Force Science News #296:

Harrowing cases, arguments pro & con on shooting at cars

 

 

READERS: Harrowing cases, arguments pro & con on shooting at cars

 

The topic of shooting at vehicles has been the focus of considerable discussion at all levels of law enforcement, from top policy makers and departmental decision-makers to field officers. We asked our readers for their thoughts on the issue. Often drawing on vivid personal experiences, they responded forcefully with both hearts and minds.Here's a representative sampling, edited for brevity and clarity:

 

Terrorist threat: Vehicles as "lawnmowers" in unsuspecting crowds

 

We have seen the adoption of "vehicles as weapons," rather than vehicles for transporting weapons in recent years. Bulldozers have been driven over traffic queues in Israel. In Canada, a car was used to drive over off-duty soldiers, and in the United Kingdom a car was used to hit an off-duty soldier before he was publicly hacked to death.

 

Al Qaeda has asked followers in its Inspire magazine to use large 4X4s as "lawnmowers" in crowded pedestrian areas. Posted free on the internet to motivate home-grown jihadists, this publication's recommendations on how to wreak maximum carnage by attacking with vehicles in the "United Snakes of America" makes chilling reading indeed. Go to pages 51-54 after clicking here to access this rabid periodical.

 

Are the authorities advocating a "no-shoot" policy in these circumstances?

 

Superintendent Ken Pennington

Certified Force Science Analyst

Police Service of Northern Ireland

 

"I'll never forget the sudden realization that she intended to kill me"

 

Out of three shootings in my 32-year career, the most traumatic and thought provoking started with a nighttime radio call of a "woman screaming" near a pay phone in the parking area of a closed gas station.

 

When my partner and I pulled up to the scene and got out, our sergeant was walking up to the rear of a BMW parked near the phone. Suddenly a woman's head popped up in the driver's seat and the ignition started. She put the car into reverse and accelerated.

 

The sergeant jumped to avoid being struck. The driver whipped the car inches from the sergeant, then swung it so its rear end faced me. Initially, I was confused about the driver's intent. But then we made eye contact through the rear window. In all my life, I have never seen such an expression of utter hate. I will never forget the sudden realization as she accelerated toward me that she intended to kill me.

 

I ran backward as the distance between us narrowed. Events seemed to go into slow motion and I thought about the choices I was being forced to make.

 

Behind me was the closed service bay door, so the building offered no protection. The car was outrunning me and although I was trying to move out of its line of travel, the driver kept compensating. I drew my 9mm Sig P226, but my sergeant was somewhere just past the front end of the car. If I shot, he might be in the line of fire; if I didn't shoot, I KNEW this woman was going to kill me.

 

I fired one round at the driver. It flew over the top of the BMW, missing my sergeant's head of by about three feet.

 

The driver continued to bear down on me. I continued to move left, but realized I'd soon be cut off by the building behind me. I fired a second shot, aimed at the driver's head/neck area just above her open window. There was a distinct sound of my bullet striking metal and glass.

 

The driver slammed on her brakes, skidding to a stop very close to me. I had only 10-15 feet left between me and the service bay door.

 

After what seemed like minutes (but was probably only a second or so), the woman turned away from me and accelerated out of the parking area and down a darkened street. She was captured within the hour. Turned out that in a call to her parents from the pay phone, she'd been screaming that she'd just shot and killed her boyfriend during a quarrel over her cocaine use.

 

When this incident took place, our department had a restrictive deadly force policy which generally prohibited officers from firing at or from moving vehicles. But allowing that woman to kill me wasn't something I was willing to let a police manager, the city attorney, or any prosecutor decide.

 

While my first shot failed to discourage the attacker, my second struck her door and fragments shattered the windshield, causing superficial injuries to her face. Whether it was those small cuts, the sights and sounds of my shots, or her recognition that I wasn't going to stop shooting if things didn't change, those shots convinced that woman to stop her attack.

 

Maybe bullets can't immediately halt a moving vehicle, but they can--and in my case did--stop the operator from continuing an assault. Taking such an option away from an officer who's facing death and refuses to going willingly into the oblivion through dictated policy isn't just futile, its an insult to human nature.

 

Gary Steiner

Sgt. (ret.), Santa Monica (CA) PD

Blue Blood Investigations

Santa Clarita, CA

 

"Most vehicle shooting incidents are not truly assaults on officers"

 

We're on the verge of changing our policy on shooting at vehicles--in the restrictive direction you suggest we avoid.

 

We've had eight incidents in which officers fired into vehicles. If all such incidents were truly "attacks" on officers then there would be fewer policy restrictions. But what we're actually seeing is that many--I dare say most--aren't really assaults intended to cause harm.

 

Shooting into vehicles often starts with an officer trying to arrest a person for a property crime or traffic violation. The offender is not trying to run over anyone but is trying to maneuver away from the tenacious officer. The officer isn't in harm's way (no one is); the officer is just trying to stop the fleeing car.

 

Because officers shoot into vehicles for a variety of reasons other than assaults, we've lost much of our public credibility on these scenarios, and our loss of credibility is driving many of the emerging no-shoot policies.

 

Last year, we experienced at least two advertised-as-assaults but not-really-assaults-with-vehicles that had significant outcomes.

 

In one case, the officer made some obvious and life-threatening deviations from her safety training regarding the deployment of stop sticks. Evidence is clear that the suspect was not trying to assault anyone as he slowly maneuvered his vehicle around the stop sticks, yet the officer fired three shots at him, all misses.

 

Then, because of a radio transmission saying "he just tried to kill" the officer, as the suspect car accelerated down the road another officer pulled over, exited his unit, and fired at the vehicle after it sped past him. No one was in harm's way during this second engagement either. That officer hit the car but, of course, his bullets had no stopping effect and the car continued on.

 

The other incident led to a high-speed pursuit down the shoulder of I-5 during rush-hour traffic. As congested traffic crawled along, our officers pursued the "assailant" down the shoulder at over 90 mph! The result was a multi-car crash affecting all lanes and causing traffic backup for miles.

 

This incident started when an officer assigned to our shopping mall broadcast that a suspect just "tried to run me over!" Upon further examination the driver was merely another fleeing shoplifter in front of whose car the officer placed himself as the car started to move.

 

We've seen that on a number of occasions, at and outside our agency, officers using themselves as vehicle barricades, or conducting high-risk stops at the driver's window, both of which lead to shots fired when the driver starts moving his car. No doubt there is a real risk of harm to the officer, but it's because of the officer's choice of position in contrast with safety training.

 

When officers are policy-prohibited from shooting into vehicles, we hope their tactics will change. We hope they will adhere to their training and conduct high-risk stops from behind cover at a distance, will not stand in front of a belligerent violator's car with their weapon pointed at the driver, not shoot the glass out in order to reach in and turn off the car when they face an uncooperative driver, not shoot at speeding vehicles as they whiz by. None of these is a self-defense situation, reflexively responding to assault, but they seem to make up the majority of officer-involved shootings into vehicles.

 

Of our eight incidents involving bullets and vehicles, seven of the vehicles continued on their way regardless of whether the driver or, more frequently just the car, was hit. In the anomaly, officers exited their cars and surrounded a stolen car at the end of a pursuit instead of conducting a proper felony stop. When the driver revved the engine, officers fired into the car to "protect themselves," which persuaded the driver to stop trying to get away. In that regard the shooting was effective. However, their bullets not only hit the driver but also hit his teenage girlfriend in the passenger seat.

 

Even though the shooting "worked," we don't consider this a successful police operation. We can't find another type of OIS in which police bullets hit more bystanders, than police bullets hitting passengers in vehicles.

 

Deputy Chief Kyle Sumpter

Certified Force Science Analyst

Federal Way (WA) PD

 

"Having a strict no-shoot policy puts my community at risk"

 

In the last few years, we've had two fatal OISs in which the driver of a full-size pickup truck tried to flee from police attempting a routine traffic stop. In both, the suspect rammed a squad car and drove in such an aggressive fashion as to pose an acute significant danger to the LEOs attempting to apprehend him before deadly force was used against him. Both suspects were under the influence of alcohol and/or a controlled substance, adding to their irrational and unpredictable behavior while in control of a vehicle being used as a deadly weapon.

 

In both situations, principles learned through my Force Science training was paramount as I reviewed the investigations and prepared for grand jury presentations. In both situations, the grand jury issued no indictments.

 

Had there been a policy of "no shoot" at vehicles, it's likely these suspects would have continued to travel on the streets of our community. While the dangers from that may be speculative in the eyes of some, the threat is real to those of us who regularly see the consequences of impaired and aggressive driving.

 

When the parents, spouses, siblings, or friends of victims that have been seriously injured or killed by irresponsible drivers ask us "why wasn't he/she stopped before they killed my...," the worst thing I can imagine telling them in response is "... because the police have a policy not to shoot."

 

By following their sworn oath and doing whatever has to be done to stop a deadly threat, officers save innocent lives. Trying to train an officer to replace subconscious instincts to act protectively with a calculated and intentional consideration of every other option wastes precious time for reaction, especially when officers are aware their instinctive actions are contrary to the support of their administration. This places innocent people at risk.

 

I believe an officer who is adequately trained to assess a situation and act accordingly, including responding to deadly force with deadly force, is highly preferred over one who has been conditioned to pause and try to "find another way." Having a strict policy to the contrary puts my community at risk.

 

Unless and until police administrators have the courage to stand up to those pushing this agenda and put their priorities back into the concept of "protecting and serving" the community as a whole--not just the interests of one person choosing to act against the law--we will continue to dilute the proper authority of officers attempting to preserve peace and dignity for the rest of us.

 

Vicki Elaine Becker

Chief Deputy Prosecuting Atty.

Certified Force Science Analyst

Elkhart, IN

 

No-shoot policies "open agencies to more chance of litigation and scrutiny"

 

I spent years investigating shootings, including several that involved officers shooting at vehicles, and have myself been involved as a shooter, twice seated in the driver's seat of my patrol car when I pulled the trigger.

 

Administrators across the country are forming use-of-force policies in an all too familiar display of armchair quarterbacking. No-shoot policies do not take into account the realities experienced in the dynamic of a shoot-out.

 

Research shows an officer's reaction in stressful deadly force situations comes from the unconscious rather than deliberate, conscious decisions. In many cases there is no time to move out of the way of a threatening vehicle. No-shoot restrictions take away from an officer the ability to determine if he or she is in a deadly force situation or when, in reality, a civilian may be in grave danger.

 

Failure to recognize and correct the weaknesses in such policies opens agencies to a greater chance of litigation and public scrutiny.

 

Ptl. Sgt. Angela Hawkins

St. Louis (MO) Metropolitan PD

 

 

Shooting at cars is risky--& unnecessary--business

 

One thing I've learned for certain in studying police shootings for many years is that shooting a firearm at a moving vehicle is dangerous for the officer, innocent occupant(s) in the vehicle, and innocent bystanders.

 

Officers should be trained to follow the intuitive response to a vehicle coming toward them, which is to move out of the way, not stand and shoot at it. The average officer can move 2-3 feet out of the path faster than he can draw his firearm, aim, and fire at the driver with any accuracy.

 

I've never seen a vehicle stop in less than a block or two after police have shot the driver. A person who is shot does not stop acting immediately. I have seen drivers become more erratic in an attempt to flee or lose control completely as the vehicle moves on.

 

Also it is very difficult to successfully shoot into a windshield. The curvature causes the projectile to take an unexpected course that often results in striking passengers or bystanders.

 

I'm a proponent of more restrictive policies because better training and better policies will result in fewer officer-involved shootings.

 

Chuck Drago

Former chief, Oviedo PD

Drago Professional Consultants

Oviedo, FL

 

High-speed flight with the risk of lives on the line prompts a policy violation

 

One of my sergeants and I were leaving the office late in the afternoon for a cup of coffee when we heard over the radio that two officers from an agency about 20 miles away had been shot at by a suspect who was fleeing the scene. Officers from various departments were joining in pursuit, and the suspect was firing back at them as he drove at speeds up to 100 mph.

 

The suspect was headed directly towards the city of Calexico, CA. Late afternoon traffic in Calexico is virtually gridlocked every day with people crossing the border with Mexico. The sergeant and I appeared to be the only law enforcement presence between the fleeing suspect and Calexico. If the pursuit wasn't stopped, the likelihood seemed strong that the suspect would crash into the bumper-to-bumper traffic, endanger innocent civilians by continuing to shoot at the officers chasing him, or perhaps hijack another vehicle.

 

We set up beside the highway two miles outside Calexico in a rural area surrounded by fields. We radioed for the pursuing officers to back off, as we intended to use firearms to stop the vehicle. Then, armed with a rifle and shotgun, we took cover.

 

When the suspect vehicle approached, the sergeant shot out a rear tire with the shotgun and I fired directly at the driver with my rifle. I missed, but struck the engine. Although unharmed, the driver was unable to control the vehicle, the engine seized, and he was taken into custody without further incident.

 

Our department policy proscribed shooting at vehicles. We were subjected to an administrative investigation and a criminal investigation for our actions. IA determined we had violated the department policy, but with good reason and within the spirit of the policy. The DA concluded that our actions were lawful and we were cleared of any wrongdoing.

 

Similar events should be considered when drafting department policy. Our policy was changed as a result of this incident to allow for shooting at vehicles when the circumstances warrant.

 

The sergeant and I never did get that cup of coffee, by the way.

 

Michael Hackett

Asst. Sheriff (ret.)

Imperial County (CA) SO

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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