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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

Tactical Training

Lewinsky says agencies need to do more than train their officers when to shoot and when not to shoot. "If they're going to be successful, they need to train their officers to get out of the way and how not to position themselves in the path of a vehicle."

Lewinsky says he's seen officers do things at traffic stops that make him cringe. "You don't cross in front of the vehicle," he says. "You don't cross between your vehicle and the rear of a suspect's vehicle. If the guy backs up, then you've placed yourself in a position of compromise."

Stapp has developed a program to teach Tempe PD officers not to put themselves in a position where they have to shoot at a driver and endanger themselves and the public. He says that the toughest part of his job is getting officers to stop standing in front of the vehicle. And when he tells them not to do it, he gets an incredulous response of, What if they drive away? "What if they do?" he asks. "Your body can't stop a car."

Stapp says he is fighting against a police culture that thinks letting even a non-violent suspect get away is "chickening out." He argues that the Tempe PD is teaching common sense, not cowardice.

"We want you to make a reasonable effort to stop a fleeing suspect, or even a superhuman effort, but standing in front of a car should not be part of that," Stapp says adamantly. "You cannot match up against a car. It will run over you and kill you."

Stapp understands the mindset of some Tempe officers who were slow to accept his tactics. "They felt like we were telling them they couldn't do their jobs," he says. "When I was in patrol, they changed our pursuit policy. They came and said, 'Here's the deal. You guys are used to chasing somebody until they crash or you catch them. We aren't going to do that anymore.' I thought, You don't want me to do my job? Fine. I won't do my job."

Shortly after his initial reaction to the pursuit policy, which specified high-speed pursuit only for violent criminals, Stapp says he realized that the new policy was right. "There was a case where the police in another agency chased a guy who had just stolen some blue jeans. The guy's car crashed into a family, and I understood then that we shouldn't put the public at more risk than the crimes of the suspect we are chasing."

Stapp hopes that his students and other officers will have the same sort of epiphany when it comes to standing in front of cars and that they will see the sense of his approach. "The biggest problem with the car thing is that most of law enforcement is behind the curve on this tactically," he says. "We haven't trained officers not to do this."

Chilling Effect

The solution to the cop vs. car issue, according to Stapp, is training and tactics, not policies that place prohibitions on police shooting at cars. "The latest LAPD policy says that you can't shoot at a car unless the occupants are using a weapon other than the car against you [or another person]. That goes too far," he says.

And he is not alone in believing that the LAPD's policy, which is virtually identical to that of many other departments, is overly restrictive. Some experts even worry about a "chilling effect" that may prevent an officer from defending his or her life because a shooting may be out of policy.

"I'm concerned about an absolute thou shalt never policy," says Lewinsky. "There may be times where shooting at a vehicle is the only option open to an officer and, if we absolutely forbid it and it turns out to be a successful tactic on the part of an officer who was desperately scrambling to survive, then that officer has violated that policy."

Defenders of strict shooting at cars prohibitions say that they agree that an officer should never be placed in a position where his or her life is truly threatened and policy prevents a response. They argue that the gray areas even in the strictest cop vs. car policies allow officers to defend themselves.

"The LAPD, for example, takes its policy as a guidance," explains Alpert. "It's a very strong guidance. But I don't think Chief Bratton would want his officers to be in a situation where they are trapped and have nowhere to go and they just sit down and let the vehicle hit them. He well would understand what his officers would have to do as a last resort."

Seeing the Big Picture

The shooting at cars issue is full of gray areas and logical paradoxes. Throughout an officer's automotive training, one given is that a car is a deadly weapon. And that makes it very hard for an officer to shrug off what he or she perceives as a vehicular attack. "That's absolutely true," says Lewinsky. "A fundamental teaching component in pursuit driving and emergency vehicle operations is that there is no difference between a bullet moving down the street and your vehicle traveling at high speed."

Indeed in many cases in which officers are now being told to jump out of the way of vehicles, the drivers may face charges of assault on a peace officer or even attempted murder. So, in effect, these policies are commanding officers not to respond to deadly force with deadly force.

Police tacticians, trainers, and administrators say they realize that prohibitions against shooting at moving vehicles require officers to stand down against what they may perceive as a threat, even a deadly threat. They understand the officers' frustration and confusion, but they ask officers to look at the bigger picture.

"I understand why officers want to shoot," says Harris County's Fass. "They believe that this guy [who has just tried to hit them] is such a terrible malefactor, in that he has now tried to kill a peace officer, that we need to effect his arrest under any circumstances. There may be some validity to that. But you've got to look at the practicalities."

Tactical Training in Tempe

Police trainers and veteran officers say that if chiefs and sheriffs really want to stop officers from shooting at moving vehicles they have to do more than hand down thou shalt not commandments. They need to supply their officers with tactical training that will make them stop trying to block a suspect's car with their mere presence.

"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," says Dr. Bill Lewinsky, a veteran officer and head of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

Lewinsky says he has only seen one agency, the Tempe (Ariz.) Police Department, approach the cop vs. car issue as a tactical problem. The Tempe PD program is now part of the department's post-academy and in-service training.

Sgt. Craig Stapp, Tempe PD's firearms training sergeant, says the training program was developed after several incidents in which Tempe officers fired at oncoming cars. "We did a bunch of research on it, and we formulated a training program and ran everybody through it," he says. The result was a marked decrease in cop vs. car incidents.

The first step in the Tempe program is to convince officers that they can't stop a car with their bodies and that standing in front of a suspect's car is a very poor tactic. Stapp hammers that message home with a series of patrol car videos that show cops being run over by cars even though they are shooting at, and sometimes killing, the drivers.

"We had a guy here in Tempe who was shot in the head by an officer from another jurisdiction," explains Stapp. "The officer was hanging on the hood of the car and, even though the driver was shot in the head, he drove the car for half a mile before he pulled over. He could have run over 15 cops standing in front of him."

The second stage of the Tempe program and the thing that sets Tempe apart from many other departments that order their officers not to shoot at cars is that it teaches tactical positioning. Officers are instructed to approach cars from the side rather than from the front and behind. They are also taught to use cover and distance to protect themselves.

In one exercise, Stapp assembles a group of students near a car. He then has each officer approach the car without getting in front of or behind it. But there's a wrinkle to the exercise: no student can use the path taken by another student.

Eventually, one of the students is forced to take a path that places him or her in front of the vehicle, the "red zone." That's when Stapp hopes they'll realize the importance of cover. To see if they do, he has the driver start the car.

"There are times that you have to approach a car from the red zone," Stapp explains. "If one of our officers has to do that and the car starts, then we want that officer to move immediately to cover. And if the car is running, then we train our officers to give it some distance and look for cover they can use in case the vehicle's driver attempts to ram them."

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