Officer Who Killed Teen At IHOP Is Suspended
Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Alexandria police officials said yesterday that they have suspended an off-duty officer who shot and killed a teenager outside a pancake house in February and that they are revising their policies on shooting at, and stepping in front of, moving vehicles.
Aaron Brown, 18, was a passenger in a Jeep Cherokee that swerved at Officer Carl Stowe in the parking lot of the International House of Pancakes on Duke Street on Feb. 25. Stowe was trying to stop the Jeep because the six teenage passengers were suspected of having left the restaurant without paying their $26 tab.
Police Chief David P. Baker met with Brown's family yesterday, then announced that, although he supported the chief prosecutor's decision in June that the officer's actions were reasonable and that he would not be criminally charged, Stowe was being suspended for violating police policies on handling moving vehicles.
Brown's parents said that Stowe should have been prosecuted but that they felt "somewhat vindicated" by Stowe's suspension. "We are also pleased," Jeff and Cheri Brown said in a statement, "that Chief Baker has announced a new policy that strengthens the policy against police officers creating confrontations with moving vehicles. . . . We hope this prevents other needless deaths."
The driver of the Jeep, Stephen J. Smith, 19, told investigators that Stowe kept moving into his path, as if the two "were doing a dance." Stowe, who was off duty, said that he was standing in one of the narrow traffic lanes in the IHOP parking lot, signaling the Jeep to stop, and that the Jeep swerved and headed straight at him.
Stowe backed away from the Jeep and fired six shots in rapid succession as the vehicle approached and passed him. Brown, sitting in the left rear passenger seat, was struck in the upper left arm. The bullet went into his chest, piercing his heart and lungs and killing him, according to autopsy results released in a public report in June by Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel.
Sengel produced the 54-page report examining every aspect of the shooting, and he determined that Stowe was not criminally liable. He said that Stowe began firing as the Jeep sped at him and that he could not have stopped firing in the split second that the Jeep narrowly missed him.
Alexandria officers continued their internal investigation and kept Stowe on administrative duties. The length of Stowe's suspension without pay was not disclosed, because it is a personnel matter subject to confidentiality laws, police spokesman Lt. James Bartlett said.
But Bartlett said Alexandria officers described Stowe's suspension as a "major disciplinary action," which they consider to be three to 30 days off the job. Under Alexandria policies, the step beyond a 30-day suspension is termination, Bartlett said.
"This is one of the most tragic cases I have encountered in my 36 years of law enforcement experience," Baker said yesterday in a statement, "and I offer my heartfelt condolences to the Brown family." But he said that Brown's death was the result of "justified use of lethal force," because the Jeep "presented an immediate and deadly threat to the officer."
The chief said that his responsibility was "to ensure that with proper training, sound policies and awareness of this case, no other family will have to experience what the Brown family has suffered."
Baker clarified two Alexandria police policies: when to stand in front of a moving vehicle and when to fire at, or from, a moving vehicle.
Alexandria already prohibited officers from standing in the path of a moving vehicle in a "high-risk" situation. Stowe, Bartlett said, "felt this wasn't a high-risk situation." The chief disagreed and clarified the rule to indicate that officers may never stand in front of a moving vehicle except during routine traffic control.
Baker ruled that Stowe "unreasonably placed himself in a position that allowed the situation to elevate to a level of high risk as he attempted to stop the fleeing vehicle."
Alexandria also already prohibited firing at moving vehicles except when absolutely necessary, Bartlett said. That policy has been spelled out in more detail, so that shooting at or from a vehicle should occur as "a last resort," Bartlett said, "in the most extreme and exceptional circumstances when required to avoid the immediate and foreseeable danger of death or serious injury to police officers or other individuals."
Before releasing his statement, Baker met yesterday morning with Brown's parents, who live in Springfield. The Browns' attorney, Patrick A. Malone, said Baker apologized to the family for their son's death.
Aaron Brown was a recent graduate of Annandale High School and was attending Northern Virginia Community College. In their statement, his parents said their son "would not have died if Officer Stowe had followed his police department's rules. He should not have put himself in front of a moving vehicle and should not have fired into a vehicle which he knew contained innocent passengers."
Malone declined to say whether the family would be filing a lawsuit against Alexandria in connection with Brown's death.