Forest Acres police officer shoots into car 7 times at suspect
State Rep. Todd Rutherford of Columbia says he’s had enough of police officers shooting into cars.
He pointed to a police video released in June by the State Law Enforcement Division of a May 19 Forest Acres Police officer shooting at a motorist in a slow-moving car as just the latest example in a series of shootings that have endangered or even killed drivers, not for trying to harm police but simply for trying to get away from them.
That’s why Rutherford, the state House of Representatives’ minority leader, said he will introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative year to ban the practice.
Rutherford, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said he’d rather not have to file legislation to ban it. But not enough South Carolina police and sheriff’s departments have taken the initiative to end the practice of shooting into vehicles.
Some people dispute the need for such a law. But nationally, policing experts agree that shooting into vehicles is often dangerous for the driver and the public and more than likely ineffective. Most large police departments ban the practice.
In New York, a recent chase recorded on video by a passerby captured officers on foot attempting to stop a fleeing suspect in an SUV. When the passerby heckled the officer for not shooting out the tires of the vehicle, the officer said that only happens in movies.
“You shoot a tire, that bullet pops back up,” the officer said in the video.
Shooting at a vehicle can create more problems than it solves, said Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminal justice professor and use-of-force national expert. The vehicle can become an unguided missile that places the public in danger, if the officer’s bullets severely injure or kill the driver.
And if the bullets miss the driver or bounce off the vehicle, there’s a question of where or whom will they strike.
“If you have the time to fire at the vehicle, you have time to move out of the way in 99 percent of the cases,” Alpert said. “Most of the time these drivers aren’t trying to run the cop over. They’re trying to run away.”
That’s what SLED is investigating in the case of 17-year-old Antwon Gallmon and Forest Acres police officer Robert Cooper.
In the video captured by Cooper’s dash camera, the teen is seen trying to maneuver around Cooper, who was investigating a noise complaint. Gallmon ignores Cooper’s commands to stop, turns and drives away. But as he’s doing so, Cooper fires seven shots, striking the teen once.
Gallmon still was able to drive off. He was caught when he crashed into an ATM at South Carolina Federal Credit Union on Forest Drive.
Cooper told the dispatcher he was “barely able to get out of the way.” But many, including Rutherford, dispute that, stressing the teen’s hands were visible – so it was clear he wasn’t armed – and that he was trying to avoid Cooper.
Alpert cited another example: the shooting of Zachary Hammond, a Seneca 19-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer while attempting to flee in 2015.
Hammond was reversing his car in a parking lot, pulling away from a drug sting, when an officer approached and yelled at him to stop. The officer continued to approach the car with his gun drawn as Hammond attempted to drive away.
Within five seconds of the encounter, Hammond had been fatally shot. Rutherford later would call it an “execution.”
Alpert said the officer’s report and the video of the incident were so different, many were surprised the officer wasn’t indicted. Seneca Police Lt. Mark Tiller was not charged, and Attorney General Alan Wilson declined to reopen the case.
Yet, the city of Seneca settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Hammond’s family for $2.15 million in March.
Rutherford said those incidents and others add up to enough cases in which officers have placed themselves in danger by standing in the way of suspects fleeing in a vehicle, shooting at it, and later saying they feared for their lives. He called those cases “contempt of cop.”
Rutherford stressed that not all officers place themselves in danger to justify shootings. But there is a “disturbing number” of people who rationalize the practice in spite of the additional dangers it creates, if the driver of a moving car is struck by a bullet.
“All (the officer) had to do was step away from that car,” Rutherford said. “Shooting into cars should be banned, and leadership of law enforcement should get behind it.”
‘A practice that has to end’
There are extreme circumstances when officers are forced to shoot at vehicles, Alpert said. Officers could find themselves with nowhere to go in an alley or blocked by a car.
But shooting at a vehicle shouldn’t be an officer’s first choice, he said.
Alpert is wary of banning the practice through law, though, instead of policy. But he said he understood Rutherford’s frustration in having local departments not take action on the issue.
“He’s right,” Alpert said. “It’s a practice that has to end.”
That’s the same feeling the state’s sheriffs have, said Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association.
The organization has had lengthy discussions about having departments change their policies concerning the matter. But there has been zero discussion about making the change in law.
“I don’t know that it would be wise to make it a criminal act to shoot into a car,” Bruder said. “Unless we carve out every little scenario, which we could never envision.”
Bruder said he, too, understood why Rutherford is considering the proposal. But he said making it law could get in the way of enforcing it.
In March, the Greenville Police Department overhauled its use-of-force policy, after observing several officer-involved shootings, including Hammond’s, The Greenville News reported. The department’s police chief echoed Alpert in his reasoning, saying that an officer can move out of the way in the time it takes to fire his or her weapon.
The language of the policy mimics others, including Forest Acres’ policy. It explains that an officer shall not fire at a vehicle unless it poses the threat of death or serious bodily injury. But Greenville’s policy also calls for the officers to first exhaust all means to remove themselves from the oncoming vehicle’s path.
Is law the best approach?
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and SLED Chief Mark Keel said their agencies’ policies restrict shooting into vehicles to emergency situations.
But both voiced concern over the idea of having a law that prevents their officers from protecting themselves or the public.
Lott highlighted a case involving his department in which he felt an officer’s shooting was not justified. Former Richland County Sheriff’s deputy Kirk Willis shot at Tymeek Payne for refusing to stop his vehicle for questioning in 2014. A bullet struck Payne in the forearm.
That case went to a grand jury, which refused to indict Willis, but Lott fired him nonetheless for failing to follow the department’s policy.
Still, there are extreme situations when an officer will be forced to shoot into a vehicle, Lott said.
“If we’ve got a terrorist, a mass murderer or someone that if we let them get away, they are probably going to kill other people, then, yeah, we’ve got to stop the person,” Lott said.
Rutherford scoffed at the idea that his proposed law, like other excessive-force statutes, wouldn’t take into account “common sense.”
The law likely would carry a misdemeanor penalty for officers who shoot at vehicles when their lives are not in danger, he said.
“Obviously there are exceptions to statutes,” Rutherford said. “What we’re trying to target is officers putting themselves in harm’s way and using that as an excuse to shoot someone.”
Staff writer Glen Luke Flanagan contributed to this story.