Fatal shooting of teenager raises issue: Should police fire at moving vehicles?
By KEN MAGUIRE
Associated Press Writer
PLYMOUTH, Mass.- Five minutes. That's all it took for a teenager to lose his life in a confrontation with police - and for this town to be thrust into the national debate about police use of force.
Anthony McGrath was a 16-year-old high school dropout who had had run-ins with the law when he allegedly tried to break into a liquor store before dawn. Police officers pursued him 1.3 miles in their cruisers, cornering his car when it struck a stone wall. When the car drove toward the officers, they opened fire.
McGrath's relatives say officers weren't justified in killing the boy, whom they described as kindhearted. Police said officers fired the shots to avoid being run over.
The shooting is being investigated. The Plymouth County prosecutor is considering whether the shooting is justified.
"Hopefully, they'll come up with the truth," Ron Knight, a cousin of McGrath, said after a church service in Plymouth. "It's a one-way story right now _ their story. Cops being judge, jury and executioner _ it ain't right."
The case has raised a number of issues, including whether police should fire at moving vehicles _ a debate that has raged in other cities across the country.
In recent years, cities such as Boston, Cincinnati and Detroit have adopted restrictions on when officers should fire on moving vehicles. In Los Angeles, less than a week after a 13-year-old suspected car thief was killed by police last February, the city decided to prohibit officers from firing at moving vehicles. A civilian-run commission has since ruled that the officer violated policy.
"Most of the time the suspects are leaving the scene. All the officer has to do is get out of the way and you're not in any danger," said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor who has helped departments revise use-of-force policies. "That's what the trend is in the major cities."
Shooting at a moving vehicle is dangerous for everyone, Alpert said. A bullet could hit an innocent person, it could ricochet and strike the officer, or if the driver is shot, the car could become "an unguided missile," he said.
McGrath was shot twice by two Plymouth officers on Jan. 10. One bullet penetrated his heart and lung, and a second hit his arm, authorities said.
Police said McGrath tried to break into Richard's Wine & Spirits at 3:20 a.m. Five minutes later, they radioed for an ambulance. In between, McGrath's car struck a stone wall, backed up, struck a pole, and drove at the officers, who opened fire in fear of their lives.
Plymouth police refused to comment on the shooting and would not release a copy of the department's policies. Capt. Michael A. Belmont denied The Associated Press' written request for the department's use-of-force policy. The AP has filed an appeal to the Secretary of State's office. The names of the officers, who are on paid leave, have not been released.
Boston police policy, described by Alpert as a national model, bans shooting at a moving or fleeing vehicle "unless the officer or another person is currently being threatened with deadly force by means other than the moving vehicle." It says officers "shall move out of the path of any oncoming vehicle instead of discharging a firearm at it or any of its occupants."
That policy was created after the September 2002 fatal shooting of 25-year-old Eveline Barros-Cepeda, who was a passenger in a vehicle that police said drove toward an officer.
Hours after the Plymouth shooting, Denise McGrath told reporters her son got "a death sentence ... for no reason at all."
At the funeral, Rev. Mally Lloyd alluded to McGrath's legal problems, saying a judge gave him "one last chance" to stay out of trouble. "He liked to walk that line between right and wrong," she said.
The incident has shaken this town about 40 miles south of Boston where pilgrims from the Mayflower landed in 1620.
"There's a human side to this that is so sad," said Kenneth Tavares, chairman of the town's Board of Selectmen. "As a community, we know the impact this has had on the family of the deceased and on the police officers."
But unlike some big cities that sought immediate policy changes, Tavares urged caution.
"There isn't any judgment being passed," he said. "We are waiting for the reports. For us to do or say anything would be premature. This is not something that is a common occurrence in Plymouth, unlike cities that deal with these things all the time."
Wayne Sampson, president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said there's a big difference between a policy and a rule.
"Policies and procedures are generally open to interpretation based on the individual circumstances of an incident," said Sampson, who is police chief in the town of Shrewsbury. "A rule or regulation is firm. But policies are general because it is just impossible to develop policy that can interpret every situation you can run into on the street."
Shrewsbury's policy allows officers to fire at moving vehicles when an occupant is employing deadly force, "which the officer reasonably perceives as an immediate threat of death or serious injury." Unlike Boston's policy, the car itself can be considered the weapon.
Police officers say their lives are at stake and that they need flexibility to make decisions.
"Our first priority is officer safety," said Rich Roberts, a retired officer and spokesman for the Florida-based International Union of Police Associations. "The core principle behind a force decision is to use it in instances where officers' lives or the lives of people around the scene are in danger. Certainly assault with a vehicle constitutes deadly harm."
Alpert said small-town police departments shouldn't think they're immune.
"It's not likely to occur, but they better train for it," he said. "You want to avoid split-second decision making. If you're not trained, you're going on basic instincts."