The fleeing driver who killed an uninvolved motorist moments after pursuers pulled back early Wednesday was nearing the threshold at which deadly force against him likely would have been justified, according to an Oklahoma Highway Patrol official.
The tragic conclusion to a dangerous situation underscores the high-stakes nature of how authorities decide to pursue a fleeing driver or terminate a chase. OHP Chief Rick Adams said in an interview with the Tulsa World that chases place officers in a “darned if you do and darned if you don’t” scenario.
Adams called the fleeing driver an “absolute imbecile” for the criminal actions that led to the death of motorist William Bruckman in a head-on collision on U.S. 75 near the Apache Street exit.
Adams noted that when the man drove a stolen Oklahoma Natural Gas truck onto the Tulsa International Airport grounds, the chances of “something going horribly wrong had just skyrocketed” and that he was “probably approaching the threshold” at which troopers would have been justified in using deadly force to stop him.
Before the pursuit went onto the airfield, the Sapulpa Police Department held the lead position because its officers had spotted the man prowling at a Sapulpa business and stealing the Oklahoma Natural Gas truck to get away.
Troopers made the call to pull back from the pursuit when the truck left the airfield and went the wrong way on U.S. 75. Commuters were beginning to enter roadways for the morning rush hour, Adams said, so the decision was made to “shadow” the driver.
“He was on his own at the point that this (fatal wreck) occurred,” Adams said. “Not that people weren’t still trying to catch him, but they weren’t right behind him.”
The pursuit was the fourth in the past year that involved the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and turned deadly, with five people losing their lives. The Highway Patrol repeatedly has declined to publicly release its policies and procedures on pursuits, citing an open records exemption that allows the agency to withhold records “which are of a tactical nature.”
“This is a longstanding position of the Department of Public Safety for as far back as I’ve been on (31 years),” Adams said. “I don’t see us changing that.”
In contrast, the Sapulpa Police Department turned over its chase policy Wednesday within hours of the Tulsa World’s request for the document.
Adams said the OHP’s pursuit policy has been reviewed in the past year but no changes were made. The most recent changes came “probably in 2013,” Adams said, and were alterations of language that didn’t change anything tactical.
OHP spokesman Dwight Durant noted that chases are dynamic, with troopers and supervisors holding the power to back off or cancel the pursuits depending on conditions. Weather, road conditions, speeds, possible intoxication, and foot or vehicle traffic in the area are factors, he said.
The Sapulpa Police Department’s nine-page policy says officers must “carefully weigh” how serious an offense is compared to the hazards of pursuing.
“Pursuit is justified only when the necessity of apprehension outweighs the degree of danger created by the pursuit,” according to the policy.
Highlights of the policy include:
• A field supervisor continuously reviews incoming data to determine whether a chase should be terminated.
• Officers are allowed to parallel the path of the pursued vehicle or block intersections to protect the public during the pursuit or after it’s terminated.
• Officers may not intentionally use their vehicles to “bump or ram” a fleeing vehicle to attempt to end a chase.
• Officers aren’t allowed to try to box-in, pass or drive alongside a pursued vehicle.
• Officers aren’t permitted to use “vehicle containment tactics” in a pursuit.