Despite Department Rules, Officers Often
Have Used Gunfire to Stop Drivers
Second of five articles
By Jeff Leen
Hopping sidelong and holding his pistol in a two-handed grip, the man with the gun fired two shots through the side window of a Hyundai amid Monday morning rush-hour traffic on Florida Avenue.
One horrified witness thought he was seeing a drug hit. But the shooter was D.C. police officer Vernell Tanner. His dead victim: an unarmed 16-year-old wanted for driving recklessly and running red lights. Tanner said the youth had tried to run him over.
The death of Kedemah Dorsey on May 15, 1995, was not an isolated incident.
A year earlier, Detective Roosevelt Askew had shot and killed unarmed 19-year-old Sutoria Moore as he sat in his car during a routine traffic stop.
A year later, Officer Terrence Shepherd would shoot and kill unarmed 18-year-old Eric Anderson as he sat in his car during a routine traffic roadblock.
In each case, the officer said he was forced to fire to prevent a "vehicular attack" by the driver. But the department eventually determined all three of the shootings to be unjustified. In the last six months, the District has agreed to pay $775,000 to settle lawsuits brought by survivors in the three cases.
Like their counterparts in cities across the United States, D.C. police are instructed to shoot at unarmed people in cars only in extremely rare cases, to protect their lives or the lives of others. Yet since mid-1993, D.C. police officers have fired their weapons at cars 54 times in response to alleged vehicular attacks, killing nine people and wounding 19, an eight-month Washington Post investigation has found. In the overwhelming majority of those cases and in all of the fatal shootings the driver was unarmed.
"That's really chilling," said James Fyfe, a criminologist at Temple University and former New York City police lieutenant who has researched police shooting patterns for two decades. "What's happening is the District is bearing the cost of the errors of the past, the way they've hired and trained these officers."
Despite the discipline imposed on officers in some individual cases, the overall pattern of car shootings has continued throughout the 1990s. On Aug. 21, D.C. police surrounded a motorist on Interstate 295 who had vandalized one car and rammed three others, including two police cars, police said later. The trapped driver rammed a car carrying three passengers. To protect them, Officer Jacques Doby killed the unarmed driver by firing repeatedly into the truck. Doby shot 38 bullets, reloading twice, according to a police official.
"I'm really concerned about all these shootings," said Terrance W. Gainer, the department's new executive assistant chief. "What we're seeing in these cases are officers inappropriately putting themselves in harm's way because we haven't trained them well."
On Friday, Chief Charles F. Ramsey announced a new policy on the use of force placing even further restrictions on officers attempting to stop cars. "When confronted with an oncoming vehicle, [the] officer should move out of its path," the new policy states.
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