Car Cases Conflict With Standard Policy
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Police in Washington and throughout the country are restricted in shooting at cars for both common-sense and legal reasons. Bullets tend to ricochet off car bodies. And if an officer hits a criminal driving a car, the officer may only succeed in turning the vehicle into a 2,000-pound unguided missile.
"To successfully fire at a vehicle, let alone a moving one, is something that only seems to work well in the movies," a training manual produced for the D.C. police warns. "In real life your odds of 'killing' a car are about as good as becoming the next chief of police."
Finally, District law reflecting common practice across the country does not permit police to shoot even at fleeing felons in cars unless they pose an imminent threat to lives. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1996, for example, reinstated a $259,000 judgment against a San Francisco police officer who shot and killed the driver of a slow-moving car. The officer said he fired because the car was about to run him over. But the court found that "a reasonable officer could not have reasonably believed that shooting a slowly moving car was lawful," even though the driver was wanted for a purse snatching.
"Our policy is you never fire at a vehicle," said Detective Walter Burnes, spokesman for the New York Police Department. "The contention here is if a vehicle is coming at you, you have the option to get out of the way."
The number of car shootings by District police far exceeds the numbers for other high-crime cities like New York City and Miami, The Post found. "Most departments have moved to prohibit these kinds of shootings, unless somebody in the cars was armed and shooting at the officers," said Michael Cosgrove, a former Miami assistant chief who has testified as an expert in police shooting cases.
None of the 54 Washington car shootings examined by The Post involved drivers or passengers shooting at officers, according to police and court records. In nine cases, the department ruled the shootings unjustified and disciplined officers, The Post found. Of the nine fatal car shootings, five were ruled unjustified, one was ruled justified and three are pending.
Of the 29 car-shooting cases in which detailed information could be culled from police and court files, The Post found that 16 occurred after traffic stops and an additional 11 when police made felony arrests, three of them for alleged violent offenses. In five cases, the driver was found to be armed but did not shoot at police. In three cases, officers made statements that investigators considered false about the circumstances surrounding fatal car shootings.
The Post examined 13 cases from the last five years in which a driver who was shot at by police was charged with assaulting an officer with his car. Only one of the 13 was convicted.
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