Many metropolitan departments strictly limit shooting to moving vehicles, but dozens of fatal incidents keep occurring
ELIZABETH CITY, NC – U.S. law enforcement agencies – including in major cities like New York and Denver – strictly limit shooting to moving vehicles because they consider the practice ineffective and not worth the risk to human lives.
But dozens of shootings still happen every year – with deadly consequences – because many departments continue to give officers too much leeway to open fire, according to groups advocating stricter guidelines.
Last month, sheriff’s MPs fatally shot and killed an unarmed black man in his car as he appeared to be driving away in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. MPs were released Tuesday by a prosecutor who said Andrew Brown Jr. used his BMW as a “deadly weapon”.
Proponents of police reform say officers should only fire when deadly force other than the vehicle is used or to stop terrorism. And while not all law enforcement experts agree, the issue is among the many practices under investigation in light of the nationwide demands for police reform and racial justice sparked by George Floyd’s death in police custody last May.
Several cities, including Phoenix, have had stricter policies in place since June 2020, and other cities are considering it, according to advocacy group Campaign Zero. Cities that are already severely restricted include Las Vegas, Miami, and San Francisco.
The North Carolina body camera footage shows six Pasquotank County Sheriff MPs surrounding Brown’s car with guns drawn while they serve drug-related warrants in his Elizabeth City home.
The video shows one of the MPs putting his hand on the driver’s door and then screaming and pulling back while Brown pulls back. Seconds later, the same proxy appears to be in the way of the car when Brown drives forward.
The deputy avoids a direct hit after pressing his hand on the hood of the moving car and quickly moving to the side. Gunshots can then be heard and officers appear to continue firing as the car moves away from them. Brown was killed by a bullet in the back of the head.
District Attorney Andrew Womble, who showed the footage at a press conference, said the shooting was justified.
“If you use a car in such a way that the officers’ lives are in danger, it is a threat,” said Womble. “And I don’t care which way you go – forwards, backwards, sideways. I don’t care if you are stationary. And neither do our courts or our jurisprudence. “
Rev. Al Sharpton, who praised Brown at his funeral, said in a statement that Womble’s justification was “bizarre” and “inconclusive”. Kirk Rivers, an Elizabeth City community activist, said MPs “turned the car into a weapon by standing in front of them.”
Some law enforcement experts say shooting at moving vehicles should be avoided.
“If someone doesn’t shoot cops in the car, you can get the car another day – but you can’t get that life back,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit independent group that studies police issues.
“The whole idea is not putting yourself in a position where you feel like you have no choice but to use lethal force,” Wexler said. “We don’t want police officers standing in front of cars to risk their lives. And we don’t want them to shoot vehicles to risk lives. “
The Pasquotank County Sheriff’s use of force policy states that MPs should avoid a car instead of shooting at it “when it can be done.”
The directive also states that an MP should only fire if he “reasonably believes that no other reasonable means are available”.
Wexler said such a policy gives MPs too much leeway to put themselves at risk – and open fire. The rules must be “very restrictive and be accompanied by training courses”.
In a 2016 report, the Police Executive Research Forum called for strict restrictions on shooting vehicles unless other violence is used. A reduction in the number of deadly violence resulting from New York politics has been cited.
City police shootings fell from nearly 1,000 a year in 1972 to 665 the following year, “and have since declined steadily to less than 100 a year today,” the report said.
New York City changed its policy in 1972 after an officer shot and killed an 11-year-old boy who was escaping in a stolen car. The city of Denver made a similar change after a 17-year-old girl was fatally shot while driving a stolen vehicle towards an officer in 2015.
Earlier this year, Phoenix introduced a stricter policy for shooting moving vehicles. It makes an exception when there is a threat other than the vehicle itself. And it makes an exception for obvious acts of terrorism.
Samuel Sinyangwe, data scientist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, said 55 people were killed by police last year in situations where a moving vehicle was the only suspected threat.
“Every year we track 50, 60, 70 people who are killed by the police in these situations,” said Sinyangwe.
When officers shoot moving vehicles, criminal charges are rare. Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University, said he has known 11 police officers in the United States since 2005 who were charged with murder or manslaughter after they shot someone they claimed to have used their car as a weapon.
However, some law enforcement experts argue that on rare occasions, officials need leeway in which to save their own lives or others.
“We can’t imagine every scenario,” said Brian Higgins, public safety advisor and former New Jersey chief of police. “They just don’t know if an officer has no choice.”
Higgins, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said internal investigations and state and federal investigations also hold officials accountable.
“Making an automatic blanket statement that this should never happen is not feasible,” he said.
Lavoie reported from Richmond, Virginia.