Fatal Shooting In Alexandria Fuels Debate On Police Policy

By Jamie Stockwell and Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Alexandria police officer who fatally shot a teenage passenger in a sport-utility vehicle over the weekend was identified yesterday as Carl Stowe, a 13-year member of the force, and the shooting has reignited a debate over using deadly force on approaching cars.

Alexandria police officers are allowed to shoot at a moving vehicle if they feel their lives are in danger and no bystanders are at risk -- but only if they have exhausted all other means of defense, including moving from the vehicle's path, according to the department's use-of-force policy.

Whether Stowe, who fatally shot 18-year-old Aaron Brown as he rode in the back seat of a Jeep Cherokee, followed that policy is the subject of criminal and internal police investigations, authorities said yesterday.

"We will look at all the facts and all the witness accounts before pursuing any other charges in this case," said Amy Bertsch, a police spokeswoman, who added that Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel will make the final decision about whether charges are warranted against anyone, including the officer, involved in the incident.

Stowe was working off duty, providing security at an International House of Pancakes when he fired the shots. According to police, after he was told that four teenagers had skipped out of the restaurant without paying their bill, Stowe tried to stop the SUV in which they were riding and fired on it as it allegedly bore down on him. Police would not say how many shots were fired.

"We are looking at the incident from a criminal standpoint, including what happened, whether any crimes were committed and, if so, what they were and by whom," Bertsch said. "The other investigation is internal, and that addresses the officer's actions and whether they were within policy."

In an account aired last night by WRC (Channel 4), the station quoted someone described as a passenger in the SUV as saying that as many as five shots were fired.

"As we round the corner, the cop runs in front of us and starts to fire rounds at the Jeep," the reported passenger was quoted as writing on a Web site. "Four rounds go by and [the driver] swerved to avoid the bullet and loses control of his Jeep, and the cop continues to fire his gun."

The purported witness was not identified.

Stephen J. Smith, 19, the driver of the SUV, has been charged with driving while intoxicated and possession of marijuana. He was released on $1,500 bond Saturday afternoon and is scheduled to appear Friday in Alexandria District Court.

According to court documents, Smith, 19, failed three of five field sobriety tests after the incident and registered a blood alcohol level of 0.02 more than two hours after the 3:40 a.m. shooting. Virginia law allows officers to charge anyone younger than 21 -- the state's legal drinking age -- with drunken driving if even a trace amount of alcohol is found.

Alexandria's policy on shooting at a moving vehicle is similar to most Washington area jurisdictions. But some big-city police departments, including the District's, restrict the practice because of the risk to bystanders. Many public safety experts agree that policies allowing officers to shoot at moving cars are risky and antiquated.

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