Officials Fail to Notice Rising Problem
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The parade of incidents has not generated much official reaction. Not at the department, which investigated all the incidents. Not at the corporation counsel's office, which has defended police in more than a dozen lawsuits related to car-shooting cases in the last three years. And not at the U.S. attorney's office, which reviews all fatal shootings involving D.C. police.
"I do kind of remember more than a few in cars," said Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who was the District's U.S. attorney when the cases were reviewed. "I don't know if that's typical of what you find in police shootings outside D.C."
It isn't, according to experts and officials in other departments. From 1995 through 1997, for example, D.C. police officers fired at cars 29 times to defend against vehicular attacks, according to department documents. In the same period, New York City police, with more than tenfold the number of officers, fired at cars 11 times.
Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina who reviewed a dozen summaries of car-shooting cases prepared by The Post, said he saw a pattern of D.C. officers approaching suspicious vehicles from the front on foot, making themselves vulnerable. "Clearly, officers are putting themselves in bad positions," said Alpert, who has advised large city police departments on the use of force. "They're putting themselves in harm's way as a justification for using deadly force."
Lowell Duckett, a former D.C. police lieutenant who was a firearms instructor at the police academy, said training for firearms and "vehicle skills" how to stop vehicles involved in felonies, when to shoot at cars was cut back just as a record influx of new recruits arrived in 1989 and 1990. Officers from those classes were involved in more than half of the 54 car shootings examined by The Post.
"We said then, 'You're going to have more police shootings and they're going to be unjustified,'‚" Duckett said of the training cutback.
Other D.C. officers say that criminals in the District often use their cars to try to escape and that fast-moving circumstances may force officers to shoot.
"The mind-set was to get away from the police," said Claude Beheler, a retired deputy chief. "You can't shoot at a fleeing vehicle. There are strict guidelines to never shoot at a moving vehicle unless the vehicle could cause serious bodily injury or death. But these things happen in split seconds. Things move quickly. These cases are difficult."
Most departments don't track the number of times their officers shoot at people in cars. Alpert at the University of South Carolina collected data showing that the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida had 49 car shootings from 1984 to 1994. Miami-Dade's 10-year total is less than the District's five-year total, even though Miami-Dade has twice the population, nearly as many officers and more crime.
D.C. officers in five years killed nine people in cars, compared with four in 10 years for the Miami-Dade officers. The D.C. officers also fired three times as many bullets per car shooting an average of six, to two for the Miami-Dade officers.
The D.C. shootings differed in another way: Twelve of the D.C. car shootings occurred while the officers were off duty, compared with one for the Miami officers. Off-duty shootings generally are considered more problematic than on-duty shootings because citizens may be unaware they are dealing with police officers and because officers without adequate backup often feel more vulnerable.
What follows is a look at five D.C. police car-shooting cases that left four people dead and one person wounded. The first case involved a conspiracy, and two officers were criminally indicted and convicted. The middle three shootings were declared unjustified by the police department, and one officer has been fired. The last shooting was ruled justified even though officers' accounts conflicted.
In each case, according to witness statements and forensic evidence, the threat to the officer who fired appeared minimal. In the five incidents collectively, the sum total of jail time for the officers involved was 15 days.
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