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Columns : The Federal Voice

Policy Won't Stop Vehicle Attacks

A number of agencies now prohibit officers from shooting at vehicles, but such hide and hope policies won't stop a terrorist from smashing a truck into a crowd.

July 10, 2017  |  by Jon Adler

Terrorists and mentally deranged individuals will surely exploit police policies that limit an officer's response. So with the number of vehicle ramming attacks on the rise, we should be focusing on police equipment and training needs, and not crippling police response options with unrealistic policies that ban officers from shooting at vehicles under any circumstances.

Since the cargo truck ramming slaughter in Nice, France, there have been more than nine ramming attacks in Europe and the United States. Last month there were two such attacks in London, and one in Paris. In those cities, the police vulnerability is more an issue of officers being unarmed than a department's use of deadly force policy. Nonetheless, law enforcement should not be limited to "hide and hope" tactics.

Newton's "First Law" states, in effect, that things in motion stay in motion unless impacted by an external or unbalanced force. That "external or unbalanced force" cannot be manufactured by the rigorous rubbing of a rabbit's foot. In the Nice attack, the truck traveled in excess of one mile before being stopped. We have to accept that some form of positive force is needed to stop lethal negative force, and that positive force is best deployed by a law enforcement officer.

Is it a simple matter for an officer to deploy a firearm to stop a ramming attack? Obviously, it is not. There might not be an officer in the immediate area with an opportunity to engage the driver. Furthermore, there are risks involved in shooting at the driver of a ramming vehicle, but we should trust our officers to make that risk assessment. Taking into account the vehicle's speed, the officer's location, and the proximity of innocent civilians, the odds are against the officer being able to stop the attack immediately. However, if the officer has the opportunity to fire upon the driver with minimal risk to themselves or others, they should engage.

In critiquing the value of a policy that prohibits officers from shooting at moving vehicles, we should objectively consider possible outcomes. Some proponents of the policy have alleged that shooting the driver of a ramming vehicle only leads to an out-of-control moving weapon. But we know that a vehicle is more likely to crash without a driver steering it and keeping pressure on the accelerator. Alternatively, by firing at the driver, the officer may affect the driver's ability to retain control and target groups of victims. Additionally, if the officer is able to hit the driver or cause them to crash, it may prevent the driver from exiting the vehicle and initiating an alternative form of attack. In assessing this restrictive policy, we have to consider ramming vehicle attacks, and evaluate the full gamut of risks.

Unfortunately, the politics which drove this restrictive policy forward only considered a limited context for which an officer might deploy their weapon against a moving vehicle. Admittedly, there have been questionable incidents where law enforcement discharged a firearm to stop the subject driving a vehicle. However, the proper response is to assess what went wrong objectively, and consider ways to improve the way law enforcement officers engage with moving vehicle threats. Elected officials should prioritize funding for law enforcement agencies' tactical training, including the use of simulator scenarios and Simunition training. Of course, we all know that it is less expensive to just write a policy.

In May, the Transportation Security Administration issued a report on the threat of ramming vehicle attacks. It indicated that 173 victims were killed worldwide in the past three years, and another 700 wounded or injured. That same month the Washington Post wrote an article titled "Police have killed nearly 200 people who were in moving vehicles since 2015." Which report do you think had greater influence on police departments' policy for shooting at moving vehicular threats? Since there are no portable bollards that can be worn on duty belts, I think we need to continue to train and trust our officers to engage and stop vehicle ramming attacks.


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