Police shooting into cars too often ends in tragedy

Published on Monday, 15 May 2017 22:08
Written by The Washington Post


Jordan Edwards should not be dead at the age of 15. But the African-American teen was shot and killed on the night of April 29 by a suburban Dallas police officer. Jordan died when officer Roy Oliver of the Balch Springs, Texas, police department discharged his weapon at a moving car in which Jordan was riding. Balch Springs police are not authorized to shoot at moving vehicles, unless they reasonably believe firing at the driver might be necessary to end an immediate threat to the officer or others. Nothing about the situation - Jordan was a passenger - seems to indicate that exception applied. Oliver has been fired and arrested on criminal charges.

That is well and good, in terms of retrospective accountability. What remains to be seen, however, is whether this eminently avoidable tragedy will catalyze necessary policy changes on a national basis. Specifically, despite widespread acknowledgment that it is more often than not futile, and dangerous, for police to try to stop moving vehicles with gunfire, officers around the country continue to do so. And civilians continue to lose their lives as a consequence. The Post database of fatal police shootings has recorded 193 incidents in which police shot and killed people inside vehicles, only 86 of whom were reportedly armed. It stands to reason that these fatalities represent only a portion of all police shootings at vehicles.

Many big-city departments have a flat ban on deadly force against moving vehicles; New York was the first to adopt such a policy 45 years ago. As it happens, the 2016 edition of the Balch Springs department’s own instructions to officers states the rationale for avoiding such shootings well: “Because of the low probability of penetrating a vehicle with a handgun, officers threatened by an oncoming vehicle should attempt to move out of its path,” instead of shooting. And yet Balch Springs, like many of the country’s 16,000 police agencies, still allowed an exception that can, on occasion, swallow the rule.

To be sure, it’s all too easy, in this era of terrorist truck and car attacks, to imagine cases in which officers might have no choice but to shoot at a vehicle and its occupants. That reality argues against an inflexible ban. Still, such truly justifiable cases are likely to be exceptional, not weekly, occurrences; and the Post database suggests that American law enforcement has shot at a vehicle at least weekly since January 2015. Police need to focus anew on both training and doctrine, with an eye toward the identification and adoption of best practices, so as to eliminate the risk of another young person winding up dead before his time.

As the Balch Springs police policy clearly and correctly says: “Foremost to any consideration of the application of lethal force is the preservation of human life.”

Posted in The Bristol Press, Editorials on Monday, 15 May 2017 22:08. Updated: Monday, 15 May 2017 23:04.