South Carolina’s top law enforcement officer spotted an alarming trend while reviewing shootings by police in the state: Increasingly, the suspect’s only weapon was the vehicle they were driving.
Shooting at a driver is risky. It’s hard to hit a moving target. Passengers or bystanders can be struck. And if the driver is seriously wounded, the car can become an uncontrollable missile.
As stressful as these situations can be for an officer, such shootings are usually avoidable. Because they’re so dangerous, a growing number of law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, either deeply discourage or prohibit shooting at a moving car unless someone inside is shooting back.
“The car’s not going to go sideways,” said State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, whose overhaul of officer training has reversed the trend, in South Carolina at least. “You’re not a barricade. Because you step in front of that car and tell the driver to stop, doesn’t mean he is going to stop.”
In Texas, a police officer was fired, charged with murder and now faces a federal civil rights probe after fatally shooting a teenage passenger in a car trying to leave a house last month. Balch Springs officer Roy Oliver told his chief the car was backing toward him and he feared for his life, but his body camera recorded the car driving past him when he fired his rifle, killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.
No media, academic or government organization captures enough data on all police shootings to provide a comprehensive national picture, but according to The Washington Post’s database , about 7 percent of the 2,300 people killed by police across the country in the last three years have threatened officers with vehicles.
Keel noticed his caseload of similar shootings growing last year: 13 shootings each in 2014 and 2015 in which the officer considered a suspect’s vehicle to be a weapon, almost double the average for the four years prior. Four people were killed and 10 injured in the 26 shootings, which amounted to nearly a third of all the officer-involved shootings for those years.
So Keel instituted a new emphasis in training for anyone seeking to become a police officer in South Carolina, and he’s seeking to reinforce it with those already serving in hundreds of smaller forces around the state.
Officers are told to position themselves so they can’t be hit by cars they approach. Instructors also emphasize that almost all drivers don’t want to harm officers, even if they don’t want to be arrested. They’re reminded that if they’ve got the license plate number, a suspect will likely be more safely arrested soon.
It paid off, with only six police shootings where a vehicle was the deadly weapon in 2016.
But an expert in police training said making the changes stick may take longer.
“It’s very hard to undo training in general especially with the use of force. And it’s even harder to undo training that removes discretion, said Maria Haberfeld, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College in New York. “I like to say, people attracted to the police profession have a predilection to using force – otherwise they would have become social workers.”
Protecting lives was Keel’s top priority, but money is a factor, too: The South Carolina agency that insures many cities and counties has paid out millions in settlements after police shot into cars.
The largest was $2.15 million, to the family of 19-year-old Zachary Hammond, who was killed by Seneca Police Officer Mark Tiller as he tried to drive away. Hammond got spooked when his passenger planned to sell a small amount of drugs to what turned out to be an undercover police officer.
Video of the shooting points to several training issues: He ran up to the front of the car, instead of keeping his distance to the side. He had no knowledge that anyone in the car had committed a violent felony. And he already had both Hammond’s tag number and his passenger’s cellphone, so they couldn’t have evaded arrest for long.
After watching the dashboard camera, state police asked Tiller to explain why he fired. His response, through his lawyer, suggested a hypothetical threat: “The driver was operating the vehicle in a fairly empty parking lot and could have easily reversed his vehicle once past me in order to attempt to run me over again,” Tiller wrote.
Officers naturally find it difficult to let a suspect get away, even briefly.
“You have these high adrenaline-pumping incidents, and sometimes officers act before they’ve really thought this through. They need training to get them to slow down. Time and distance can often be very helpful for the safety of everyone,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit working to improve the quality of policing nationwide.