Dramatic Shooting Of A Car Thief And Persistent Hollywood Myths

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Note: The staff at the Force Science Institute of late has noticed “a definite uptick” in the number of inquiries being received regarding shooting at moving vehicles, according to operations vice president Scott Buhrmaster. From their various field locations, some Force Science instructors are reporting a similar increase as well.

FSI is in the preliminary stages of developing a research project that will address this use-of-force circumstance. More information is expected to be announced shortly.

Meanwhile, the following report describes the latest moving-vehicle shooting case FSI has played a role in…and the favorable result involved.

The auto theft detail tracking a dangerous suspect in a stolen Chevy Caprice thought they had him cornered in an ideal spot: inside the bay of a do-it-yourself car wash with both the Plexiglas entrance and exit doors closed and blocked to hamper a fast escape.

But the suspect had other ideas….

For more than six hours, members of the covert undercover unit of the Calgary (Alberta) Police Service called HEATT (High Enforcement Auto Theft Team) had been dogging the trail of career criminal Travis Oakes, suspected of “terrorizing” two of the city’s police districts with his unlawful activities.

Over 20 warrants were out for his arrest, and at least four high-speed pursuits dotted his resume. Just in the time the constables from HEATT had surveilled him late on the night of Mar. 17, 2009 and into the post-midnight hours, he appeared to be casing stop-and-rob businesses, conducting hand-to-hand drug transactions, stealing from newspaper boxes, and smoking crack cocaine inside the stolen car.

When he swung into a multi-bay manual car wash facility at about 0300, the team sensed the opportunity they’d been waiting for. Washing his vehicle the suspect would be out of the car, isolated from innocent parties, and seemingly contained in the bay.

An unmarked police car pulled into the bay next to the one Oakes was using. The two largest police vehicles, a Dodge Durango SUV and a Chevy Silverado pickup, were driven up close to the large entry and exit openings, and officers ready for action were stationed near the vehicles. As Sgt. Dave Jennings activated his grille flashers and stepped out of the Durango facing the exit door, an officer with a Taser and another with a K-9 entered Oakes’ bay from inside the facility.

The instant the cops yelled for Oakes to get his hands up, the suspect didn’t miss a beat. He leaped back into the Caprice, tromped the accelerator to the floor, and charged. First, he roared backward and crashed into the Silverado through the Plexiglas barrier, then he peeled forward into Jennings’ Durango, knocking it back a good two feet. Officers scattered as the ramming was repeated, tires squealing and the bay filling with smoke.

The second time Oakes smashed the Durango he kept the pedal floored, gradually nudging the barrier out of his way. His escape, Jennings thought, was inevitable and imminent.

Standing near the Durango, the sergeant aimed at Oakes’ silhouette through the Plexiglas, assessing where he thought the suspect’s center mass would be, and started firing. About half a second apart, he let fly three rounds. The Caprice’s engine continued to roar and the Durango haltingly continued to give way. The driver had not shifted or moved at all behind the wheel.

Jennings fired one more round. “[T]here was almost an immediate reduction in the throttle of the vehicle,” a report later stated, and Jennings stopped shooting.

His last round had bored through the suspect’s right temple, “causing significant injuries to the brain and skull.” He had also delivered a “more superficial” wound to Oakes’ head and a right shoulder wound that “caused a significant…blood loss to the left chest cavity.”

Travis Oakes was dead on the spot.

A use-of-force investigation and a prosecutor’s review exonerated Jennings of wrongdoing, even though technically he had violated his agency’s policy, which forbids shooting at a moving vehicle unless an occupant is using deadly force other than the vehicle itself.

The final step before the case was closed was a Public Fatality Inquiry. At these hearings a Provincial Court judge reviews the circumstances of the shooting and, where possible, makes recommendations on how such an encounter might be prevented in the future.

For the Oakes hearing, Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, was consulted via videotape for his expert opinion.

He stated emphatically that given the suspect’s history of recklessness and his threatening driving at the car wash, “there was no other way to stop” his desperate escape attempt than shooting him. Jennings, he said, “was the only officer in a position to target” him, and had the sergeant failed to do so, Oakes would have posed “significant” danger to officers and the public alike.

Could warning shots have been fired? Lewinski was asked. That might work “in some limited circumstances,” he responded. But warning shots can have unintended “deadly consequences.” They may ricochet and hit someone. They may provoke shooting by a suspect or “encourage fleeing behavior.” Given Oakes’ “agitated state and the fact he was under the influence of drugs,” there was a “reasonable likelihood” that a shot intended to warn would likely instead to have “escalated his efforts to escape.”

How about shooting at the tires of the suspect’s Caprice? That would have been difficult, given the car’s movement, Lewinski testified. Even if a tire was penetrated, the hole would have been small and deflation slow. A “determined” individual like Oakes “would continue to drive on the tires until they came off the rims and then would drive on the rims,” continuing to pose a threat to innocent life and limb the whole while.

Could the sergeant have just shot to wound? In his opinion, Lewinski said, that “would have been almost impossible,” given the dynamic actions and movements of the subjects involved and the time it would have taken for Jennings to acquire a reliable sight picture. His “above-average skill” with the use of his weapon and his training to “shoot to stop the threat” were “undoubtedly” factors in preventing Oakes from leaving the car wash.

Questions of this nature are similar to those often raised after an OIS, a Canadian use-of-force trainer and investigator told Force Science News. “Thanks to ‘training by Hollywood,’ ” he said, “many people don’t always understand the difference between the real world of policing and the fake world of movies and television shows.”

When Judge Shanon Van de Veen issued her findings from the Inquiry a few weeks ago, she firmly voiced real-world conclusions.

There was “no option but the use of lethal force in this case,” she wrote. “The fact that Sgt. Jennings shot at a moving vehicle contrary to police policy was not only justified in this case, but may well have prevented significant injury or death to both police officers and unsuspecting members of the public….”

She offered “no recommendations which may prevent similar deaths from occurring….”

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