When to Shoot
Does this mean that officers should never have the right to fire on a driver? Alpert, who has studied the phenomenon of cops shooting at cars for many years and who consults with law enforcement agencies to help them refine their pursuit and use-of-force policies, says that there are certainly times when a cop has to shoot a driver.
"You don't want a blanket policy that says you can't use your weapon," Alpert explains. "I've seen situations where officers have fallen down or they're backed in a corner and they can't retreat anymore. Then anything goes."
Such instances of an officer actually being run down by a vehicle and shooting to save his or her life are rare. But they do happen. There are, however, two more likely possibilities: Officers are run down and never have a chance to shoot; or the officers position themselves in the paths of oncoming vehicles, believing that their presence alone will force the drivers to stop.
Watch one of those Fox shows drawn from patrol car video systems like "World's Scariest Police Chases," and you'll see plenty of footage of officers hit by vehicles. And a quick search on Yahoo! for the words "police" and "run down" yields thousands of hits. No doubt some of these are about officers being tired or about officers running down suspects. But alarmingly, many of the first 50 links led to stories about American cops being run down by vehicles, including cars, SUVs, vans, trucks, and even ATVs. How many of these were intentional acts is hard to say.
The issue of intent is key to any discussion of cops being run down and choosing to fire on their "attackers."
But intent is hard to discern. It's not evident just from the fact that a car is moving toward the officer. The driver may just be trying to flee, not hurt a cop. This is especially true when the officer stands in front of the car in an attempt to impede the suspect's escape.
Studies have shown that the majority of cop vs. car shooting incidents involved the officers using their bodies to block the car. This is a very poor tactic. It affords the officer no cover. It also places the officer in a position where, if the driver attempts to escape, the officer may interpret it as an attack and shoot.
"We did this thing in The Washington Post in the late '90s where I analyzed all of these shootings of vehicles for them," says Alpert. "I reviewed dozens of cases for them, and it was pretty horrifying to see that the majority of them were instances where the officers just stood there and then took shots at the fleeing person."
Standing in front of an oncoming vehicle trying to force the driver to halt just doesn't work, says Sgt. Craig Stapp, a firearms trainer with the Tempe (Ariz.) Police Department. "We're used to directing traffic, so we're use to standing in front of oncoming cars," he explains. "What we are confusing is the everyday guy who will pretty much obey our commands vs. the guy who wants to get away at all costs."
Not only is standing in front of a car to stop a fleeing suspect a bad tactic, it's also going make it easier for a suspect or his survivors to win a lawsuit against you if you do have to shoot.
"You don't always have a choice, but don't position yourself in front of a vehicle as a matter of routine," advises attorney Makholm who defends police officers in use-of-force lawsuits. "You're not only putting yourself at risk for being run over, you're also creating a 'zone of risk' by standing in front of the car. That means that not only are you putting yourself at risk but, if your response is going to be shooting the driver, arguably from the plaintiff's standpoint, you are setting up a scenario that wouldn't have existed otherwise."
Putting your body in front of a suspect's car, ordering him or her to stop is fraught with physical and legal peril. As Alpert says, "It's fortunate that more officers were not injured or killed in these instances because they didn't retreat."
Some cops won't retreat no matter what, and Stapp, believes he knows why. "Cops are aggressive," he says. "That's what makes them good cops. It makes them want to catch people. And sometimes if they haven't been trained to do so, they have a hard time stepping back and saying, 'I need to weigh the risks vs. the possible outcome here.'"
Lewinsky believes that poor training is the wellspring of the cop vs. car shooting phenomenon. "If you're going to forbid your officers from shooting at oncoming cars, you need to not only instruct them from the point of view of agency policy but train officers how to avoid these attacks and give them tactical alternatives," he says.
Unfortunately, these days, with the money crunch and the subsequent personnel crunch faced by police agencies, training resources are tight. This is true even when the brass wants to explain a new policy to its line officers.
It would be an exaggeration to call some agencies' efforts to educate their officers about their new vehicle shooting policies "training." The LAPD's revised policy was introduced to the line officers via a six-minute video. Det. Greg Bella, a Chicago Fraternal Order of Police rep, says that the Chicago Police Department revised its vehicle shooting policy in 2002 with minimal explanation. "There might have been a video that was shown to us," says Bella. "But that was it."
Experts say video training is only slightly better than nothing. But to be fair, it is difficult to provide officers with shoot/don't shoot training that involves moving vehicles. Harris County's Fass says there are limitations to the level of practical training that agencies can offer on this issue. "We can't run people over in training, and we can't shoot at cars in training either."
LAPD is working on a high-tech solution to the problem. Vernon says the department is working with FATS to create new scenarios for its simulators. "I think that shooting at a vehicle is now only in one FATS scenario, and it's a shoot situation with suspects shooting at the officer. We need them to create some no-shoot situations involving vehicles, so that officers will recognize them and step out of the way."