Since January 2015, police nationwide have killed at least 193 people who were inside vehicles at the time they were shot, according to a Washington Post database that tracks fatal police shootings. In 86 of the cases, officers say the person was in possession of a weapon, most often a firearm. But in 76 of the cases, the person killed was “armed” only with the vehicle itself, according to police. In at least 17 cases, police acknowledge that the person killed was in the act of fleeing, was a passenger in a vehicle, or was in a vehicle that was not in motion and did not pose a threat to officers. (There are 14 cases where it remains undetermined if the person was armed or if police claim the person was using the vehicle as a weapon).
“And there are probably a lot of cases where officers are shooting vehicles where someone wasn’t hit or killed,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and a former Justice Department official. He noted that available data “is only capturing a fraction of the cases of officers shooting at moving vehicles.”
Edwards, who is the youngest person police have shot and killed in 2017, died Saturday night after police responded to a call about intoxicated teens at a house party. Police say that as officers dispersed the party they heard gunshots outside. Then, when officers went outside to investigate, they saw a car backing out of a parking spot. As officers approached the vehicle, police say it began to drive away. Oliver opened fire.
Balch Springs officers operate under an eight-page use-of-force policy. A copy of the 2016 version, obtained by the Post, specifically instructs officers to move out of the way of an oncoming vehicle when possible, rather than opening fire. Police officials say some updates were made to the use-of-force policy in 2017, but they declined to say if the changes involved the section about shooting at vehicles.
“Foremost to any consideration of the application of lethal force is the preservation of human life,” the 2016 policy states. “Because of the low probability of penetrating a vehicle with a handgun, officers threatened by an oncoming vehicle should attempt to move out of its path, if possible, instead of discharging a firearm at it or any of its occupants. However, if an officer reasonably believes that a person is immediately threatening the officer or another person with deadly force by means of a vehicle, an officer may use deadly force against the driver of the vehicle.”
After reviewing body camera video of the shooting, which has not been released publicly, Balch Springs police officials fired Oliver.
“It has been determined that Roy Oliver, who was the second officer on the scene, violated several departmental policies,” department spokesman Pedro Gonzalez said at a news conference Tuesday night.
The national shift toward policies that prevent officers from shooting at moving vehicles began in 1972 in New York, after the New York Police Department realized how many of its police shootings — including ones in which bystanders were killed — resulted from officers firing at moving vehicles. The policy change came not long after the police shooting of 11-year-old Ricky Bodden, which prompted two nights of rioting.
“When they examined these cases, they realized that the officers both put themselves in a dangerous position by standing in front of the car and that when they got out of the way, they wound up shooting either into the side window or the back window, meaning the danger had passed,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum. “They decided to prohibit the use of deadly force involving a motor vehicle. Within two years, the number of deadly-force shootings had literally dropped in half.”
In the decades since, dozens of other departments have adopted similar policies that ban officers from firing at moving vehicles or limit the circumstances under which they may. Such policies are explicitly endorsed by reform-minded groups such as PERF, and have been pushed by Justice Department officials investigating departments in cities including San Francisco, Cleveland and Philadelphia.
Smith and others note that when officers shoot at a moving vehicle the likelihood of them hitting their target is relatively low. And, even if officers hit and incapacitate the driver of a vehicle, it likely places the officers and bystanders in additional danger.
“If you actually hit your target, you now have a car speeding down the road without anyone directing it,” Smith said. “The car, essentially, becomes an unguided missile.”
Among major departments to adopt policies against shooting at moving vehicles in recent years have been Denver, where in 2015 an officer shot and killed 17-year-old Jessie Hernandez, and Orlando, where a review last year concluded that 30 percent of the department’s fatal shootings in the previous decade had involved officers shooting at moving vehicles.
“Part of my job is to look at what other agencies are doing around the country and what other groups and organizations have found. One of the things that I saw was that there were some agencies adjusting their policies regarding shooting at moving vehicles,” Orlando Police Chief John Mina said. “We did have a lot of shootings where they were at moving vehicles and, not to say the officers were at fault, but we know doing that, discharging a firearm at moving vehicles, is dangerous.”
“We have had an instance where an officer was struck by vehicle and also discharged his firearm right at the same time,” Mina said. “That’s one of the things we tell them: ‘You need to think about getting out of the way of that moving vehicle because it could save your life.’”
Mina said his department hasn’t had any fatal shootings involving a moving vehicle since his new policy directive took effect in June 2016.
But, in a nation of at least 16,000 law enforcement agencies, uniformly instituting a best practice or reform nationwide is nearly impossible. Some police departments and their unions have resisted adopting such policies, arguing that a prohibition at shooting into vehicles carries risks.
“Like so many other things, it depends on the circumstances,” said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. “There have been several incidents of terrorists using vehicles as weapons. If a police officer is in the way of a vehicle that’s approaching at a rapid speed and there is no way to retreat, or if a car is headed toward innocent civilians, then I would say they should shoot at the car.”
Police reformers argue that use-of-force policies should be more restrictive, placing the burden of proof on officers to explain why they urgently needed to use lethal force against a person in a vehicle.
“You have to have a policy that’s crystal clear: you’re prohibited from shooting at a moving vehicle,” said Ronald Davis, who ran the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services during the Obama Administration and spent eight years as chief of the East Palo Alto Police Department in California. “If there is any exception to that, the burden of proof needs to be on the officer.”
In cases such as a terrorist attempting to mow down innocent people with a vehicle, Davis said, departments should conclude that the policy violation was reasonable. Davis said it is important to enforce the policies by disciplining officers who act in violation of them, even if the shooting itself is deemed to not merit criminal charges.
“We seldom hold officers accountable for tactical and judgment decisions, and then the community does not get the accountability it is looking for,” Davis said. “We cannot simply use the legal standard as the standard for lethal force in this country.”
— Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.