A state trooper hit the rear of a stolen car at 109 mph and spun it out toward an approaching pair of headlights on a dark highway west of Siloam Springs. A motorist had to swerve to avoid the driver after he was ejected and landed on U.S. 412. The next car in the flow of traffic struck and dragged the man’s body.
Someone on scene told him not to discuss it, to “treat it like a shooting.” But first Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Steve Meridith described what he saw.
“Hell, that thing went airborne about four times in the air,” he can be heard saying on dash camera footage before at least two other OHP officials cautioned him about talking.
The Tulsa World reviewed OHP’s pursuit of Casey Don Bailey, 58, as part of an analysis series of trooper-related fatalities. Agency records indicate the chase was unnecessary — not just especially hazardous — because the driver had been positively identified during a traffic stop for a toll violation.
In-car video didn’t capture the wreck that killed Bailey, of Winslow, Arkansas, when he plowed a stolen Toyota Corolla into a concrete culvert at 103 mph on July 15, 2020. Bailey’s body can be seen flying over the trooper’s cruiser, slamming onto the highway in its headlight beams.
Footage shows some of the danger posed to other motorists by performing the chase-ending maneuver at 109 mph — the stolen car spun out toward an oncoming vehicle.
‘You can’t tell anybody else’
A supervisor approved the maneuver when Meridith radioed in speeds at 90 mph, saying he wanted to end the chase before entering West Siloam Springs. The supervisor, Lt. Timothy Gibson, didn’t know Meridith had stopped the car and gotten Bailey’s identification.
Gibson went to the scene after the wreck and became at least the second person, at that point, to advise Meridith not to talk about what happened.
A part-time member of OHP’s Officer Assistant Program, Gibson assumed the OAP role to assist Meridith in the aftermath, at the direction of a lieutenant who was acting commander of that troop.
Gibson told the trooper he, the lieutenant, couldn’t be subpoenaed against Meridith because Gibson is OAP. He said that if Meridith’s lieutenant is “worth [unintelligible], (he) won’t make you talk” or try to ask questions.
“I’ll just tell ya, you can tell me stuff, but you can’t tell anybody else,” Gibson said. “Which I know Ruben (Hernandez, another trooper on scene) wouldn’t say anything, but you can tell me stuff, and I can’t be subpoenaed against you.”
Meridith briefly described the traffic stop for a toll violation and how the car had been reported stolen. He said he still had Bailey’s driver’s license in his pocket.
“I was gonna say,” Gibson is heard saying on video, “the good news (is) he’s white.”
‘Try not to talk about it’
Under a statute taking effect Nov. 1, public safety personnel can get “peer support counseling privilege,” meaning communication between a trooper and “peer counselor” would not be admissible and “shall not be disclosed” in court or administrative proceedings.
Gibson was referring to a rule that isn’t yet Oklahoma code, according to DPS spokeswoman Sarah Stewart.
“Gibson can be subpoenaed, and he did provide a statement in his role as supervisor,” she told Tulsa World on Thursday.
She was asked how problematic, if the law had been in effect, the state agency would consider the situation: OHP directing the supervisor of a fatal pursuit to then assume a peer counseling role in the aftermath.
Stewart’s response didn’t directly answer the question.
Lt. Roger Starling, the acting troop commander, also spoke briefly with Meridith in the aftermath of the fatal pursuit; he was at least the third person on scene to caution Meridith not to discuss the pursuit much. In a written report, Starling described Meridith as “visibly shaken.”
“I’m not gonna ask you a lotta questions or anything,” Starling told Meridith. “I just want to make sure that you’re OK; that you’ve made the calls that you need to.
“I would try not to talk about it a whole lot to a lotta folks, and we’ll get ‘er taken care of. OK?”
OHP: Speed warning about maneuver ‘unnecessary’
In a use-of-force questionnaire for national data reporting, OHP responded to an inquiry about whether Bailey’s injuries “were a direct result of the officer’s use of force.”
OHP marked “unknown and is unlikely to ever be known” rather than “death” in the Bailey pursuit.
OHP policy doesn’t require pre-approval to spin out a fleeing vehicle. An OHP Chief’s Review Board unanimously determined the pursuit of Bailey to be within policy and justified.
Not taken into consideration, or at least not in review documents: Meredith knew the eluder’s identity, and he performed the TVI at a speed above what had been approved.
Bailey’s driver’s license was in his pocket. He had written down the PikePass number during the traffic stop, which was recorded. His only known offense was the toll violation in the stolen car.
OHP places no specific speed limitations on its tactical vehicle interventions (TVIs), also known as a pursuit intervention technique or PIT maneuver.
The agency had erased language in policy that explained how chances of serious damage or injury from a TVI go up as speeds increase, just five months before the Bailey chase. OHP in a written response contended the wording was removed because it was a “declaratory statement that was unnecessary” in policy, not because of culpability or liability concerns.
Some policing researchers and strategists say law enforcement shouldn’t engage in vehicular pursuits unless a violent crime is involved — fleeing itself doesn’t count — because of their inherent dangers to life and limb.
“You can arrest them at their homes; get a warrant for them — but the one thing that you cannot do is get a life back,” said Chuck Wexler, a former officer who heads the Police Executive Research Forum, which places sanctity of life above all else in policing. “We put a higher value on human life. Even someone who is fleeing the police.
“Fleeing the police by itself doesn’t justify a tactic that could result in an injury or death to the driver, the police officer or to other third-parties.”
Wexler said they generally don’t recommend use of the TVI or PIT maneuver because it might result in loss of life. The general principle comes down to proportionality, he said. Are the tactics that are used proportionate to the crime that was committed?
“People don’t even go to jail for stolen cars,” Wexler said. “So can you get him another day? The more you’re pursuing him the more he’s fleeing.”
Geoffrey Alpert is a University of South Carolina professor who has researched high-risk policing activities for more than three decades.
Alpert said the PIT maneuver is a good tactic at about 35 mph if done in a controlled way and not in a crowded environment. He said his “hard stop” on use of that technique is 40 mph.
“At 35 mph you shouldn’t need supervisory permission, and at 100 mph you should never do it,” Alpert said. “It’s not that complicated.”
Stewart said the fastest speeds at which OHP practices TVIs is 45 mph.
Troopers, after graduating the academy, receive TVI training again in two-year cycles, she said.
“Any injury or loss of life resulting from a fleeing violator is tragic, and our hearts go out to the families of those impacted by the decision of the violator to elude law enforcement,” Stewart wrote.