Web Posted: 04/14/2007 10:30 PM CDT
When a suspect aims a
deadly weapon at a police officer, chances are that officer will
open fire, police said.
It might be an intuitive
conclusion. But many police departments are starting to worry
that those unschooled in the volatile realities of police work
might not understand the cause-and-effect relationship.
So agencies across the
nation have begun discarding so-called "ascending scales" of
force — training tools that display escalating use-of-force
options for officers. With three officer-involved shootings here
— two of them fatal — in three weeks, it's an issue that again
has gained relevance.
The San Antonio Police
Department still holds to the old model — a chart with
escalating options — in its general manual. But Assistant Chief
David Head said in an interview last week that it could be
"I can tell you, in the
law enforcement community there's a lot of concern about
displaying it this way because it suggests to someone else that
there's a scale that we should proceed through. And that's not
what this is," Head said.
"Deadly force will be met
with deadly force, almost in every case."
The Police Department's
general manual lists six potential "officer responses" to
perceived suspect actions. In ascending order of seriousness,
they are: officer's presence, verbal communications, open/empty
hands control, physical force, intermediate weapon and deadly
The manual, however,
stresses that officers are not required to satisfy any response
level rather than resort to "a reasonable method that resolves
the situation in the safest and most expedient fashion."
Safety, Head said, means
that of the public and the officers themselves.
Thomas Aveni, co-founder
of the Police Policy Studies Council, said departments are
abandoning ascending scales "en masse" because they can distract
from harsh realities such as suspects aiming deadly weapons at
"It's basically been
misused by plaintiff's attorneys," said Aveni, who researches
use-of-force issues. "It's always introduced more contentious
nonsense into external discussions about whether or not police
In the three incidents for
San Antonio this year, police say officers fired at suspects who
pointed "deadly weapons" at them — scenarios in which police,
fearing for their lives, are legally justified to use deadly
force immediately, authorities said.
Christopher Donnan, 34,
already had robbed an IBC bank Tuesday when he pointed a handgun
at an officer during a struggle, police said.
Two officers opened fire,
His widow, Kelly Donnan,
has said she understands why police fired — her husband,
mentally unstable and on drugs, might have sought that end — but
she questioned why the officers shot him three times in the
A police source, who asked
not to be identified because the information was not public,
said the officers fired until the suspect dropped the gun and
the threat was stopped.
On April 7, the "deadly
weapon" aimed at officers was a vehicle.
Officers were looking for
a suspect listed as "dangerous and with an active felony
warrant" who reportedly pointed a gun at a witness, a police
report said. Police found him on a roadway and tried to pull him
over, but the suspect led them on a chase.
He eventually crashed.
As an officer ran toward
the vehicle, the suspect backed it toward him "at a high rate of
speed," the report said. The officer leaped out of the way,
yelled at the suspect to stop and struck the passenger side
window with his baton, but the window didn't break.
The suspect backed up
again in an attempt to hit the officer, the report said. In the
process, he aimed his vehicle at another officer who was
standing between the suspect's vehicle and a police car.
Fearing he would be pinned
between both cars, the officer fired three rounds into the
driver-side door while dodging the suspect's vehicle as it sped
off, the report said.
The suspect, Gabriel
Moreno, 24, was hit once in the upper thigh.
He then crashed into three
parked cars; police pulled him out of the driver-side window and
Moreno remained in Bexar
County Jail on Saturday without bond. His charges include two
counts of aggravated assault on a public servant, evading arrest
and assault on a family member.
When to fire
Firing at moving vehicles
is prohibited here "except as the ultimate measure of
self-defense or defense of another," according to the Police
Department's general manual.
Head, the assistant chief,
said the April 7 incident was an example of officers reacting
reasonably to a "totality of circumstances" that included a
suspect known to be dangerous who already had used deadly force
against an officer, an assessment Aveni echoed.
Yet firing at moving
vehicles is controversial, and it's more limited in other
cities. For example, police officers in Los Angeles are
prohibited from firing at a moving vehicle unless a person
inside it threatens the officer with deadly force by means other
than the vehicle itself, such as with a gun.
In San Antonio's third
incident, on March 23 Deon Johnson had just robbed a Blockbuster
Video store and was fleeing when he turned and pointed a gun at
two officers, who opened fire on him, police said.
Johnson, 23, was killed.
T.C. Calvert, president of
the Neighborhoods First Alliance and sometimes-critic of the
Police Department, said he hasn't registered much outrage over
the three recent shootings.
"There are elements out
there in the community who have no regard for the law," Calvert
said, speaking generally, "and when they run into the law,
they're going to suffer the consequences."
Aveni said the key in
scrutinizing officers' reactions is to consider whether the
amount of force they use is "objectively reasonable given the
totality of circumstances." When those circumstances include
staring down the barrel of a gun, he said, the law says it's
reasonable to fight fire with fire.
"Police must make
decisions under circumstances that are tense, uncertain and
rapidly evolving," Aveni said. "It's the reason the ascending
scale use-of-force continuums are being flushed down the