Policy is Not Enough
Regardless of what many administrators think, you cannot change police tactics by simply instituting a policy that restricts officers from using deadly force when the “only” threat is a vehicle. If the goals are to increase the safety of officers, safeguard citizens, and minimize liability, then both a clear policy and a well-coordinated training program are essential.
Many agencies across the United States are taking a critical look at how they train their officers to respond to situations in which a vehicle can be used as a weapon against them.
Sgt. Bret Draughn, supervisor of the Phoenix Police Department’s Firearms Training Detail, emphasizes avoiding the risk when possible in his agency’s training programs. Draughn feels there may be some aspects of this issue that are related to the police culture. In other words, he knows that as police officers we expect people to stop for us and we believe they will stop if we put our body in front of their cars and put our hand up.
Draughn says that he’s seen instances in which officers fired at a suspect in a car. Then after the shots were fired and the car continued toward them, they moved out of the way. “The question I like to ask is, what saved your life? Shooting or moving out of the way?” he says.
“Generally, the answer is, moving out of the way. So if moving out of the way was the best way to escape the attack, shouldn’t that be the first option instead of the second option?”
Todd Crow of the Gladstone (Mich.) Public Safety Department encourages departments to implement a training program that emphasizes continual training for their officers in realistic decision-making processes, including responding to offenders in vehicles.
“We absolutely must be supportive of officers in the aftermath of deadly force encounters, even when they may not have performed as well as expected or desired,” he says. “But we also owe it to them, their families, and others in the profession to minimize risk, including criminal and civil scrutiny when possible.”
The following quote from Jeff Cooper, founder of Gunsite, serves as an example of the mindset officers must strive to cultivate when approaching an occupied vehicle. “A superior gunman is best defined as one who uses his superior judgment in order to keep himself out of situations that would require the use of his superior skills.” Sgt. Craig Stapp has served with Tempe (Ariz.) PD for 26 years and is its Firearms Training Sergeant. He is also a technical advisor to the Force Science Research Center, Minnesota State University at Mankato.41⁄2 Minutes in Newhall
On April 6, 1970, Officer Walt Frago and Officer Roger Gore of the California Highway Patrol received a radio call alerting them that the occupant of a vehicle on the freeway near Newhall, Calif., was seen brandishing a firearm.
The officers spotted the car, radioed for backup, and followed it. They then executed what was at the time the CHP’s high-risk stop procedure. After the target vehicle came to a stop in a parking lot, they ordered the occupants to get out and place their spread hands on the hood of their car. The driver got out.
As the officers approached, the passenger door opened and a man later identified as Jack Twinning sprang out and opened fire on Officer Frago, striking him twice in the chest. Officer Gore returned fire, but while his attention was on Twinning, the driver, Bobby Davis, pulled a gun and shot Gore twice at close range.
Two officers were down. But neither they nor their attackers were seen by backup officers James Pence and George Alleyn who arrived on scene moments after Davis shot Officer Gore. A gunfight ensued between the two officers and the gunmen. Both officers were killed.
The gunmen drove away, then abandoned their car and split up. An intense nine-hour multi-agency police search located both cop killers.
Twinning had broken into a local home and taken an occupant hostage. When officers fired tear gas into the home, Twinning shot himself with a shotgun he had stolen from Officer Frago’s dying hands.
Davis was captured, stood trial, and convicted of four counts of capital murder. He was given a date with the gas chamber, but 1970’s politics and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling intervened. His sentence was commuted to life in prison. He now resides in Pelican Bay State Prison.
The Newhall incident was a catalyst for change in police tactics nationwide.