Oklahoma trooper Brian Costanza recounts details about end of Vance manhunt

OKSP Shootout

There's a look of calm on Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Brian Costanza's face as he reaches into his backseat and grabs his AR-15 rifle and presses on the accelerator.  Costanza's eyes are focused on the farm truck tearing down a dark country road ahead of him as he readies his weapon and begins to fire through his own windshield.  By now many Oklahomans have seen the dashcam footage of Costanza chasing down Michael Vance, who during an 8-day October manhunt killed two family members, wounded three lawmen, and a motorist during an attempted carjacking.  And while the video shows the last moments of Vance's life and offers a close-up view of one of the men who ended it, it only hints at the years of training and discipline that led up to that now infamous gunfight.  “You don't rise to the occasion; you fall to your training,” Costanza said while standing on a jujitsu mat in a private gym just east of downtown Okmulgee.  Costanza trains here most days with fellow troopers and young men interested in jujitsu.  He likes the methodical nature of the sport, which just moments before had him locked arm and arm, leg to leg with another trooper, their faces bright red in the brief moments of pause before one of them tries to gain a dominant position over the other.  Rigorous, daily training, Costanza said, can be the difference between him and a fugitive killer like Vance.   “Some officers put on that gun and badge and they think they know it all,” Costanza said, a police scanner on a nearby table echoing through the small building.  “If you have that mindset of ‘I know everything, I don't need to learn anything else,' then you're going to get left behind.  Unfortunately, in our line of work that can mean death.”  He looks over at two men grappling on the mat a few feet from him and smiles.  “This mat will humble you.”  Costanza is one of the lucky ones who pretty much always knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.  It was a chance meeting with a state trooper as a young child that solidified his commitment to becoming an officer himself.  A highway patrolman responded to a wreck involving one of his family's horses, and Costanza said he will never forget seeing the trooper walk through their stables.  “He had his hat on and everything like that, and I was just amazed, infatuated,” Costanza said.  After a year on the Okmulgee police department, Costanza made it through the trooper academy and joined the patrol in 2002.  He's been on the highway patrol's tactical team, which responds to elevated threats, since 2006.  Costanza carries himself with a natural confidence that belies his belief in constant self-assessment and preparation.  He trains daily, eats well, and studies case law that deals with lethal force, which is what he and his colleagues on the tactical team were discussing the day before they ended Vance's life.  “As we're talking around this deal, that was one of the things we were talking about,” Costanza said as he patrolled Okmulgee on a crisp January afternoon.  “I know I've got a double murderer in front of me who at that time had already shot two cops and an innocent civilian at a carjacking, is it reasonable to believe that if I let him get away that he's going to leave and hurt more people?”  Costanza left Okmulgee sometime after 9 p.m. on the night of October 30, hoping to be far enough west to provide assistance if Vance was spotted.  Vance shot and wounded Dewey County Sheriff Clay Sander that evening, and Costanza soon found himself leading the chase.  After Costanza fired a hole through his windshield, he carefully squeezed off several rounds, which can be seen in night vision footage captured from a helicopter, bursting off the headache rack of Vance's stolen farm truck.  “After the very first round, I said to myself ‘It's really loud in here. ' It was absolutely deafening. I kept firing, and it was just ringing and I couldn't even understand what was going on (over) the radio.”   Later that evening, his ears still filled with a piercing ring, Costanza would notice that the heat from his rifle had melted his dashboard.  That, coupled with the 11 bullet holes Vance left in Costanza's Tahoe, would cause the department to decommission the patrol unit.  Vance was nearing another roadblock ahead, and Costanza was focused on ending the threat.  “When I started shooting I was hoping I was going to kill him,” he said.  “That was my full intention.  I want to end him right this second, because if I don't, if I can't get him to stop, then he's going to go down the road and he's going to have the ability to engage my partners at this next roadblock and there's a high probability one of them is going to have serious bodily injury or death.”  After stopping and letting the farm truck slowly idle in reverse, Vance stood in front of the truck as it crept toward a line of officers and fired his AK-47.  “I wanted to get out of this vehicle, because it was a coffin,” Costanza said.  Costanza stepped out of his patrol unit, and he and his colleagues opened fire.  Vance's figure can be seen in the helicopter's footage hitting the pavement.

2/1/17

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Pennsylvania State Troopers' tattoos become a focal point of negotiations

PSP tattoos

The two-page email that landed in the inboxes of top commanders at the Pennsylvania State Police last summer was ominous.  “Due to recent reports of members acquiring tattoos without authorization,” the July 8 message directed, “a staff inspection is ordered.”  The email was from Lt. Col. Lisa Christie, a top deputy to state police Commissioner Tyree C. Blocker.  She wanted every trooper rounded up and examined for any body tattoos visible when officers wear the agency’s short-sleeved summer uniform.  Col. Christie’s email told commanders to include pictures and detailed spreadsheets when reporting the results.  The sudden and furious crackdown at the agency resulted in body checks for hundreds of officers, and has now become the focus of heated negotiations between Mr. Blocker and the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, which represents the more than 4,000 troopers.  They are battling over how to deal with troopers found in violation of the state police’s ban on visible tattoos, according to two sources familiar with the matter.  The administration, citing state police policy, has pushed for the troopers to have any such tattoos removed, a process that may involve costly and lengthy treatments, according to the sources, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.  The union is advocating for a less stringent resolution, although what those options include are unclear.  Asked for comment last week, state police officials would not say what prompted the staff-wide inspection, nor how many troopers were found to have violated the ban.  Union head Joe Kovel also declined to discuss the matter.  From Vermont to Arizona, state police and other agencies have grappled with how much body ink is acceptable, and whether banning it is wise.  “The trend right now very clearly is to relax tattoo regulations,” said Will Aitchison, a Portland, Ore.-based expert on public safety and labor employment law issues.  “There is an obvious reason for it — we can’t recruit enough people to be police in this country.”  Mr. Aitchison, a lawyer who has represented dozens of police and firefighter unions, added: “We are in the middle of a hiring crisis in law enforcement that we haven’t seen in our lifetime.”  Indeed, some departments are toying with relaxing their bans, seen as impediments to recruiting good people.  Others require only that tattoos be covered up, or ban offensive images, words or “excessive” ink.  State police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said last week that his agency’s policy on personal appearance prohibits tattoos, body art, piercings or any branding visible to the public when troopers are in their summer uniform.  That means markings on the face, neck, hands, forearms and portions of the upper arms.  “The tattoo cannot be visible in the summer uniform shirt, which is a basic, short-sleeved shirt,” Mr. Tarkowski said.  “If a tattoo extends beyond that, a cadet would have to have it removed at their expense.”  The policy also applies to applicants and cadets at the State Police Academy. They get at least three months to have tattoos or piercings removed, and must adhere to the policy as long as they remain troopers.  The state police even have a committee specifically assigned to assess body-art requests from active troopers, who must submit plans for a tattoo’s design, size, color and placement.  But agency officials say the committee doesn’t appear to have been used extensively, if at all.  Mr. Tarkowski could not say what punishment active troopers face if they are caught violating the tattoo ban, or whether Mr. Blocker supports strict enforcement of the policy.  Andrew Matthews, who chairs the National Troopers Coalition, which he said represents 45,000 troopers in 42 states, said there are ways to deal with active troopers who have violated the ban that do not involve forcing them to have their tattoos removed.  Some law enforcement departments, for instance, suspend them and then require them to wear long-sleeved shirts year-round or cover their body ink with makeup or an Ace bandage.  “I think having it removed by laser is a little barbaric,” Mr. Matthews said.  “I’ve seen it with one of my members, and it was a painful process. … There can be a middle ground.”  That’s the issue at the heart of the ongoing talks between Mr. Blocker’s administration and troopers’ association.  Some at the agency cite the policy as a deterrent to potential recruits — including ex-military members — as the state police acknowledges struggles to attract and retain qualified applicants amid a wave of expected retirements in the next few years. 

1/31/17

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Drug bust nets $1.7M worth of meth, heroin, cocaine, Louisiana State Police reports

LSP Drug Bust

A cache of drugs with a street value estimated at $1.7 million - including more than 64 pounds of meth - was discovered after a traffic stop in Alexandria,State Policereported Saturday (Jan.28).  The arrest of the driver, who already was being investigated, led authorities to illegal narcotics in the car and in several houses, authorities say.  State Police identified the driver as Derrick Felton, 37, of Alexandria, and said the arrest culminated a month-long investigation into alleged illegal drug activity.  Felton, who was arrested Friday, was booked with possession with intent to distribute the $1.7 million in assorted narcotics.  He also was charged with resisting arrest by flight and failure to signal lane change, according to the police report.   The arrest led to the discovery of roughly 64 pounds of crystal methamphetamine, two pounds of heroin, two pounds of cocaine, and five pints of promethazine  syrup, an antihistamine and narcotic cough suppressant combination, authorities said.  Police say they also found more than $67,000 in cash.   More arrests are likely in the continuing investigation, according to the State Police report.   Several law enforcement agencies were involved in the investigation: The Louisiana State Police, Alexandria Police Department, FBI Central Louisiana Safe Streets Task Force, Louisiana Probation and Parole, United States Postal Inspector's Office, Pineville Police Department, Louisiana Army National Guard Counter Drug Unit, the Rapides Parish District Attorney's Office, and the Grant Parish Sheriff's Office. 

1/31/17

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Footage captures driver crashing into Louisiana State Police unit

 

Louisiana State Police released video of a suspected impaired driver as he crashed into a unit Saturday.  On Saturday, shortly after noon, Louisiana State Troopers began receiving several emergency calls in reference to a vehicle being driven erratically on Interstate 12 westbound west of Hammond.  The callers would ultimately witness the vehicle crash into the rear of a Louisiana State Trooper as the Trooper was attempting to position himself to stop the target vehicle.  State Police say Florida resident Kyle Nadler was traveling westbound on Interstate 12 when he witnessed a Dodge truck being driven erratically.  Nadler and his wife calmly called 911, provided authorities with a vehicle description, and continually updated the exact location of the truck as it continued westbound on I-12.  Nadler and other motorists positioned themselves in a manner that prevented additional westbound traffic from approaching the unpredictable driver.  As Nadler was relaying the position of the truck, 911 operators and Troop personnel were updating responding Troopers.  The closest Trooper was able to position his unit on the right shoulder of I-12 west of the Pumpkin Center exit.  As the truck approached the Trooper, it veered off the right lane and crashed into the rear of the Trooper’s unit.  Troopers say they suspect the driver of the truck, Bradley Burch, was impaired on heroin at the time of the crash.  Burch and the Trooper both sustained minor injuries in the crash.  Burch was arrested and booked into the Tangipahoa Parish Jail for DWI, Reckless Operation, and Driving with a Suspended License.  Troopers would like to remind motorists to remain vigilant while traveling.  These callers exemplified the proper approach to notifying law enforcement of a dangerous impaired driver.  Louisiana motorists wishing to inform Troopers of dangerous roadway conditions are reminded to call *LSP [*577] to be connected with their nearest Troop.

1/30/17

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Springer Spaniel helps Oregon State Police find drug trafficers

Oregon state police dog

Harley is a 3-year-old springer spaniel, and is an Oregon State Police drug dog who loves his job.  Harley works with Senior Trooper Jake Ledbetter from the state police office in Winchester.  The dog came from Belfast, Ireland, and got his job mainly because of the change in marijuana laws in Oregon.  When the state legalized marijuana, Ledbetter’s black lab, Charger, who was trained to detect marijuana, among other drugs, had to be retired.  So Harley has been a part of the enforcement team for about a year now, and Ledbetter said he is spot on when it comes to detecting drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.  It’s a job that can be pretty tough because of the effort by drug runners to disguise drugs with sophisticated packing and hiding them in hard to find places in all sizes of vehicles.  “When we’re finding these drugs, they’re wrapping them sometimes six or seven times in cellophane and vacuum sealing, and put grease and other stuff around it to try to prevent the dog from finding it,” said Ledbetter.  But Harley is extremely successful anyway, said Ledbetter.  He is a high energy dog, and when he gets focused on finding drugs, he is relentless in his pursuit.  “When you have a dog that has a high hunt drive, it’s a lot easier to train them, because you’re getting them focused on an area and once they’re imprinted on that, they want to go find it non-stop,” he said.  Since February of 2016, Harley and Trooper Ledbetter have located and confiscated 33 pounds of Methamphetamine, 2.3 pounds of Heroin, and 11.4 pounds of cocaine in 33 different incidents, according to Capt. Bill Fugate, the public information officer for the Oregon State Police.  Even though marijuana is not the focus any longer, Harley still gets plenty of chances to do his job. Ledbetter said he’ll use the dog anywhere from 50 to 70 times in a year.  The other more dangerous drugs, that the dog is trained to find, have increased in frequency in the county.  “Coke and heroin, it’s unbelievable how much of the stuff is going through this freeway,” Ledbetter said of Interstate 5.  “Heroin was unheard of five years ago, very rarely would you see it and now it’s everywhere.”  Harley has made a lot of drug finds in the past year, but there have been times that the dog will indicate a find, and they just can’t locate it.  Sometimes, it’s just too well hidden, but the dog has definitely picked up the scent and knows it’s there.  “We call it an unconfirmed alert, because we couldn’t find anything, but obviously we were looking for a reason,” Ledbetter said.  The dog is very accurate, the officer added.  In fact, about 95 percent of the time drugs are found.  A lot of times, drugs are hidden in sophisticated compartments ... in the hydraulics, under trunk latches and other hard-to-find places.  Ledbetter said the state police had to retire several dogs, although some were actually sold to other agencies that are on the lookout for large quantities of marijuana being shipped out of Oregon to other states where it is still not legal.  He said there is a lot of that activity, and a lot of officers, in eastern Oregon especially, are coming across loads of marijuana headed out of the state.  Because of the increase in the number of semis that are hauling illegal drugs, officers are now starting to focus more on the trucks and Ledbetter said it can be a big challenge.  “They have a legitimate reason for travel,” Ledbetter said, and  he added that makes it tougher to spot the trucks that might have contraband on board.  It took about four months to get Harley trained and certified, and Ledbetter continues to train him, working with him every day.   Ledbetter said the dog has been a tremendous help in finding the illegal narcotics, and he is the reason a lot of them never made it to the streets.  Ledbetter said the dog will work five to seven years before he is retired.  The two get pretty attached to each other after being together everyday.  “It’s weird, I spend more waking hours with the dog than I do my family,” he said.  “Harley’s been a real valuable addition to the force.”

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