Experts Say Firing At A Moving
Vehicle Rarely Best Course
By RHONDA SWAN
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 08, 2008
Another teenage driver is dead.
Another officer's action investigated.
And once again the question arises: When is it appropriate to shoot at a
The answer for many experts is rarely.
On Aug. 2, Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy Eric Bethel shot 16-year-old
Ruben Charles DeBrosse in the back of the head as the unlicensed teen backed
a stolen car toward the deputy. A sheriff's spokesman said the deputy feared
for his life.
DeBrosse's mother plans to bury him today.
The circumstances are at least partially similar to those three years ago
when former Delray Beach police officer Darren Cogoni shot Jerrod Miller in
the back of the head as the unlicensed teen drove a borrowed car down a
breezeway at a high school dance.
It was one of several high-profile fatal police shootings across the country
that year, prompting departments to reevaluate their policies on using
lethal force against moving vehicles.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office tightened its policy, making it more
difficult for deputies to justifiably fire at a fleeing car - even one
coming toward them - unless it is the absolute last resort.
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw says that was the case in the DeBrosse shooting and he
is comfortable with the policy.
"It addresses the issues, and it doesn't allow indiscriminate shooting into
a moving vehicle," Bradshaw said.
He declined to elaborate further, citing the state attorney office's
investigation into the shooting.
Though experts say shooting at or into a moving vehicle is rarely a good
idea, at least two agree that given the circumstances, Bethel acted
Bethel was running backward and fell as DeBrosse was backing his stolen car
into the deputy, sheriff's office spokeswoman Teri Barbera said. Fearing for
his life, he fired four shots. Two hit DeBrosse. Two hit the car.
However, the sheriff's office policy on firing into vehicles, which is
similar to that of many departments across the country, appears to
contradict itself, says Thomas Aveni, a New Hampshire police officer and
member of the Police Policy Study Council. The council does research,
training and consulting with an emphasis on the use of deadly force.
The sheriff's office prohibits deputies from shooting at a moving vehicle
unless an occupant is using or threatening to use deadly force by means
other than the vehicle, for example a gun.
However, it also permits shooting at a moving vehicle if the vehicle is
being used as a weapon to hit a deputy or a citizen and all other means of
defense, such as running away, have been exhausted.
"I'm surprised they have it worded that way," Aveni said. "You've got on the
one hand them saying you can't use deadly force against somebody using a
vehicle as a weapon ... then on the other hand, they're saying if the guy's
using it as weapon and attempting to strike the officer then he can use
deadly force. That's a pretty transparent, pretty manifest contradiction."
Aveni suggested the policy might not hold up in court in the event of a
Among the reasons Aveni and others cite for not using firearms to stop a
moving vehicle is that it's difficult to hit a moving target, particularly
when officers are likely to also be moving fast to avoid being hit.
Also, handgun bullets are not likely to stop a car, and hitting the driver
could incapacitate or kill him, making the vehicle an unguided missile that
could hurt bystanders.
"You're not really protecting yourself except in the oddest of
circumstances," said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the
University of South Carolina, who specializes in high-risk police activity.
"For example if you're backed up against the wall and you have nowhere to go
and someone is driving at you, or if you slip and fall."
Alpert says research shows that most suspects are trying to escape, not run
officers down. "Even still, your time is better spent getting the hell out
of the way than trying to fire a weapon," he said.
Aveni says there are times other than when an officer is trapped or on the
ground, when firing into a vehicle is appropriate.
He pointed to a case in Nevada when a suspect was purposely hitting
pedestrians outside a casino with a car, and another in Chicago where an
officer reached into a car to grab the keys not knowing the suspect still
had the car in drive. The suspect accelerated with the officer hanging from
his car, dragging him down a busy city street. The officer shot and killed
the driver, was thrown from the car and survived.
Aveni says many police departments have created deadly-force policies that
are too restrictive in response to controversial, high profile police
He added that more police training is needed and suggested departments use a
flexible policy such as: "Officers should not use deadly force against
moving vehicles unless other alternatives have been exhausted or were not
available and where human life is in imminent danger."