In December 2013, two Greenville police officers spotted a car idling in a motel parking lot.
Suspecting drug activity, the officers approached and asked the driver and a passenger to step out of the car. Instead the driver put the car in gear and accelerated toward the officers. What happened next is a practice that the Greenville Police Department has since all but banned: an officer fired into the moving vehicle.
Under the department’s updated use of force policy, shooting into cars is only allowed when there is an “imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another person,” and the officer has “exhausted all means possible to remove themselves from the path of the vehicle.”
The more restrictive changes — spelled out over 18 pages — come in the wake of racially charged shootings in Baltimore, Cleveland and North Charleston as well as recent events much closer to home, such as the motel shooting in 2013 and the shooting death of an unarmed Seneca teen last summer.
On July 26, Zach Hammond, 19, was on a date when he was killed during a drug bust in a Hardees parking lot.
A dashboard camera showed Seneca police Lt. Mark Tiller jumping into the scene with his gun drawn. As Hammond tried to flee, Tiller fired two shots through the open driver's side window. It was over in 18 seconds.
Tiller later said he thought Hammond was trying to run him over.
In Greenville, Police Chief Ken Miller said his department is training officers to get out of the way of cars, which will help minimize deadly force situations.
Officers last year reported 54 use of force incidents out of 4,815 arrests, though none involved firing into vehicles, according to police department records.
“It’s just generally not a good idea to shoot at a moving vehicle,” Miller said.
In many cases, an officer can move safely away from the threat in the same amount of time it takes to draw a weapon, try to take aim and fire. Shooting the driver can also turn the car into "5,000 pounds of moving metal that has to stop somehow,” Miller said.
Bruce Wilson, a local activist and founder of the nonprofit Fighting Injustice Together, hailed the new policy, saying too many officers are putting themselves in harm’s way to justify using deadly force.
“We would not have Zachary Hammond dead if we had officers follow that simple policy,” Wilson said.
Under the new policy, Greeenvile officers are also prohibited from using lethal force when:
- There is no reasonable probability of hitting the intended subject.
- There is substantial risk to the safety of innocent bystanders or officers.
- The subject is unarmed and fleeing from police
Officers are further instructed to keep their distance and buy time, which Miller said are important factors.
“We have to emphasize in our training — more than we have to date — techniques and methods to slow things down, create some distance, and begin to work with people and communicate with them in ways that enable us to avoid using force, period,” he said.
In the fall of 2014, months after the motel vehicle shooting, Greenville's police and fire review board determined that the officer did not follow department protocol, and he was terminated.
Miller, who was then new to the job as police chief, said the officer’s actions weren’t justified because some of the shots were fired after the car had already passed and was no longer a threat.
Not long after that, Miller said he began to look at crafting a new use of force policy, drawing upon policing trends embraced by the Police Executive Research Forum, a policing policy think-tank.
Many of the principles recommended by the think-tank are found in the department's new policy, which instructs officers to protect and defend the “dignity of individuals and the sanctity of human life.”
Officers also have a “duty to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force,” and should immediately render first aid to subjects injured as a result of police actions.
However, Greenville's policy doesn't include the Police Executive Research Forum’s recommendation to publish regular reports on use of force incidents to include “officer-involved shootings, deployment of less-lethal options and use of canines.”
Police should be transparent in providing such information, said Wilson, the activist, who added that he’d also like to see complaints against officers be made public, especially if the complaints are for excessive force.
“That would go a long way in bridging the gap between law enforcement and the African-American community,” he said.