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Cops vs. Cars

More and more agencies are ordering their officers not to shoot at moving vehicles. Some cops complain of political correctness, but police tactical experts say it’s about time.

June 01, 2005  |  by - Also by this author

Official reports say that just before 4 in the morning on Feb. 6, officers of the Los Angeles Police Department saw a maroon Toyota Camry zip through a red light. Officer Steve Garcia and his partner, who has not been named publicly, gave chase. About three minutes later, the Camry ran up on the sidewalk and stopped. The officers parked behind the car, the Camry's passenger door flew open, and a 14-year-old boy ran down the street.

Garcia got out of the patrol car. Then the Camry's driver, 13-year-old Devin Brown police say, made a fateful move. He either panicked and threw the car in reverse, rammed the patrol car to make a run for it, or tried to intentionally injure the officers. We may never know. But for one of these reasons, or maybe for another that's not readily apparent, he reportedly reversed that Camry into the patrol car. Garcia opened fire, killing the boy. It was later discovered that the Camry had been reported stolen.

At presstime many things had still not been publicly released regarding the Devin Brown incident. LAPD detectives, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, and the FBI were all investigating the shooting. So it's not known where Garcia was standing when he discharged 10 rounds into the Camry. And it's not known if his use of deadly force was justified.

But one thing that is known is that the Devin Brown shooting ignited a firestorm of controversy. Brown was African-American, and the shooting reinforced the impression among L.A.'s black community that the city's police are "trigger happy" when it comes to black suspects.

Nothing could be more politically charged in Los Angeles than the killing of an "unarmed" black teenager by the LAPD. This is especially true when the Devin Brown shooting is seen against the backdrop of one of the most vicious mayoral races in Los Angeles history. At the time of the shooting and for weeks following as the black community reacted, Mayor James K. Hahn was in a fight for his political life against challenger Antonio Villaraigosa. Some analysts say it looks like Hahn pressured LAPD Chief William Bratton to do something politically correct to help his foundering bid for reelection.

That's not true, according to LAPD spokesman Lt. John Vernon. What really happened, he says, is that the political fallout from the Devin Brown shooting merely expedited a policy change that was already under consideration. "Actually, [the day of the Devin Brown incident] that policy change was sitting in an assistant chief's inbox, and she had planned to bring it to the chief's attention the next time they met."

By all accounts, Bratton was unhappy with the LAPD's penchant for shooting at moving vehicles long before the Devin Brown incident. In 2004, his officers had shot and killed a robbery suspect who was slowly backing his car toward them. That incident, which was captured on tape by local media, brought this issue to Bratton's attention, and he didn't like what he saw. He asked his staff to modify LAPD's use-of-force policy to clarify the department's stance on shooting at or from moving vehicles and bring it more in line with the standing policies of New York, Boston, Chicago, Houston, and other major cities.

The LAPD's use-of-force policy was officially modified 10 days after the Devin Brown incident to prohibit firing at or from cars. Basically, the policy orders officers to get out of the way of vehicles that are trying to run them down and not to fire on the vehicle unless the occupants are "immediately threatening the officer or another person with deadly force by other means than the vehicle." The policy goes on to leave a little bit of gray area for officers who have no other means of escape from a vehicular attack other than to shoot the driver.

Some LAPD officers and police union reps responded to the new policy with cries that it would endanger officers' lives. However, police trainers and use-of-force policy experts interviewed by POLICE say that chiefs who order their officers to stop shooting at vehicles may actually save the lives of some brave but misguided officers who are using poor tactical judgment.

It Keeps on Going

Tactically, shooting at a car that is trying to run you down is not a percentage play. "We've always taught that it's not a good tactic to be shooting at an oncoming car," says Dep. Mike Fass of the Harris County (Texas) Sheriff's Department, which last year revised its use-of-force policy to prohibit shooting at moving vehicles, except in extraordinary circumstances.

Fass applauded the change because it helped reinforce what he teaches at the Harris County Academy. "We've long been of the opinion that the time that you would spend executing a five-point draw, getting in a good position, getting your sight alignment, and maintaining trigger control would be more profitably spent laying a series of footprints at right angles to the oncoming car," he says.

Such sentiments are also voiced by other officers who have studied the tactical implications of attempting to stop a motor vehicle with a handgun.

A variety of things can happen when an officer attempts to shoot the driver of an oncoming car. Almost all of them are bad.

If you hit the driver and seriously wound or kill him, then the car will likely keep moving. It will just be out of control, which means that you have now created a greater hazard to yourself and the public.

Dr. Bill Lewinsky, director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, has studied the tactics of police shooting at cars. He says that shooting a driver in real life does not result in the car rolling to a gentle stop with the dead driver's head slumped on the blaring horn like it does in the movies.

"You can assume that the body might slump forward, but the pressure might increase to the gas pedal," Lewinsky says. "This means the car might even accelerate in the direction in which it was moving." So, Lewinsky points out, an officer standing in front of an oncoming car delivering .40-caliber rounds into the windshield is likely to be hit anyway.

A few other bad things that can happen when you shoot at cars include: hitting a passenger, hitting an innocent bystander, causing an out-of-control car to slam into a crowd of innocent bystanders, and, since handguns weren't made to shoot windshield glass, your round may ricochet and go God knows where. All of these bad outcomes could put you in a legal jackpot.

But let's say everything goes the way you wanted it to when you chose to fire on the driver of an oncoming car. Your shots find the mark. The driver is killed, and the car is stopped with no further injury to you or innocent bystanders. Even if your shooting was in policy with your agency, you are still likely in big trouble.

Remember, we're not talking about a case of a bad guy throwing shots at you from a car and you having to return fire. We're talking about shooting an otherwise "unarmed" driver who may or may not have been intending to run you down. Your local papers will hammer you with the fact that the driver was "unarmed." So will his or her attorney.

Worse, reflexes and physics being what they are, you will likely jump out of the way of the oncoming vehicle as you shoot and continue firing as it passes. Which means that when you fired the fatal shot, the threat to your life had ended.

And that's a real problem, says John Makholm, a veteran police officer and trainer who is also an attorney with Florida-based Peter M. Walsh & Associates. "We had a case in Gainesville, Fla.," Makholm says. "The officer was standing in front of the perpetrator's car, and the perp drove at him, and he shot the car coming toward him and going past him. If you are shooting at a car that's coming toward you, then I think it's a natural inclination to keep shooting as it passes you and after it passes you. The problem is, as it passes you, all things being equal, it's no longer a threat to you. After it has passed you and is going away from you, it's certainly no threat to you. You no longer have a reason to be shooting."

Academic research proves Makholm's point. Most cop vs. car shootings continue once the car has passed the cop. "Most of the time the bullets will go into the side of the car or even the back of the car," says Dr. Geoffrey Alpert, chair of the criminology and criminal justice department at the University of South Carolina. Consider for a moment how it will look in the papers and later in court that you shot an "unarmed" driver in the back.

CONTINUED: Cops vs. Cars «   Page 1 of 3   »

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