COP TALK: SHOOTING AT VEHICLES
In the history of American law enforcement, and certainly law enforcement in general, with the introduction of firearms, it was universally accepted to fire projectiles at suspects fleeing from authorities. This tradition continued for centuries. In the beginning, the fleeing consisted of beating feet, either one’s own or those of a horse or other animal. Back then, in addition to different mores, there were fewer people and, of course, no automobiles. Times have changed, but the tradition, the urge to shoot at fleeing criminals has not.
When I became a police officer in 1963, there were no actual prohibitions against shooting at fleeing criminals or vehicles, but only cautions to use “common sense.” For example, it was not against the law to shoot a fleeing felon, but while some crimes (like forgery) were felonies, they did not morally justify using deadly force. What’s more, while a suspect might be fleeing in a stolen car and be posing a threat to other motorists and pedestrians, we were to use extreme discretion in shooting at a vehicle.
Even if the vehicle contained dangerous felons, it was stressed that our sidearms and shotguns could not reliably stop vehicles. That was the LAPD, where 2-man (“A”) units were operated and only the passenger officer could do any shooting. Two partners and I frequently drove out to what was then the “country” and tested our duty guns and others against car bodies, windshields, etc., to learn first hand the limitations of our weapons.
Somewhat to our surprise, even the 150-grain Hi Speed .38 Special ammunition that was authorized following the (first) Watts riot failed to adequately penetrate not only automobile bodies but also windshields. Those bullets that did penetrate a windshield were always deflected from point of aim. Tires were reliably penetrated, but moving tires are difficult targets. Shotguns firing 00 buckshot do no better and, depending on ammunition type, .223 caliber carbines are often an improvement mainly in terms of accuracy.
In the years that followed, more stringent orders were issued across America generally prohibiting shooting at fleeing vehicles. The underlying position of administration was essentially, “If you shoot at a moving vehicle, the circumstances had better justify it!” During my more than 28 years as a police officer, although I was involved in many high-speed pursuits, I refrained from firing at fleeing vehicles for three reasons. I did not feel justified, I was operating a one-officer unit, and I knew my weapons would have little or no effect in stopping the other car.
It was common sense to me, and I did all I could to impart it to all those with whom I worked. Orders are orders, but convincing others and getting them all on the same page is the secret of success. Using past incidents as examples and exploring the “what ifs” during roll call proved to be an excellent way of preventing innumerable pitfalls.
“If not me, then who?”
This is not to say that I never fired at a moving vehicle, because I did. Upon witnessing a burglary of a business in progress at about 0300 hours, I radioed four words, as I sped around to the rear, unlocking my shotgun as I went. I pulled up to the suspect vehicle, which was backed up close to the rear door of the establishment, just as the last of four suspects was running out carrying merchandise. Getting out of my patrol car with the shotgun, I ran along the front of my car to a position in front of the getaway car just as the driver stepped on the gas. I had intended to hold the suspects there until help arrived. I had done this three other times (two times using my pistol) and it had worked, but not this time.
Before I could get into position, I had to jump out of the way, as the right front fender brushed off my left hip with the front wheel barely missing my left foot. As I turned to point the Remington Model 870, I heard one of the passengers scream, “LOOK OUT…GET DOWN,” and they all disappeared from view, as I pushed off the safety and fired the first round of 00 buckshot through the rear window. It was a slow motion thing with what looked like a thousand drops of water shooting into the air as the particles of flying glass reflected in the lights of the parking lot.
With the car about 40 feet away I fired the second shot into the trunk, hoping some of the pellets would make it through into the passenger compartment. By the time I fired the third shot, the vehicle was at least 25 yards away, so I aimed at the pavement under the rear bumper, hoping to take out a tire. In retrospect, I always wished I had fired that last shot for effect, as the suspects were still lying down and the car was heading straight for a concrete wall. Had they hit the wall, it would have prevented a pursuit. But the suspect vehicle was out of range, so I ran to jump back into my patrol car to chase them just as the driver looked up and swerved just in time to miss the wall.
With the help of other officers, the car was stopped three blocks away with the left rear tire flattened by my third shot. Only one of the suspects sustained a minor injury from my shots. Naturally, there was no criticism of this shooting whatsoever. In fact, quite the opposite was the case. Was what I did a wise move? I wouldn’t advise it for others, but a person has to make the best decision they can with what they know at the time. When the balloon goes up, it’s simply a matter of “if not me then who?” Had the area been filled with shoppers and other parked cars, the situation would have been different, and I would not have fired in such a case. Another officer did, however.
It was at a stolen car and the vehicle was entering a large downtown intersection during rush hour after going around a roadblock. This veteran officer “liked” the shotgun so much that his nickname was “click-click.” After firing all four rounds of 12-gauge 00 buckshot at the stolen Cadillac starting from only 15 to 20 yards, this officer somehow never hit the car, but did several thousand dollars damage, taking out several store windows across the intersection and tires of parked cars. Miraculously, no one was injured. This officer should have been severely disciplined, but he was not.
Another officer emptied his pistol while chasing a stolen car. As he drove, he used his left hand to fire the gun out the open window at the car ahead. He hit it once in the rear bumper. During another vehicle pursuit, an officer lost control to the extent that he fired his pistol at the fleeing car by pointing it over the dashboard, pulling the trigger not once, but twice. The two bullets glanced off the windshield, shattering it, and down through the dashboard. I could go on and on.
After the fact, with no one having been injured, such incidents become laughable among the troops. You know, “BAD cop…NO doughnut!” However, these incidents affect morale, reflect on hiring practices and training, and even encourage similar behavior when they are not dealt with properly. Where has all this led? Most agencies have forbidden shooting at a vehicle under any circumstances.
This has done much to prevent the use of such force, but has not stopped it completely. What’s more, I’m not sure that removing such discretion from the officer is proper. Recently, however, the city of Chicago, Illinois, reversed its position on not shooting at fleeing vehicles to allow such force to be used under certain conditions. I believe this is a positive step, but one that must be seasoned with generous amounts of training, discussion and common sense.
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