Some Departments Prohibit Officers From Shooting At Vehicles

By Jeremy Kohler

When a police officer fires a weapon as defense against an armed criminal, it's easy for the public to accept the action and for the department to justify or even applaud it.

Not so when an officer shoots at an unarmed driver or passenger in a moving car, a scenario that has sometimes played out in the St. Louis area. In these cases, facts tend to be murkier and officers' actions more open to suspicion.

In the most recent incident, a deputy sheriff in Lincoln County fatally shot two people in a pickup during a traffic stop late Sunday night. The deputy is on routine administrative leave while the Missouri Highway Patrol investigates.

Scrutiny of similar cases has led some U.S. police departments to ban officers from shooting at motor vehicles. In almost every case, the officer who shot claimed that the vehicle was headed toward him or others.

In Los Angeles, a new police policy ordered officers to get out of the way of vehicles trying to run them down and to hold fire unless the occupants are "immediately threatening the officer or another person with deadly force by other means than the vehicle."

No one keeps statistics on how often police shoot at cars, so it is difficult to tell whether the trend is increasing or decreasing, said Bill Lewinsky, director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

But a few high-profile cases in recent years have forced many U.S. departments to review their procedures for use of deadly force against vehicles, he said.

The focus should be on training officers how to evade cars, he said, not on banning them outright from using weapons. Very few police departments teach such tactics, he said.

Shooting at a car often doesn't make sense, he said. If a shot hit its mark, the driver could be dead but the car could still continue toward the officer. Errant shots could hit innocent passengers or passers-by.

But to understand the officer's reaction, Lewinsky suggests putting one's self in uniform shoes.

Police are trained to use their guns in high-pressure, threatening situations.

"If you were to step out of your office and head downstairs and step into traffic and someone ran you down, in the split second before that happened, what would you do? That's really the issue. The question becomes how do we influence the officers' behavior other than just ordering them to not shoot?"

Police should not be banned from shooting at cars, said Thomas Aveni, co-founder of the Police Policy Studies Council in Spofford, N.H.

"It's only when someone has a firearm do we give the officer the benefit of the doubt," said Aveni.

Officers should always consider deadly force as a last resort. But they should be allowed to use whatever means they believe are necessary to protect themselves and others, he said.

In some cases, he noted, that could mean shooting at a car.