By Craig Whitlock and David S. Fallis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 3, 2001
Many police departments prohibit officers from shooting at cars. Bullets can ricochet or miss their mark, putting bystanders at risk. If they do hit their target, the result can be a speeding car with a dead person behind the wheel.
In Prince George's County, however, the practice isn't banned, and it's not uncommon for police to open fire on vehicles. Since 1990, officers have wounded or killed 18 people in cars. Fifteen of those people were unarmed.
The most recent incident: Prince C. Jones Jr. was shot to death just before 3 a.m. Sept. 1 by an undercover officer who followed him from Prince George's County into Virginia. When Jones, who was unarmed, backed out of a driveway into the unmarked police vehicle, the officer fired 16 rounds into his Jeep Cherokee.
Police Chief John S. Farrell said he was concerned by the number of shootings at vehicles but defended the practice as necessary in some circumstances.
"As a general matter, we absolutely discourage shooting at a moving vehicle," Farrell said. "But if you're being rammed by a vehicle that's thousands of pounds, that can be deadly force."
Nine months before Jones was shot to death, Prince George's police shot another unarmed driver.
Gregory Allen Cooper, 39, was killed in the early hours of Dec. 9, 1999, after he led police on a foot chase along Central Avenue in Seat Pleasant and tried to escape in a police cruiser whose key was in the ignition.
Seven officers fired 66 rounds at Cooper, a burglary suspect who was high on cocaine, after he got behind the wheel. He was hit three times in the head and abdomen, according to the autopsy report.
Police said they acted to save the life of an officer who was grappling with Cooper as the suspect put the car in reverse and tried to get away.
Cooper's family sued the seven officers and Prince George's County in December. Ralph Lotkin, an attorney for the family, said the police account didn't add up.
"You shoot an unarmed man who is backing up a car with the officer hanging on?" Lotkin said. "And you shoot 66 times? This makes no sense."
One of the officers who shot Cooper was Cpl. Robert P. Hettenhouser. During his career, Hettenhouser has been involved in the fatal shootings of three unarmed men, records show. He also has fired his gun at two other people, but missed.
On May 19, 1993, Hettenhouser and another officer fatally shot an unarmed driver who they said ran a roadblock. Police said the officers fired in self-defense after Dana Marque Allen, 19, of Temple Hills, tried to hit them. Hettenhouser declined to comment.
Law enforcement experts say it's reckless for police to shoot at cars, regardless of whether the driver has committed a crime.
"Why would you shoot at a moving vehicle? The point is to remove the risk, but most of the time, it is going to increase the risk," said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina.
Many police agencies have essentially banned the practice, including the New York and Chicago police departments. District police prohibit it except in very narrow circumstances.
The Prince George's department allows officers to shoot at cars if the occupants are armed and "threatening deadly force by a means other than the vehicle."
Unlike some departments, they also are permitted to shoot unarmed drivers if they are in danger of being run over. That was the reason cited by officers in almost all car shootings in Prince George's over the past 11 years.
Experts said shooting at oncoming vehicles is often pointless and a sure sign of overreaction by police. "The point is to get out of the way, take yourself out of danger," Alpert said.
On Oct. 6, 1993, Christopher Dreher was talking with his girlfriend in a parked car about 9 p.m. when three officers approached in the 700 block of Neptune Avenue in Oxon Hill.
Police tried to arrest Dreher, 22, after he refused to roll down the window of his Acura Legend to accept a ticket for driving with a suspended license. They said Dreher stepped on the accelerator and tried to run over Officer Samuel M. Smith, who they said was standing in front of the car.
Smith fired a single fatal bullet into Dreher's upper chest, rupturing his windpipe, esophagus and aorta, according to an autopsy report. Smith did not respond to phone calls and letters seeking comment.
Witnesses said that Dreher was being rude and uncooperative but that officers overreacted and tried to smash in the car's windows when he refused to accept the ticket.
They also said that Smith was not in danger and that he was standing next to the car when he fired, not in front. A photograph of the Acura shows a bullet hole above the side-view mirror on the driver's side door.
"They just acted like they wanted to shoot somebody," said Jerry Fain, who said he saw the shooting. "Why would you stand in front of a car -- to get yourself run over?"
The unintended ramifications of shooting at cars became apparent Dec. 1, 1996, when police took aim at an unarmed driver but wounded a bystander instead.
About 1:40 a.m., three officers walked up to a parked car in the 5400 block of Kenmont Drive in Oxon Hill because it looked suspicious, police said. Sitting inside: Dante Lacount Stewart, 21, and his 20-year-old girlfriend, who lived nearby.
Police did not specify what aroused their curiosity. But as Officer James F. Williams Jr. was leaning inside the car, Stewart suddenly hit the gas pedal, dragging the officer several feet before he tumbled to the pavement, police said.
When Stewart sped off, Williams and his two partners, Cpl. Anne M. Nicodemus and Officer Jason T. Rorick, fired 30 rounds at the car, according to court records. They missed the driver, but one of their bullets hit Stewart's girlfriend, Cantrice L. Love, in the left shoulder. The officers declined to comment.
Love sued the police, alleging "deliberate malice" on their part. She declined to comment. Her lawsuit is pending. Police later arrested Stewart in the District, where he fled after the shooting, and charged him with first-degree assault. Prosecutors dropped the case without explanation.