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.
[PAGEBREAK]Do We Retreat?
What I am advocating is to make two clear changes in our tactics. One, we need to pay more attention to our tactical positioning when attempting to arrest a driver who may flee. Two, we need to stop shooting at drivers unless we have no other means of escape or they are attacking us (or someone else) with a weapon other than their car.
This is contrary to the instincts of many officers. Police organizations hire aggressive, self-motivated, strong-willed individuals who are committed to carrying out the goals and objectives of law enforcement even in the face of extreme danger. So we aren’t the kind of people who back down from a fight. But we have to keep our instincts under control, maintain sound tactics, and use common sense.
Recently on a Website where vehicle approach and shooting issues were being discussed there was one very telling post. It read in part: “A peace officer need not retreat. A tool we can use to catch the bad guy is to place ourselves in front of a vehicle, forcing it to stop.” The post also makes a reference to the lack of a legal requirement for police officers to retreat prior to using deadly force.
Let me be clear. Nothing in this article should be construed as promoting the idea of a legal requirement to retreat before using deadly force. The issue is not about a requirement to retreat after the threat develops. It is about avoiding danger in the first place by employing proper tactics. One of our primary goals must be to carry out the police mission while reducing unnecessary risk to ourselves and the public when possible.
There was a recent incident in which a police officer was run over by a suspect after positioning himself in front of the suspect’s car to make the suspect stop. The report detailed the suspect’s criminal history. The suspect had a record of 25 arrests and eight convictions, two of which were felonies. Does anyone reading this really think that the best way to prevent this individual from driving away is to stand in front of his car?
Changing Your Mindset
The question we are asking as trainers is, how do we change the mindset of officers and get them to use more effective tactics in these situations?
Believe me, the solution is not as simple as initiating a policy that dictates that officers will “just get of the way.” Training must be provided to keep officers from getting “in the way” in the first place.
When possible, we must position ourselves in a location to prevent an attack. When it is not possible or when we have failed to take a good tactical position initially, we must immediately begin to move and create distance if the vehicle begins to move.
This is the reaction that trainers need to instill into officers. They need to recognize when they are at a tactical disadvantage and move into a better position.
Such training can be accomplished through video demonstrations and practical exercises and demonstrations, as well as the study and reenactment of actual scenarios. It can be conducted in briefings, demonstrated in a parking lot, and gamed in force-on-force scenarios.
[PAGEBREAK]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.