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