Shooting deaths of Mo. motorists draw scrutiny
By Jeremy Kohler
A defiant driver. A moving vehicle. A scared cop.
Lincoln County is the latest, but hardly the first, place to see those ingredients coalesce into a tragic shooting.
It happened a week ago. A pickup driver who refused to stop for police finally came to a halt in a driveway near Troy, Mo. A sheriff's deputy fatally shot the driver and one of the five passengers as the truck rolled backward. None of the people inside was armed. One of them said the driver had neglected to set the parking brake.
Tyler Teasley, 22, of Silex, and Michael Brown, 23, of Troy, were killed. The deputy, whose name has not been made public, is on administrative leave while the Missouri Highway Patrol investigates.
Similar incidents have occurred from New England to Southern California over the past two years, often pitting street officers against the public and police department brass.
No chief wants to minimize the danger of police work or criticize an officer who fired to defend his life. But with residents agitating for reforms, officials have increasingly blamed officers for such shootings and asked the rank-and-file to do whatever they can to avoid them.
Usually that means learning to get out of the way if a driver tries to flee.
"We're learning more and more about it, and the people getting shot and killed are not horrible people who deserve to die," said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina and an expert on the use of deadly force. "We're seeing shots fired that didn't need to be shot."
In many places, including some locally, departments have tightened policies that guide officers on when they can use deadly force. Few policing issues are getting more ink in the United States. this year. The cover of the current Police & Security News magazine asks: "Shooting at Moving Vehicles - Is It Time To Review Your Policy?"
Police chiefs in Florida's Palm Beach County decided last month that it was time to review theirs after several incidents of officers shooting at fleeing drivers. A committee is considering standards for the county's police departments.
"Maybe we are creating the hazard by putting ourselves in front of vehicles," said Rick Lincoln, chief of Lantana, Fla., Police Department and president of the county's association of chiefs.
Most police agencies in the St. Louis area already prohibit shooting at moving vehicles, except when all other options have been attempted to no avail. Lincoln County is among them.
Police chiefs respond
In some jurisdictions - such as in Boston, Los Angeles County and St. Louis, police chiefs have risked the ire of police unions by criticizing officers who have fired at moving cars.
St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa, for example, quickly fired one officer and suspended another (who later resigned) after they fired a combined 28 shots at a car fleeing a traffic stop in March 2004.
Emanuel Khaafidh, 34, of Pagedale, was in the car with his wife and three children, ages 1, 3, and 5. Khaafidh was wounded; his family escaped injury.
A national audience saw an extreme case this May, when 13 deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department fired 120 times at an unarmed driver. Errant bullets smashed through walls and buildings.
The event was captured on videotape and was repeated for several days on televised news programs.
Police had suspected Winston Hayes, 44, of involvement with a previous shooting, but it was later learned that he was not involved.
After a brief pursuit, Hayes' vehicle lurched and struck a police car. That's when the deputies opened fire. Four bullets hit Hayes, who was hospitalized. A deputy was hit by a round and bruised.
In June, Sheriff Lee Baca recommended discipline against the officers and announced a policy restricting his deputies from shooting at moving vehicles, except under extraordinary circumstances.
The old policy warned deputies to get out of the way of moving vehicles and allowed them to fire at one if they believed a driver could kill or seriously injure someone. The new policy instructs them to take cover from a safe distance, train a weapon on the suspect and command him to surrender before considering shooting.
"If you can get out of the way of that car, get out," said Deputy Scott Gage, a department spokesman.
Deputies are still allowed to fire when they feel a vehicle is an immediate threat of death or serious injury to deputies or bystanders.
Not so in Los Angeles, where police changed their procedures after a shooting that killed a 13-year-old boy who backed a stolen car toward a patrol car, after a chase. Under guidelines adopted in March, LAPD officers can no longer fire at a vehicle if the vehicle in and of itself does not pose "a threat that justifies an officer's use of force."
Critics have assailed the LAPD policy as too restrictive - a knee-jerk reaction to public pressure. Thomas Aveni, co-founder of the Police Policy Studies Council, said officers should not be arbitrarily banned from shooting at cars, as in some cases it could be necessary to protect themselves or others.
In Tempe, Ariz., police try to track all incidents across the country in which police officers fire at moving vehicles. The Lincoln County case was added to the file.
A common theme among the incidents is that the officer believed that he was shooting to save his life, noted Sgt. Craig Stapp, a Tempe police firearms training supervisor.
"You couldn't fault them with thinking it was a deadly-force situation," said Stapp.
But Tempe has trained its officers to avoid putting themselves in positions where they could easily be attacked with a vehicle, making it unnecessary to shoot even if the driver flees. Their methods are considered a model for other departments.
Tempe trains its officers in safer ways to approach cars. When possible, officers are expected to approach from the side of a car, or some point of cover, instead of from the front or rear, he said.
"This is a training issue," he said. "There is a lot of resistance in law enforcement because guys say, 'No no, I'm a cop; and if this guy doesn't stop, I'm going to do my job and take him into custody.'"
But that thinking is costing lives without necessarily providing protection, said Alpert.
"What's a bullet going to do?" he asked. "It isn't going to stop the vehicle."
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