South Carolina’s top law enforcement officer spotted an alarming trend while reviewing shootings by police in the state: Increasingly, the suspect’s only weapon was the vehicle they were driving.
Shooting at a driver is risky. It’s hard to hit a moving target. Passengers or bystanders can be struck. And if the driver is seriously wounded, the car can become an uncontrollable missile.
As stressful as these situations can be for an officer, such shootings are usually avoidable. Because they’re so dangerous, a growing number of law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, either deeply discourage or prohibit shooting at a moving car unless someone inside is shooting back.
“The car’s not going to go sideways,” said State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, whose overhaul of officer training has reversed the trend, in South Carolina at least. “You’re not a barricade. Because you step in front of that car and tell the driver to stop, doesn’t mean he is going to stop.”
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In Texas, a police officer was fired, charged with murder and now faces a federal civil rights probe after fatally shooting a teenage passenger in a car trying to leave a house last month. Balch Springs officer Roy Oliver told his chief the car was backing toward him and he feared for his life, but his body camera recorded the car driving past him when he fired his rifle, killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.
No media, academic or government organization captures enough data on all police shootings to provide a comprehensive national picture, but according to The Washington Post’s database , about 7 percent of the 2,300 people killed by police across the country in the past three years have threatened officers with vehicles.
Keel noticed his caseload of similar shootings growing last year: 13 shootings each in 2014 and 2015 in which the officer considered a suspect’s vehicle to be a weapon, almost double the average for the four years prior. Four people were killed and 10 injured in the 26 shootings, which amounted to nearly a third of all the officer-involved shootings for those years.
So Keel instituted a new emphasis during training for anyone seeking to become a police officer in South Carolina, and he’s seeking to reinforce it with those already serving in hundreds of smaller forces around the state.
Officers are told to position themselves so they can’t be hit by cars they approach. Instructors also emphasize that almost all drivers don’t want to harm officers, even if they don’t want to be arrested. They’re reminded that if they’ve got the license plate number, a suspect will likely be more safely arrested soon.
It paid off, with only six police shootings where a vehicle was the deadly weapon in 2016.
But an expert in police training said making the changes stick may take longer.
“It’s very hard to undo training in general especially with the use of force. And it’s even harder to undo training that removes discretion, said Maria Haberfeld, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College in New York. “I like to say, people attracted to the police profession have a predilection to using force – otherwise they would have become social workers.”
Protecting lives was Keel’s top priority, but money is a factor, too: The South Carolina agency that insures many cities and counties has paid out millions in settlements after police shot into cars.
The largest was $2.15 million, to the family of 19-year-old Zachary Hammond, who was killed by Seneca Police Officer Mark Tiller as he tried to drive away. Hammond got spooked when his passenger planned to sell a small amount of drugs to what turned out to be an undercover police officer.
Video of the shooting points to several training issues: He ran up to the front of the car, instead of keeping his distance to the side. He had no knowledge that anyone in the car had committed a violent felony. And he already had both Hammond’s tag number and his passenger’s cellphone, so they couldn’t have evaded arrest for long.
After watching the dashboard camera, state police asked Tiller to explain why he fired. His response, through his lawyer, suggested a hypothetical threat: “The driver was operating the vehicle in a fairly empty parking lot and could have easily reversed his vehicle once past me in order to attempt to run me over again,” Tiller wrote.
Officers naturally find it difficult to let a suspect get away, even briefly.
“You have these high adrenaline-pumping incidents, and sometimes officers act before they’ve really thought this through. They need training to get them to slow down. Time and distance can often be very helpful for the safety of everyone,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit working to improve the quality of policing nationwide.
Police forces in South Carolina have reached several high-dollar settlements in cases where officers have shot and killed drivers and others in moving vehicles in the past several years. Here are some of the most expensive:
Hammond’s family negotiated a $2.15 million settlement after the 19-year-old was killed by a Seneca police officer.
Hammond tried to drive out of a fast food restaurant parking lot in July 2015 as an officer tried to arrest his passenger who arranged a drug buy with an undercover officer.
Video of the shooting shows several ways Tiller’s actions didn’t match proper training. Tiller ran up to the front of the car, instead of keeping his distance to the side; he had no knowledge that a violent felony was taking place requiring his immediate intervention; and he had Hammond’s tag number and the cellphone number of the passenger who texted the officer to try and sell the drugs.
Tiller was not charged.
Oliver’s relatives were awarded $700,000 after she was shot and killed by a Duncan police officer after getting in the officer’s cruiser.
Officer Terry Lane was checking on Oliver, 24, and her boyfriend. He left his cruiser unlocked and Oliver started to drive off in March 2014.
Lane said he feared he was going to be run over as Oliver drove off. But Oliver’s lawyer said the officer was embarrassed his car was taken. He fired several shots, waited for nearly 30 seconds as Oliver cried out she didn’t want to be shot again because she had three IDs, then shot one more time.
Prosecutors did not charge Lane.
Woodruff Police paid a $700,000 settlement after the 28-year-old pregnant woman was shot and killed during a traffic stop in October 2012.
Lamb was a passenger in the car pulled over, and her family’s lawsuit said she was trying to move across the front seat to get control of the vehicle after the driver jumped out.
Woodruff officer Todd Knight said he shot her because he thought Lamb was trying to run him over.
Police found methamphetamine, a gun and ammunition in the car. The driver pleaded guilty to weapons and drug charges.
Knight was not charged with a crime.
Robinson’s family was paid a $600,000 settlement after he was shot trying to drive away from a Denmark police officer and a Bamberg County deputy in August 2011.
Bamberg County deputy Eddie Williams stopped Robinson after an informant said he had drugs in his truck. During the traffic stop, Robinson drove off. Denmark officer Horace Brunson then joined the chase, according to dashboard camera video.
Robinson stopped again and the officers ran toward his truck. One of them appeared to hit Robinson in the head with his gun. Robinson tried to drive off again and both officers shot at him, saying they feared being run over.
Neither officer was charged.
The town of Eutawville’s insurer paid Bailey’s family $400,000 after he was shot and killed by Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs in May 2011.
Prosecutors said Combs was trying to arrest Bailey on a trumped up charge of obstruction of justice weeks after the two had a confrontation over a traffic ticket for Bailey’s daughter.
Bailey refused to be arrested and tried to drive away in his truck. Combs shot and killed him, saying he feared for his life.
Combs was charged with murder in the shooting, but after two hung juries, a prosecutor accepted a plea to misconduct in office and Combs was sentenced to a year of house arrest.
The Associated Press
The most recent case in the Midlands
A grand jury last month decided not to indict a Forest Acres police officer who stepped in front of a car and fired several gunshots as a teen motorist drove away.
Prosecutors were seeking an indictment of Officer Robert Cooper on charges of attempted murder. But a Richland County grand jury did not agree, according to online court records.
In video of the May 2016 shooting, Cooper, a six-year veteran of the department at the time, is seen stepping in front of the vehicle as 17-year-old Antwon Gallmon tries to drive around him. Cooper fires seven shots, rapidly and at a close distance, as the car slowly moves closer to him.
Gallmon was struck at least once. He was taken into custody following a brief, 2-mile chase by other officers, the police incident report said. Two pistols also were found inside the car, which had been reported stolen, the report said.
The 5th Circuit solicitor’s offioce has not explained what it thinks Cooper did wrong and why prosecutors pursued an attempted murder charge.
A conviction for attempted murder carries up to 30 years in prison, under South Carolina law.
Cooper was placed on administrative leave with pay after the shooting, and Sealy said he remains on leave. “He’s not actively working as a police officer on administrative leave,” Sealy last month.
After being released from a hospital, Gallmon was arrested on several charges, including traffic violations, unlawful possession of a pistol and drug-possession charges.
Gallmon, who is African-American, was alone in the car. Cooper, who is white, approached the parked vehicle after a homeowner’s complaint about loud music.
The incident happened around 1:30 a.m. May 19 in a parking lot not far from Forest Drive and Richland Mall.