Alaska cops' new policy: No shooting at suspects using vehicles as weapons
The city's police officers have been instructed not to shoot at suspects who are using vehicles as weapons
By Casey Grove
Anchorage Daily News
ANCHORAGE — It's a departure from the Anchorage Police Department's previous use-of-deadly-force policy, the city's police officers have been instructed not to shoot at suspects who are using vehicles as weapons.
That is, if the vehicle is the only weapon the suspect is using.
Police Chief Mark Mew said Tuesday that the city's officers have seen an increase of incidents in which a suspect driver puts police officers in fear for their lives or the lives of others, causing the officers to open fire. That scenario playing out more often means a greater risk to officers, bystanders and innocent passengers, Mew said.
Once the new policy is fully implemented and officers are trained, they will be violating department policy by shooting at a driving suspect if the driver is otherwise unarmed, Mew said.
Situations with fleeing drivers or suspects trying to ram police cars are dynamic and dangerous, Mew said.
"You have a setup that's changing. Vehicles are moving. Officers are moving. Suspects are moving," Mew said. "You might start out with a safe approach and suddenly everything is unsafe, and when you have bullets flying around, it just is not controlled enough and we think there's a better way to do it."
Officers are getting training on new tactics to use in situations that involve a suspect driving at them or others dangerously, Mew said. The police chief would not discuss the new tactics. The policy change took effect in mid-May, he said. Training is likely to be completed by fall, he said.
Police administrators told each shift of officers about the change in a series of meetings, Mew said. The new policy affects the department's roughly 350 sworn officers, including lieutenants, sergeants, detectives and patrol officers, police spokeswoman Jennifer Castro said.
"Any time you have a change of policy like this there's going to be questions, and some people will immediately see the need for it, some will want to question the necessity to do this," Mew said. "So we had good, healthy discussion. By and large, I think the troops are on board and ready for this."
But do the officers feel like they will be able to protect themselves as well?
"We gave them a different way to protect themselves. I think they'll be safer with this new policy and training," Mew said.
The tactics are more forceful and more effective, in some ways, than firing shots, said Derek Hsieh, president of the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association. Hsieh said his union supports the policy change. It's reasonable, Hsieh said, given what he described as "an evolution of tactics by some suspects."
"People are essentially ramming their way through police vehicles more," he said. "What we had trained officers to do isn't meeting all those challenges."
Hsieh also said he could not discuss the specific new methods police officers will use in those scenarios. But he said he expects the officers, his union members, to embrace the change.
"What's going to happen is we're going to shift to tactics, procedures, that are quite frankly more aggressive," Hsieh said. "We're going to trade down in one area and essentially trade up in another."
Other parts of the department's extensive policies on the use of lethal force are under review as well, Chief Mew said.
Some Anchorage residents had criticized the police in the wake of the fatal officer-involved shooting of 26-year-old Shane Tasi. Officer Boaz Gionson shot and killed Tasi when he came at Gionson waving a long stick in June 2012. The critics demanded the police department change what they called a "shoot-to-kill" policy.
Mew said there are no specific changes yet to the parts of the department's policy related to those types of incidents. But that review and a move toward more "de-escalation" training — calming armed suspects before gunfire becomes necessary — are related, Mew said.
"They are related because we're trying to avoid situations where we have bullets flying around," he said.
The policy change announced Tuesday comes after three cases this year in which officers fired at a driver.
In February, police shot and killed Carl Bowie III — a 25-year-old who was driving a stolen pickup and rammed police cars — as Bowie drove in reverse at officers on foot, narrowly missing one, a police video showed. A state Department of Law review showed officers Roger Billiet and Alan Rydberg to have been justified in the shooting.
Officer Keo Fujimoto shot at 34-year-old Lusia Pedro in March after Pedro rammed police cars while fleeing a crime scene, police said. Pedro had allegedly brandished a handgun while driving through a group of people outside a downtown bar. The officer's gunfire did not hit Pedro, but it shattered a window and caused minor injuries to two passengers, police said.
Two officers — Eric Nowak and Julnudda Jackson — opened fire on 26-year-old Ryan Robert Portlock on May 11 when Portlock allegedly ignored their commands and drove a stolen pickup into a patrol car. Neither Portlock nor his passengers were hit, police said.
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