struck by another trooper’s cruiser at high speed.
None of the 15 pursued drivers were committing violent crimes when the pursuits began; indeed some of them were wanted only on petty misdemeanors.
One had an expired tag. Three were wanted only for speeding. One was accused of having stolen a bottle of liquor.
Let’s be clear: Some pursuits are necessary, even if violent criminals aren’t involved. For example, in one of the fatality cases, the trooper had already determined that the driver appeared to be intoxicated. During the chase, the speeding driver swerved into the opposing lane of traffic on a highway at night.
The chase resulted in a tragedy, but it seems unreasonable to conclude that the trooper could have judged before the fact that not pursuing the driver was the safest option.
There’s a balancing test to be done here, which means clear rules about when to chase and when to stop.
It also needs strict supervision — ranking officers looking over troopers’ choices while pursuits are happening and ready to call off the chase.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., told Jones that his 20 years of research clearly shows that no weight should be given to stolen vehicles or traffic offenses as justification to initiate a pursuit.
“It just isn’t worth it,” Wexler said. “The most important thing I can say: You can get that guy another day. You can get that car back, but you can’t get a life back.”
We agree, but we’re willing to listen to the other side of the argument. Unfortunately, top Department of Public Safety officials have been unwilling to talk to Jones to explain how they balance human life and the need to catch fleeing drivers.
Three successive Department of Public Safety commissioners have been resistant to Tulsa World requests for documentation of the traffic fatalities and internal OHP reviews that resulted.
With lives in the balance, it’s time for the OHP to explain publicly why it doesn’t need a better defined policy of when pursuits are appropriate and a stronger system of supervision to judge the wisdom of chases while they are happening.