June 5, 2021

How Can We Get Cops to Stop Shooting at Vehicles? 


Dear PERF members, 

I had never been to the morgue before. But in July 1980, then-Boston Police Commissioner Joseph Jordan asked me to go to the city morgue to meet the family of Levi Hart. Levi, a 14-year-old African-American youth from Roxbury, and two other teenagers had stolen a car and were trying to get away from the police. When the pursuit ended in the Back Bay neighborhood, Levi was shot and killed by a Boston police officer.

What do you say to the family under these circumstances? I really didn’t know as I walked into the building. As I got off the elevator, I was immediately met by Levi’s parents and his younger brother. I started to introduce myself and express remorse, when Levi’s brother asked me a simple but searing question: “Why did the police kill my brother?”

I had no answers. As I walked away, I felt useless and had the sense I had only made the Hart family’s loss worse.

I think about how many police chiefs and sheriffs have had to deliver bad news and answer tough questions in situations like mine. There is no preparation for these encounters, no class you can take to help you through it.

This memory of Levi Hart comes back to haunt me every time I hear about a questionable incident that involves police shooting at cars, and especially when young people are involved. What is so troubling is that many of these incidents are avoidable. This is one kind of police-involved shooting that can be prevented with the right policy, training, and accountability.  

Almost a decade before my encounter at the Boston city morgue, officials in New York City had to explain why officers had shot and killed an 11-year-old boy who had fled from police in a car that he and two companions had stolen for a joyride across Staten Island. Police said the boy, Rickey Bodden, had run into the line of fire as an officer was discharging his weapon at the driver of the stolen car.

That incident would prompt the NYPD to speed up the issuance of a new policy providing a strict, near-ironclad prohibition against shooting at cars, unless someone in the vehicle was firing at officers.

The late John Timoney was a beat cop in the Bronx at the time. He would later become the youngest Chief of Department ever in the NYPD and First Deputy Commissioner, before leading the Philadelphia and Miami police departments.

Timoney attended PERF’s January 2016 meeting on use of force, where he described the dramatic impact the change in NYPD policy had:

“When the new policy was announced, the controversy was intense. The police union strenuously objected, saying that the policy would endanger officers and that the department was caving to community pressure. The news media fanned the flames. What nobody expected was how quickly the policy caused police shootings to plummet. The policy took effect in August 1972. In 1972, there were 994 shooting incidents involving NYPD officers. The numbers for September–December, immediately after the policy took effect, were down about 40 percent compared to the January–August figures. The following year, total shootings numbered 665—a 33-percent reduction in the first year.”

And the number of officer-involved shooting incidents in New York has continued to plummet. In 2019 (the last year for which complete data are available), NYPD officers discharged their weapons 52 times. There were fewer firearm discharges in the 10 years from 2010 to 2019 (727) than there were in 1972 (994), when the no-shooting-at-vehicles policy went into effect.

Of course, this policy change was not the only reason police shootings declined in New York City. Over the years, the NYPD has refined its use-of-force policies, upgraded equipment, implemented new training, and changed the culture of the agency. Still, the fact that shootings declined immediately after the policy was enacted demonstrates just how significant this simple policy change has been. And, thankfully, the early predictions of officers getting hurt or killed as a result never came to pass.

Based on the experience in the NYPD and other agencies, PERF recommended in our 2016 Guiding Principles on Use of Force that “Agencies should adopt a prohibition against shooting at or from a moving vehicle unless someone in the vehicle is using or threatening deadly force by means other than the vehicle itself.”

At the time of our report, many large-city departments—Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, for example—had already enacted similar policies, and many other departments have followed their lead.

But with 18,000 police agencies in the country, many of which are very small, it is likely that there are still many departments that lack policies in this area.

And so these incidents continue to occur. According to the Washington Post database of fatal police shootings, 52 of the 1,021 people killed in 2020, or just over 5%, involved people using their vehicle as a “weapon.” This percentage has remained fairly constant in recent years.

One need look no further the recent incident in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. On April 21, several deputies with the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office arrived at the home of Andrew Brown Jr., to execute search and arrest warrants related to alleged drug offenses. When Brown attempted to flee in his vehicle, deputies opened fire. Brown died from wounds to his shoulder and the back of his head.

Like most agencies, the Sheriff’s Office has a policy against shooting at vehicles, but it is not nearly as airtight as the policies in New York City and elsewhere. The policy does note that shooting at vehicles carries considerable risks and is “rarely effective,” and it states that officers should take “reasonable steps” to move out of the way of a vehicle. But the policy also has some vague language that essentially negates the stronger, clearer elements:

“A deputy should only discharge a firearm at a moving vehicle or its occupants when the deputy reasonably believes there are no other reasonable means available to avert the imminent threat of the vehicle, or if deadly force other than the vehicle is directed at the deputy or others.”

John Timoney always talked about “keeping cops out of trouble.” Regarding shooting at cars, he would say that officers need to get out of the way of the vehicle and not put themselves in a position where they feel they don’t have any choice but to shoot. But that’s exactly what the deputies in North Carolina did. They surrounded Mr. Brown’s vehicle, and when it bumped one of the deputies, several opened fire.

A key issue here is tactics. When an officer stands in front of a car while the driver is trying to get away, you have maximum misunderstanding on both sides. The officer thinks the suspect won’t move, and the suspect thinks the officer will get out of the way. So when the car moves, the officer fears for his or her life, and the loophole in the policy allows the officer to fire.

Without a strict prohibition and better tactics, these incidents keep happening.

Here are a few other recent examples:

  • In Eaton County, Michigan, sheriffs’ deputies in May shot and killed a 19-year-old man who, after a traffic stop, put the stolen auto he was operating in reverse and slammed into a police cruiser.
  • In March, Bristol, Virginia police fatally shot a man in a hotel parking lot who refused orders to get out of his vehicle and then drove the car toward an officer.
  • And in Bullitt County, Kentucky in January, sheriffs’ deputies responded to a call of a vehicle stopped in the middle of a roadway. The driver refused orders to get out of the vehicle, then sped off, striking police cruisers and nearly hitting officers. That’s when they opened fire and killed the driver.

There’s another PERF Guiding Principle that comes into play here. It’s the concept of proportionality, which has been even more controversial than the policy of not shooting at vehicles. Is the police response proportional to the threat officers face, or are there other options?

In the context of the North Carolina incident, proportionality requires consideration of something that officers are often loath to do: let the person get away and apprehend them another day in a safer environment. Is it proportional – or ethical – to take the life of someone you can easily find and arrest later on? Especially when the person is suspected of being involved with nonviolent drug offenses or driving a stolen car – crimes that typically result in little, if any, prison time? 

Pasquotank County District Attorney was asked that very question on the day he announced that criminal charges would not be brought against the deputies involved in the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. Here is what he said: “They simply couldn’t let him go. Law enforcement officers are duty bound. [Executing the warrant] was their job on that particular day.”

It’s this type of “win at all costs” mindset that is undermining public trust in the police -- and getting cops in trouble. You can arrest the suspect another day, but you can never get that life back. This needs to be the new way of thinking about these types of encounters.

Getting back to Boston’s experience, Police Commissioner Paul Evans implemented a stricter policy on not shooting at vehicles in the 1990s. And what was the reaction? The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association approved a vote of no confidence in the Commissioner. But shootings at vehicles declined significantly in the city.

Doing the right thing for the right reasons doesn’t always make a police chief or sheriff popular, but it’s what leadership is all about.

This issue should have been settled years ago, but it has turned out to be far more vexing than it should be. Having a policy is important, but the policy needs to be strict, with only very limited exceptions, like a mass ramming incident in which a terrorist is trying to kill many people. Officers need to be trained on the policy, and held accountable if they violate it.

And most of all, police leaders and officers need to understand that this issue is really all about the sanctity of human life, the very first of PERF’s 30 Guiding Principles.

I still hear from some people who say that the 1972 NYPD policy is too strict, that it should have exceptions for this, that, or the other scenario that might happen. But honestly, I think that after nearly 50 years, the simple, clear, unambiguous NYPD policy has stood the test of time. It has prevented many tragic deaths, and saved the careers of many cops too.

Has your agency been successful in preventing officers from shooting at vehicles? I’d love to hear what you’ve done.

Have a great first weekend of June.