OKC police overhaul chase policy one year after woman’s death

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Connie Basco holds photos of her daughter, Star Shells, as Shells’ sons play in the background Thursday, June 16, 2022, outside Basco’s Oklahoma City home. Star Shells was pregnant when a stolen truck, being pursued by Oklahoma City police, collided with her car in May 2021.

When she dropped her two young sons off at a downtown school on an overcast spring morning last year, Star Shells, a 28-year-old single mother with another baby boy on the way, could not have known she just told her kids goodbye for the last time.

On May 24, 2021, as she drove her white Chevy Impala near her home on the northeast side, a high-speed police chase weaved its way toward Shells, with patrol cars pursuing a stolen black Ford F350 King Ranch pickup equipped with GPS.

Police say Wacey Gerron Mikles, 39, who had previous felony convictions for bank robberies, grand larceny and robbery with a dangerous weapon, stole the pickup from a southside work site after its driver left the keys in the ignition while opening a gate to the site.

The chase tore through dozens of city blocks of the northeast side — around the Capitol, past churches and near schools — with vehicle speeds reaching 97 mph.

As the pursuit wore on, Mikles sped along Martin Luther King Avenue, barreled toward NE 16 and swerved left in the intersection, but not enough to avoid violently striking Shells. The young mother was killed instantly, her lifeless body slumped in the driver’s seat of her crumpled car.

She had named her unborn son Elijah.

In one regard, the police pursuit that killed Shells was typical of chases in Oklahoma City. Many wind their way through low-income neighborhoods, with nearly half ending in a residential area.

A months-long investigation by The Oklahoman in the wake of Shells’ death revealed the areas of Oklahoma City where pursuits are initiated, the reasons why an officer attempted to make the stop, and how prevalent pursuits are in the community.

Some parts of Oklahoma City see more police chases than others. The heaviest concentration can be found in the southside streets and roads located south of the river, north of Interstate 240 and between Interstate 44 and Interstate 35, according to an analysis by The Oklahoman of police data obtained through an open records requests. Nearly a third of all police chases originated in that area.

A majority of police pursuits start because of a traffic violation, a misdemeanor or suspicious behavior, according to police data. A quarter of the chases start because of felony crimes, but only 6.6% of chases start because of a violent felony.

In 2021, police pursuits resulted in 24 collisions, killing four, including three uninvolved citizens, police data shows. It was the deadliest year involving police pursuits in the last half decade.

A little more than a year after Shells was killed, Police Chief Wade Gourley quietly announced changes to his department’s policy on vehicle chases in Oklahoma City. The directive was issued in June to a police force that averages more than 300 pursuits a year, with nearly 40% ending without an arrest.

Public records requests revealed the city is involved in multiple lawsuits stemming from police pursuits, and the city’s attorneys have encouraged city leaders not to talk about the issue with reporters because of the ongoing court cases.

Gourley told The Oklahoman part of the policy change was to better define risks versus rewards in determining whether to engage in a pursuit, with the goal of reducing harm to bystanders and property.

He called Shells’ death “tragic,” and laid the blame on Mikles, while saying work to revamp pursuit policy had already begun.

According to Shells’ mother and aunt —  the two women now rearing her sons — the changes to pursuit policy came too late.

Indeed, Oklahoma City was behind many peer cities in enacting policies to avoid police pursuits in urban neighborhoods except in situations involving violent crimes.

Oklahoma City Police Chief Wade Gourley explains police pursuit policy changes

Oklahoma City Police Chief Wade Gourley.

Oklahoma City Police Chief Wade Gourley.

On a recent Friday morning, Gourley spoke with The Oklahoman reporters in a conference room at police headquarters downtown. He led off the 45-minute interview explaining that overhauling pursuit policy was a top priority in 2019 when he became the city’s 50th police chief.

The department reduced the use of stop sticks, introduced new tactical vehicle maneuvers and began equipping patrol cars with high-quality cameras capable of capturing tag numbers used to track the suspect if a pursuit is stopped — a feature that was non-existent during the pursuit that killed Shells.

The department soon will have a “real time” crime center, Gourley said, part of which will enable supervisors to see what is happening during a pursuit and make critical decisions, such as whether to terminate the chase.

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Trying to balance public safety with the need to apprehend potentially dangerous suspects, Oklahoma City police also are taking a hard look whether a pursuit is even needed, Gourley said.

“Someone who has already committed a homicide, the likelihood that they could become violent again and harm someone else is much higher than someone who just stole clothes at a clothing store, or something like that, that may decide to run from us,” he said.

Police departments across the country have come to similar conclusions.

In February, the Cincinnati Police Department announced officers may engage in a pursuit only when a suspect is believed to have committed a violent felony offense.

In April, the Louisville Metro Police Department implemented a similar policy.

Those policies have followed a sweeping law passed in Washington state last year that also prohibits high-speed chases except in limited cases.

Majority Democrats passed the law as part of package of police reforms in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and other high-profile police killings, according to The The Bharat Express News.

However, the law may have had unintended consequences, as law enforcement agencies in Washington are reporting a sharp increase in the number of drivers refusing to stop for officers, The The Bharat Express News reported in May.

Gourley said discussions about the issue continue in his department, as well as with regional members of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which is made up of police executives representing the largest cities in the United States and Canada.

“Cities that have (eliminated pursuits) have seen where people just run from them, and the only people that pull over are your good folks that are obeying the law and wanting to do the right thing,” Gourley said. “So we knew we didn’t want to take it to that. We’ll never do that.”

The death of Shells in 2021 may have played some part in pursuit policy revisions, though Gourley said he could not speak about her case because the family filed a tort claim against the city, and could file a lawsuit.

In a May 31 email to employees announcing the new protocols, which was obtained by The Oklahoman, Gourley said, “In 2021, the department recognized a need to reevaluate directives governing the operation of police vehicles, particularly those addressing pursuits.”

One change to the policy calls for the termination of a pursuit when officers know of, and can access information from, a GPS tracking device on the vehicle.

The truck that struck Shells’ Impala was equipped with such a device.

Other circumstances that call for the termination of a pursuit include:

  • when entering a school or construction zone where workers are present

  • adverse road conditions

  • pedestrian traffic

  • when the violator’s identity is known

  • when the suspect’s driving behavior includes excessive speeding, disregard for traffic control devices, driving into oncoming lanes of traffic, or driving off-road

Continued pursuit of a suspect when any of the above-listed provisions are met will require strong justification and the authorization of the managing supervisor. In these instances, the supervisor must be able to document specific facts that show the decision to continue pursuing was objectively reasonable under the circumstances.

For person crimes and DUIs, officers must terminate the pursuit if the subject’s driving is so egregious it poses a danger or when a GPS tracking device is available.

The Oklahoman shared the new policy with Gareth Jones, an internationally recognized police pursuits expert based in Ontario, Canada. Without prompting, Jones said it appeared to be in part due to some of the pursuit practices that ended in Shells’ death.

“The pursuit that killed Ms. Shells wouldn’t have happened under the new policy,” he said. “In theory, that is an improvement over whatever was in place when Ms. Shells was killed … there is a lot of detail I haven’t seen in other policies, which is clearly being done in response to that case.”

Jones, who has served as an expert witness in jury trials across Canada and the United States, and has provided training for police oversight agencies on how to investigate incidents involving police, praised the Oklahoma City Police Department’s new protocols.

“I was quite impressed. It covers a lot more of the bases than other policies I’ve reviewed,” he said. “Some agencies have no policies at all. Others have fairly liberal policies in place that leave a lot to the discretion of officers on scene. Some, like this, set out clearly when you can and cannot chase, and it’s a fairly high bar.”

Pursuits across the city initiated for a variety of reasons, sometimes leaving city in legal entanglements

When Erich Font got the call that his younger brother had been killed in a car crash, he said he thought it “was a stupid joke.” Coming to terms with the fact that his loving, “gentle giant” of a brother wasn’t coming home was near impossible.

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It was the evening of Oct. 25, 2021, five months after Shells’ death, when 35-year-old Sean Donahue’s vehicle was struck in the intersection of SW 104 and Pennsylvania Avenue by a gold Ford Taurus traveling 105 mph. Donahue’s car rotated clockwise and was sent 39 feet, hitting the curb, before flipping and landing upside down another 41 feet away. Donahue was pronounced dead at the scene.

“The sheer violence of the impact is evident in the wreckage of the vehicle,” said Font, who went to the scene of the accident that night. Days later, Font was sent to retrieve Donahue’s belongings from the vehicle, the inside of which was still stained with his brother’s blood.

“Nobody should ever have to see something like that,” he said.

Police had called off the pursuit of the Ford, due to the speed, just moments before the teenage driver caused the multi-car crash that killed Donahue. The pursuit began when police attempted to pull the driver over for having a license plate that didn’t match the car.

Font said he was glad to hear the police department had made changes to its pursuit policy.

“Our family misses him very much. We loved him,” Font said. “And we hope that these changes, that the police are hopefully going to enforce, will make a difference for the next family.”

Maybe, Font said, police under the new policy would have terminated the pursuit far before the suspect reached speeds over 100 mph on a road with a speed limit of 40 mph.

“It would have given my brother a few more seconds to get through the intersection, and he wouldn’t have been there,” Font said. “And he would be alive today.”

Recent pursuits in Oklahoma City, like the one that killed Donahue before the new policy was issued, ended in a variety of ways, according to police reports obtained by The Oklahoman.

In one case, a driver jumped into a frigid pond near NW 1 and Meridian Avenue and tried to escape before being helped out of the water by the officer.

Another involved a couple of riders on four-wheelers, and one on a dirt bike, who split off near Martin Luther King Avenue and NE 4 to elude pursuing officers.

After one chase, Marshana Houston was sitting in her NW Oklahoma City apartment when she looked outside and saw police. More importantly, she saw her 2004 GMC Envoy had been crashed into by a vehicle officers had been pursuing.

The damages totaled more than $1,500, but Houston told The Oklahoman she never received anything from the city despite filing a tort claim less than a month after the February 2019 incident.

“They didn’t do nothing,” Houston said. “They think it wasn’t their fault because the man ran into my car.”

This is often the case for police pursuit claims filed against the city, Assistant Municipal Counselor Katie Goff said. The Governmental Tort Claims Act exempts the city from liability “in instances of providing police protection or when a third party caused the alleged damages,” Goff said.

One of the eight tort claims filed since 2016 involving pursuits was approved, an incident where stop sticks damaged all four tires of a citizen’s car.

Only one city councilor speaks out about police pursuit policy change following legal warning

The Oklahoman reached out to each city councilor requesting interviews on police pursuits and the new policy. While most did not respond, both James Cooper, Ward 2, and Barbara Young, Ward 3, declined the request.

Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon — whose area runs from NE 23 to SE 59, including downtown, parts of Capitol Hill and about half of the area with the heaviest concentration of pursuit origins — told The Oklahoman she was not even aware of the policy change until reporters reached out to her about it.

Hamon said any level of police reform is good for the city and its residents. In fact, she was surprised the police department didn’t want to discuss it initially.

In a June 10 email, Municipal Counselor Kenneth Jordan cautioned city councilors against commenting on the policy to The Oklahoman due to there being “two pending lawsuits and three pending tort claims against the City relating to police pursuits,” but Hamon said this didn’t deter her.

“My responsibility is to the people who elected me, not the city as an organization,” Hamon said.

As part of its investigation, The Oklahoman also requested police body camera video recordings of the pursuit that killed Shells, the post-crash scene investigation and the apprehension of the suspect.

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Video of the aftermath shows Shells dead in the front seat of her car. Wreckage strewn all over the street. Officers handcuffing a bloodied Mikles and folding him into the backseat of a patrol car as the suspect claims an officer slammed him headfirst into the stolen truck.

One officer appeared to tell others he “couldn’t get the sticks out,” apparently indicating there was too much traffic to safely lay down stop sticks in an attempt to end the pursuit.

Another tells Mikles:

“You’re in trouble, alright. It could have been a simple charge.”

In Oklahoma County District Court, Mikles faces charges of first-degree murder, committing murder in the first degree in the commission of a crime, larceny of an automobile, unlawful possession of a controlled drug — methamphetamine, and driving with a canceled license.

Mikles’ public defender declined to speak with The Oklahoman, citing the ongoing court case.

Jones, a former member of the Special Investigations Unit of Ontario, Canada — for which he investigated about 175 fatal or serious injury incidents involving a police vehicle — said police officers have a difficult time watching a potential “bad guy” get away.

Also a former police officer and sergeant in London, England, Jones said that mentality often leads officers to continue a pursuit beyond the bounds of safety, he said.

“It becomes a challenge between you and the person you’re chasing,” Jones said. “You lose a sense of proportionality and objectivity — ‘I don’t care what this person has done, I’m going to get this bastard no matter what.’”

Jones said it is critical for police departments to conduct deep investigations into each police pursuit.

In Oklahoma City, officer debriefings follow every pursuit Gourley said.

Hamon said a perspective shift is needed when it comes to what is worth the risk of a pursuit.

People who run from police aren’t necessarily extreme or violent criminals, she said. Maybe they can’t afford a ticket, or don’t have a license.

“There’s a lot of maliciousness associated with trying to avoid police, versus a recognition that maybe people are just … at (their) wits end,” Hamon said.

Star Shells’ family still mourns her loss, in legal battle with Oklahoma City

Connie Basco said the last time she spoke with her daughter, Star Shells talked about plans for a baby shower. Shells was seven months pregnant, Basco said.

Basco, 59, has moved away from the northeast side of Oklahoma City, and is rearing her grandsons in a home she shares with her sister, Michelle Basco, 62.

On the front porch, between supportive hugs from the oldest boy, who is now 8 years old, the two sisters shook their heads and wondered why Oklahoma City police didn’t just track the stolen vehicle through its GPS system and safely apprehend Mikles.

“What was done was senseless,” Michelle Basco said. “For them to jeopardize other people along the road they traveled, the manpower that they utilized to chase this man down, that they know where he’s going, they know where he’s headed  …  but you put other people’s lives in jeopardy. And unfortunately it was our baby.”

In December, her family filed a $175,000 wrongful death and $5 million violation of civil rights tort claim against the city. The city took no action on the claim before the 90-day TBEN. Once the TBEN passes, a claimant may file a lawsuit.

Connie Basco also wants an apology, which she said the city has never offered.

“My daughter is worth that — from the city — for someone to come and say ‘Ms. Basco, we’re sorry for your loss,’” she said. “She would still be here right now if they had stopped that chase.”

Nicknamed “Bunny” at a young age because of her energy, Shells was the type of kid to visit an ailing uncle in the hospital to cheer him up. The only granddaughter, she was called the “Million Dollar Baby” and was extremely close to her grandfather.

Shells worked as a certified nursing assistant. Family time with her boys included carnivals, trips to the fair and the rodeo.

“She did the mommy things,” Michelle Basco, her aunt, said.

The sisters said they appreciate the new pursuit protocols, but hope another family never has to go through similar agony.

Connie Basco said she doesn’t blame Mikles as much as she blames the police officers who pursued him.

If Mikles realizes he took two lives, “that’s enough torment for him and he’ll have to live with that for the rest of his life,” she said.

Like her sister, Michelle Basco also lost a child. In 2002, her 17-year-old son died of sudden cardiac arrest.

“It’s just so much extreme pain,” she said. “And you have to go through it. You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it. You can’t go under it … you have to go through that pain. It’s unfortunate. There’s no comforting words, no ‘sorry.’ That’s all good, but you just have to go through it.”

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC police revise police chase policy following woman’s death

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