DPS training center
On left, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Tim Tipton speaks during a meeting of the One Oklahoma Task Force on Monday, March 11, 2024. (Tres Savage)

A suggestion by the Oklahoma State Senate’s floor leader to pull back funding on a training center long sought by the Department of Public Safety is an insult to troopers and other law officers who currently use outdated facilities not originally intended for teaching driving and other skills, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Tim Tipton said Monday.

“It’s a slap in the face to state law enforcement,” he said. “And I’m shocked that the soon-to-be-leader of the Oklahoma Senate is in favor of defunding law enforcement in this critical nature.”

Tipton was referring to comments made Friday by Senate Floor Leader Greg McCortney (R-Ada) during the year’s sixth public budget summit held this year, which ended abruptly about four hours later. (A seventh session lasted 30 minutes Monday and ended with the Senate backing away from separate public safety appropriation agreements the chambers had struck Friday.)

Last week, McCortney, who was elected earlier this year by GOP senators as their designee to become the upper chamber’s president pro tempore in 2025, questioned funding of a new tactical training center approved last year for the Department of Public Safety. On May 15, he suggested that the Legislature “put the entire thing on pause.”

“I think a lot more people have become aware of what this whole thing is and what all is going on,” McCortney said during the fifth budget summit. “I think there are some significant questions about the way we are moving forward with phase 1.”

Last year, the Legislature approved about $60 million for the center’s first phase. That money was dedicated for obtaining property and building shooting ranges and driving courses. Currently, DPS lacks its own driving and shooting facilities. Instead, it uses other law enforcement agencies’ firing ranges and leases runways and other space at the Oklahoma Air and Space Port near Burns Flat.

DPS is seeking another $75 million in the second phase of the project to build tactical training facilities and barracks. The Senate Public Safety Committee voted 20-0 on Feb. 14 to approve Senate Bill 1480, which would authorize the Oklahoma Capitol Improvement Authority to complete the centralized training center and related facilities. The Legacy Capital Financing Fund, which lawmakers created last year, would be used to fund the project, meaning DPS would repay the funds over 20 years. Construction is expected to take two years.

McCortney, Wallace spar over proposal

DPS training center
As depicted in this rendering, the new Oklahoma Department of Public Safety training center would be located in Lincoln County about four miles from Turner Turnpike. (Provided)

During Friday’s budget summit, House Appropriations and Budget Committee Chairman Kevin Wallace (R-Wellston) and McCortney again brought up the DPS training center. Wallace discussed how the project received funding last year and said the second phase should be in the Fiscal Year 2025 budget.

“I’m happy to hear you say that all of this is tied together, phase 1 and phase 2, which goes back to my point that I think that we need to put a pause on the entire thing,” McCortney said. “It’s not too late to adjust from a bad decision that we made last time. I believe it was probably presented in two phases because no one would have approved the amount of spending that was actually going to be proposed.

“There’s a phase 3 that I doubt most anyone could even talk about because this whole project, the more eyes that get on it, the more questions there are about this being a wise use of state funding,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of state assets already that can do a lot of these things.”

McCortney was referring to the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, which offers driving, firearms and other training at its Ada facility.

“I’m not anywhere close to believing that there’s not a need for some facilities to be built. That’s not what I’m saying, but I think that there can be a significantly better plan,” McCortney said. “I think the more that people look at this and it comes out from under a bit of darkness, (…) I think we can do a heck of a lot better than this.”

That riled Wallace.

“Mr. Floor Leader, using your same words directed yesterday to me, with all due respect, ‘Your opinion is wrong,'” Wallace said. “Moving forward, I will tell you over the last three years, the Legislature has invested in totally remodeling CLEET.”

Asked what McCortney meant about the training center coming about “from under a bit of darkness,” Tipton said it may have to do with its location.

“I believe he’s pointing that toward Chairman Wallace because it is in his district,” Tipton said. “I explained to him that the selection of the land was done by us. Matter of fact, the work and the land selection was done before we even had conversations with Chairman Wallace about it.”

Tipton said about 68 percent of Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers live between the Tulsa and Oklahoma City metros, and he said the Lincoln County property had been chosen largely because of its location, about a 20-minute drive east of OKC about four miles south of the Turner Turnpike. Because the parcels had been owned by the state Commissioners of the Land Office, the agencies were able to engage in a land swap.

‘If we can locate it along the I-44 corridor logistically, it would be good because I don’t want troopers having to drive six hours to get to training when they’re doing in-service training or for the academy,” he said.

Complicating the politics are sore feelings that go back to 2006 when the Ada training facility was built for CLEET, said Tipton, who has been with DPS since 1988 and was named its commissioner by Gov. Kevin Stitt in 2021.

DPS does not use the CLEET facility for training, a history McCortney has referenced this session.

“It goes back to CLEET. Originally, DPS was supposed to be part of CLEET,” McCortney said May 6. “They refused to do that, and that’s caused financial problems for CLEET, it’s caused financial problems for every sheriff’s department and every police department in the state because they refused to be a part of CLEET after it was created and after they had agreed to be a part of it, and now they want to build a facility that looks exactly like CLEET for themselves, and I just think a lot of people don’t think the state needs two of those.

“I think we’ve got one, and I think DPS could use it. If we need to build another dorm, we could do that and it would cost a lot less than the $150 million or $160 million that they’re asking for.”

But Tipton said the CLEET facility does not fully meet DPS’ needs.

“We have to do high-speed technical driving, realistic driving, and that facility wouldn’t accommodate that,” Tipton said. “So, it wasn’t DPS said, ‘No, we don’t want to partner.’ DPS said that piece of property won’t work for what we need. And so, to bring that back up like, ‘Well, we should have done it then’ — which regardless, this is about officer safety and public safety in 2024.”

The spat appeared headed toward resolution as offers were exchanged by legislators on Friday. Late in the day, the Senate came back with its counter to a House counter, and it included $74 million for phase 2 of the training center. However, the deal did not get done.

Asked about McCortney’s opposition to the DPS training center before Monday’s seventh budget summit, Wallace said it’s time to strike an agreement and move on.

“I think we all agreed to it last year, and, yes, I 100 percent support public safety and DPS,” he said.

Sen. Brent Howard (R-Altus), chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety, said he also trusts DPS when agency leaders say a new training center is needed. He voted for the measure to fund it back in February.

“They know what they need, and the plan that is in place will somewhat affect my district by losing the track over [near Burns Flat]. But I’ve talked with some (Space Industry Development Authority) board members, and they say they want to get focused more on the aerospace side,” Howard said Monday. “So, I see the arguments, and probably this would be one at least here in the first part (where I) defer to DPS’ expertise on what they need. I do somewhat see the argument from Floor Leader McCortney of maybe getting a little further into phase 1 before we jump into phase 2.

“I might need a little bit more satisfaction on that — that phase 2 is needed right now. But I can get there. I can be in support of what they need and supporting our DPS members.”

Howard said he does not support McCortney’s call to pull back the money dedicated for phase 1.

“I think it’s already been voted on, and no, we probably do not need to take that step at this time,” he said.

Construction to start on DPS training center by September

The Department of Public Safety leases this building for troopers to stay in while attending a driving course at the Oklahoma Air and Space Port near Burns Flat. (Provided)

Tipton, who has served as lead instructor in the defensive tactics and firearms training unit during his tenure with DPS, said Oklahoma is one of the few, if perhaps only state, which doesn’t own a firing range and driving safety facility for troopers. Over the past decade, DPS and OHP have received criticism for their pursuit policies and outcomes, including a six-year span that saw 21 fatalities in 17 pursuits.

Currently, DPS uses shooting ranges owned by the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office or Edmond Police Department, and it leases property at the space port for its driving courses. DPS pays about $75,000 a year to use a barracks that was built during World War II and runway space at Burns Flat, Tipton said. The barracks are outdated, and the runways were not designed for tactical driving courses, he said.

“We don’t own the building, we don’t own the land, the state doesn’t own the land,” he said. “So, we’ve made it work for the history of the patrol. We’ve been resilient and tried to make things work. Over the 35 years that I’ve been around here, there’s been multiple commissioners that have tried to move forward with a true training facility. They’ve not been successful at that.”

DPS also is using converted space to teach defensive tactics to troopers, Tipton said. A metal building on the campus of DPS headquarters in Oklahoma City formerly was used as a body and paint shop for Oklahoma Highway Patrol cruisers.

DPS has hired an architectural firm to design the training center, Tipton said. The land was purchased in November, and preliminary work got underway earlier this month. He said construction should begin by September.

“Phase 1 was the purchase of the land and the driving and firearms facilities with one building that would have your armory for staff, for firearms and driving training and that sort of thing,” Tipton said. “Phase 2 was to build the full training facility out there, dorm rooms, offices, large classrooms to where you could run an academy and do in-service training, not only for OHP, but [Oklahoman Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control], [Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation], other law enforcement agencies could do in-service training there.”

“Because right now people, other law enforcement come out to Burns Flat and utilize our facility out there — Oklahoma City police, Edmond police. We want this to be well-used, we want it to be utilized on a daily basis for law enforcement.”