Fatal Shooting In Alexandria Fuels Debate On Police Policy


By Jamie Stockwell and Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 28, 2006; A01

The Alexandria police officer who fatally shot a teenage passenger in a sport-utility vehicle over the weekend was identified yesterday as Carl Stowe, a 13-year member of the force, and the shooting has reignited a debate over using deadly force on approaching cars.

Alexandria police officers are allowed to shoot at a moving vehicle if they feel their lives are in danger and no bystanders are at risk -- but only if they have exhausted all other means of defense, including moving from the vehicle's path, according to the department's use-of-force policy.

Whether Stowe, who fatally shot 18-year-old Aaron Brown as he rode in the back seat of a Jeep Cherokee, followed that policy is the subject of criminal and internal police investigations, authorities said yesterday.

"We will look at all the facts and all the witness accounts before pursuing any other charges in this case," said Amy Bertsch, a police spokeswoman, who added that Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel will make the final decision about whether charges are warranted against anyone, including the officer, involved in the incident.

Stowe was working off duty, providing security at an International House of Pancakes when he fired the shots. According to police, after he was told that four teenagers had skipped out of the restaurant without paying their bill, Stowe tried to stop the SUV in which they were riding and fired on it as it allegedly bore down on him. Police would not say how many shots were fired.

"We are looking at the incident from a criminal standpoint, including what happened, whether any crimes were committed and, if so, what they were and by whom," Bertsch said. "The other investigation is internal, and that addresses the officer's actions and whether they were within policy."

In an account aired last night by WRC (Channel 4), the station quoted someone described as a passenger in the SUV as saying that as many as five shots were fired.

"As we round the corner, the cop runs in front of us and starts to fire rounds at the Jeep," the reported passenger was quoted as writing on a Web site. "Four rounds go by and [the driver] swerved to avoid the bullet and loses control of his Jeep, and the cop continues to fire his gun."

The purported witness was not identified.

Stephen J. Smith, 19, the driver of the SUV, has been charged with driving while intoxicated and possession of marijuana. He was released on $1,500 bond Saturday afternoon and is scheduled to appear Friday in Alexandria District Court.

According to court documents, Smith, 19, failed three of five field sobriety tests after the incident and registered a blood alcohol level of 0.02 more than two hours after the 3:40 a.m. shooting. Virginia law allows officers to charge anyone younger than 21 -- the state's legal drinking age -- with drunken driving if even a trace amount of alcohol is found.

Alexandria's policy on shooting at a moving vehicle is similar to most Washington area jurisdictions. But some big-city police departments, including the District's, restrict the practice because of the risk to bystanders. Many public safety experts agree that policies allowing officers to shoot at moving cars are risky and antiquated.

"We put the emphasis on better training. Striking at a moving vehicle doesn't do you any good. If you think you had a problem before, try adding a corpse behind the wheel," D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said last night. "We feel better tactics, better approaches . . . is the way to go."

Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina and an expert on the use of lethal force, said officers can put themselves in a position to fear for their lives. "This is an issue that is well resolved at major departments for all the right reasons," he said. "You do not shoot at a moving vehicle when the only force being used against you is the moving vehicle."

In Boston, for example, the police department changed its policy three years ago after a woman was killed. Now officers cannot shoot at moving vehicles unless there are other threats, such as a driver having a loaded weapon. Officers are instructed to move out of the vehicle's path and find cover, to lessen the chance anyone will be injured by ricocheting bullets or a crash, officials said.

And in Los Angeles last year, police fired 10 shots into a stolen car being driven by a 13-year-old, striking him seven times. The incident prompted the city's civilian police commission to prohibit shooting at moving vehicles and directed officers to move out of the way when a vehicle is headed toward them.

More than 20 years ago, a vehicle at which New York City police were firing went into a crowd and injured several people. Since then, police departments nationwide have grown more restrictive in their policies governing deadly force.

Thomas Aveni, a part-time police officer and co-founder of the Police Policy Studies Council in Spofford, N.H., said no one keeps exact numbers on such incidents, but they are more common than many people realize.

"On some occasions, police literally step in front of a vehicle in order to facilitate an apprehension," he said. "That creates additional risk to themselves, which they in turn use as justification to pull the trigger. That troubles administrators, and it's what they're trying to rein in."

Still, "there are many occasions where police legitimately feel in fear of their own lives," Aveni said. "And the shootings are sometimes legitimate. So to limit officers' ability to use deadly force when they have legitimate need to use it against a moving vehicle is where we have a problem."

That is the chief reason most area jurisdictions have not forsaken the practice, said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. "It's no different than aiming a gun at the officer," Schrad said.

"It's probably even more dangerous. The general rule of thumb is that you match force with force."

Alexandria City Council members and the mayor learned of the incident at 7 a.m. Saturday and said yesterday that they were awaiting results of the investigation into circumstances surrounding Brown's death.

"We're all concerned," said council member Rob Krupicka (D). "We want the facts to come out as quickly as possible. . . . We're going to make sure we do this thing by the book. Clearly, we need to look at this very carefully."

Staff writers Del Quentin Wilber, Ian Shapira, Allan Lengel, Martin Weil and Annie Gowen and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.