Throughout the history of American law enforcement, policies and tactics have been changed as a result of critical incidents that have resulted in tragedies for both officers and civilians. Incidents such as Newhall, the Miami-Dade FBI shootout, and North Hollywood bank robbery identified elements of change needed to improve police tactics and enhance officer safety.
Recently, a number of incidents involving officers shooting at moving cars have led to many law enforcement trainers and policymakers rethinking officer tactics and positioning when dealing with resistive suspects inside vehicles.
A review of more than 30 vehicle shootings involving police officers since 2001 reveals that there have been more than 17 officers injured and at least two officers killed as a result of incidents involving motor vehicles being used as weapons by suspects. Five officers have also been prosecuted criminally as a result of their involvement in “vehicle shootings.” Two of these officers were terminated by their agencies even though they were acquitted.
While there are certainly incidents in which officers are attacked with vehicles without any prior warning, many of these incidents were the result of poor police tactics and training. For example, many of the officers involved in these incidents positioned themselves in the path of a motor vehicle in the early stages of an incident, apparently in an attempt to “control” the suspect or prevent the suspect from leaving the scene.
If you take nothing else away from this article, then remember this: Your flesh, bone, and muscle are no match against the mass and momentum of a car or truck. You may think this is common sense and no officer would truly believe that his or her body and badge could stop a motorized vehicle. But people, including officers, often react without thinking.
Review of several videos of officers who were attacked with vehicles reveals that in many cases there were several seconds during which the officer had an opportunity to decrease the risk of attack by moving but, for some reason, failed to do so. In one particular video an officer is resting his knee against the front bumper of a vehicle preventing the suspect from driving away. The suspect eventually drove away and the officer opened fire, hitting the suspect.
Which brings me to another point. Many officers think that the best way to stop a fleeing driver is to shoot. But ask yourself this: What happens to the vehicle if you hit that driver?
We have learned that sometimes even when the human body is mortally wounded it will still function for many seconds. This means that shooting the driver of an oncoming vehicle will not necessarily prevent him or her from striking you with more than 2,000 pounds of automobile.
And let’s say your shots do incapacitate the driver. This will not immediately stop his or her vehicle. It will keep coming at you or become an unguided missile careening down the street.
Most of you know this. It is after all common sense. The problem is that many of you haven’t been trained to react properly when a driver either attacks you with a car or tries to drive away when you are in front of the vehicle.
Part of the reason for this logical disconnect is what researchers call “process time.”
As a vehicle moves, the background changes continually. So it may be difficult for you to even process the information about what is around and in front of the vehicle as it approaches you.
Research conducted by Dr. Bill Lewinski, director of the Force Science Research Center at Mankato State University, demonstrates that officers will very likely become fixated or focused on what is most important “in the scene” to them. In other words, they may become so fixated on the suspect in the vehicle that they do not perceive what is in the background.
This phenomenon can lead to tragic results. In two separate incidents on the East Coast, three bystanders were unintentionally shot, two fatally, by police who were shooting at suspects in vehicles.
Leadership and Discipline
The key tactical concern that police trainers must address to prevent these tragic incidents is the positioning of the officers at the time of the incidents.
For example, in one incident an officer ran up to the driver’s side of a vehicle after a pursuit. He then positioned himself near the front of the vehicle.
Consequently, when the driver tried to flee, he perceived that he was being attacked by the driver who was using the vehicle as a weapon. The officer fired on the driver. Yet, despite multiple gunshot wounds that proved to be fatal, the suspect drove from the scene.
The officer was charged criminally as a result of his actions, but was not convicted. One review of the incident referred to the Newhall incident (See “41⁄2 Minutes in Newhall” on page 57) to explain why the officer may have run up to the driver and drawn his gun.
However, the lesson of Newhall is not that a tactical advantage can be gained by running up to an occupied car that is occupied. In fact, that incident clearly illustrates why officers should use cover and avoid running up to a suspect vehicle at the conclusion of a pursuit, unless there is some established tactical need to do so, such as a hostage rescue.