San Francisco officer's shots at moving vehicle rekindle tense debate
Current policy prohibits officers from shooting at people in moving vehicles unless they pose an "immediate threat" with a weapon like a gun
By Evan Sernoffsky
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — It stands as one of the most visible and contested policy changes in an era of reform for San Francisco’s police force: Officers are now barred in most circumstances from shooting at suspects in moving vehicles.
But this month, it happened again. A rookie officer, officials said, is under investigation after firing two shots at a fleeing auto burglary suspect, a man who was allegedly driving a car toward a fellow cop in the Western Addition.
No one was shot or seriously injured in the May 11 incident, but details of the early-morning encounter — released this week — have rekindled debate over a use-of-force policy passed in December 2016 after a series of controversial police shootings in the city.
The policy prohibits officers from shooting at people in moving vehicles unless they pose an “immediate threat” with a weapon like a gun. In general, an officer cannot claim fear of a vehicle running down another officer or a pedestrian as justification for opening fire.
Complicating this month’s shooting is a lack of video footage. Officials revealed at a town hall meeting Monday night that the officer who fired at the vehicle had not activated his body-worn camera, another possible breach of policy.
There is already tension over the incident, which is under investigation by police inspectors, the Internal Affairs Bureau, the independent Office of Police Accountability and the district attorney’s office.
“If in fact what was told to me happened, I believe that was a circumstance where the officer did the right thing,” said Tony Montoya, who recently became president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, the union for rank-and-file officers. “We’re sworn to protect the public and uphold the law. Just because we wear a uniform doesn’t mean we should not be able to defend ourselves.”
Police-reform advocates, though, argue the new policy is necessary, that shooting at moving cars — often driven by people whose goal is to get away — is a bad idea in nearly any situation.
A car with a wounded driver could barrel into a bystander, they say. And officers permitted to shoot at vehicles could put themselves in perilous situations, such as stepping in the way of the vehicle, where they have to shoot their way out.
“If the only thing creating the threat is the vehicle, you do not shoot, period,” said John Crew, a police practices expert and former lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Bullets do not stop cars. It is insanely reckless and dangerous to shoot at moving vehicles. In the vast majority of incidents, you will miss the driver.”
San Francisco Board of Supervisors President and mayoral candidate London Breed, who represents the district where the shooting happened, said at the town hall meeting that the shooting was “outside policy.”
It was the shooting of a fleeing auto theft suspect, 29-year-old Jessica Williams, that prompted the resignation of former Police Chief Greg Suhr in May 2016. Prosecutors later cleared the officer of potential charges, saying evidence showed she had driven in his direction.
Seven months later, the Police Commission passed the policy barring officers from shooting at vehicles. The policy change was one of 272 reforms recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice following the 2015 fatal police shooting of Mario Woods.
The police union fought the policy and filed a lawsuit saying the commission violated its collective bargaining rights. A San Francisco judge later rejected the suit.
The new policy states: “An officer shall not discharge a firearm at the operator or occupant of a moving vehicle unless the operator or occupant poses an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to the public or an officer by means other than the vehicle.”
There was no indication that the fleeing suspect in this month’s shooting, identified as 21-year-old Antioch resident Hershel Hale, was armed.
The policy, though, contains ambiguity. Police commissioners, in a nod to union concerns, included language stating that “no policy can anticipate every conceivable situation or exceptional circumstance.” The Police Department is to review shootings “on a case-by-case basis.”
This presumably would allow officers to shoot at an attacker who purposefully plowed through crowds of bystanders — a theoretical situation often raised by the union.
According to police, the Western Addition incident began around 1 a.m. May 11, when two officers spotted Hale and 23-year-old Brentwood resident Maurice Jones walking away from a car with a broken window at Steiner Street and Geary Boulevard. Jones was detained at the scene, but Hale allegedly ran, prompting the second officer to chase him on foot.
Hale got into a Hyundai Sonata four blocks away at Webster and O’Farrell streets, struck a parked car and began driving away, police said. As he was fleeing, authorities said a second police unit arrived at the scene and the passenger officer got out.
“Hale then drove his vehicle towards the stopped police vehicle, striking the right front of the police vehicle,” Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a police spokesman, wrote in a statement. “Hale then drove his vehicle past the marked police vehicle and in the direction of where the passenger in the police vehicle was now standing.”
Police said the officer in harm’s way dived for cover while the officer who had been chasing on foot fired at the Hyundai. Hale then struck another police cruiser as he fled the scene, officials said. He was captured a short distance away.
The officer who fired his weapon was identified as William Reininger, who was assigned to field operations with less than a year of experience on the force. New city officers are on probation for their first year after completing a minimum 16 months with a training officer. During probation, the department can fire them without Police Commission review.
“This is exactly what we feared,” said Gary Delagnes, a former president of the police union, who consults with the organization. “Every time a cop shoots at a moving vehicle, they’re going to go after him. That’s why we wanted language in the policy to say there are times when you can shoot at a moving vehicle, and this is one of those times.”
The police union also raised questions when a fleeing auto burglary suspect ran over and injured a plainclothes officer near Alamo Square in February. His fellow officers ran to his aid, but didn’t shoot the driver, who fled the scene and was captured after crashing a few blocks away.
Crew, though, said both recent incidents highlight why the policy was changed. In both cases the suspects were later apprehended, and no one died.
“The policy was based on many other circumstances in San Francisco where the SFPD has fired their weapons needlessly at suspects who are trying to get away,” he said. “Arrest them. Prosecute them for their crimes, and even for their recklessness creating risk. But it does not give you the right to shoot them, because shooting at moving vehicles doesn’t stop the car.”
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