Trooper shortage highlighted in recent chase, fatal officer-involved shooting

OKLAHOMA CITY – The release of body cam footage from a fatal police-involved shooting early last month is providing a window into issues some state agencies face as the state contends with a multi-million dollar budget shortfall.

An Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper tried to pull over a truck near I-240 and Air Depot for a broken tag light on March 4.

The driver refused to stop and led the trooper on a long chase, at around 7 a.m. Eventually, an Oklahoma City officer joined in as there were no other troopers in the area.

The driver, 38-year-old George Lee Seeton, ended up in a yard near S.E. 32nd St. and Kelley. The trooper and the Oklahoma City officer – wearing the body camera – got out of their vehicles and walked towards the truck. But when the truck starts reversing towards the officers, they open fire.

Seeton was hit and died at the scene.

The Oklahoma County District Attorney is looking into the justification of the shooting. Oklahoma Police will also conduct an internal review to see if deadly force procedures were properly followed.

“It’s not a secret we’re dealing with major budget issues, short on troopers, short on personnel, straight across the board,” said Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. Kera Philippi at a press conference Tuesday afternoon to discuss the video’s release. “From what I understand the nearest trooper was on the Kilpatrick Turnpike.”

The Department of Public Safety – which includes the OHP – and other state agencies have been bracing for what could come if lawmakers don’t approve new revenue sources this session. The state is facing an $870 million budget hole.

Philippi says if agencies are asked to cut as deep as 15 percent, it could affect a host of services not often seen by the public: lake patrol, bomb squad, aircraft, commercial vehicle enforcement, capitol police, executive services and training. Not to mention the hundreds of civilians that make the agency work, as well as the troopers drivers see out on the roads every day.

“When we’re affected, it’s not just our agency that’s affected, there are a lot of other agencies across the state that rely on us,” Philippi said. “Us being out there and being visible, the best thing we can do is being proactive, but we`re at a point right now where we still have our mileage restrictions.”

Troopers are currently restricted to driving 100 miles per shift. Philippi says of the 792 commissioned troopers, 365 are assigned to road duty across the state – but not all at the same time. Some may have time off, others may be on leave (injury, maternity, paternity). The minimum requirement for commissioned troopers is 950.

A good number of troopers are available to retire, but with this year’s academy class delayed, Philippi says normal attrition of veteran troopers could be devastating.

“There’s over 200 that can, literally, leave any day. If that happened, that would be really detrimental to our agency.”

The Oklahoma Public Employees Association says budget cuts aren’t the answer when budgets have already been cut and “fluff” has been trimmed.

“Is this our bottom of the barrel, or could we potentially,” I asked OPEA’s executive director Sterling Zearley.

“Good question,” said Zearley. “Unfortunately no.”

Zearley says the state doesn’t have a spending problem, but a revenue problem.

“We’ve got to raise revenue or we’re going to be back in the same boat again next year, the year after that, the year after that,” he said. “We have to raise reoccurring revenue. Period.”

“The Legislature has every intention of funding the core services of government, and we will continue to turn over every stone as we craft the budget for Fiscal Year 2018,” said Public Safety Committee Vice Chairman and State Rep. Greg Babinec, R-Cushing, in a statement. “I, for one, am committed to protecting those who protect us, and DPS does an outstanding job in that department.”