1. Archive

The use of deadly force

Todd Earlvin Neal was driving a pickup truck that was in the wrong place at the wrong time the night of July 14. Neal pulled into the circular driveway of a house in a quiet Oldsmar neighborhood about 10:30 p.m. His passenger hopped out of the truck and went into the house.

Neal and his passenger didn't know that Pinellas County sheriff's deputies suspected the house was a location for drug activity and were inside waiting to arrest anyone who showed up. Two deputies nabbed Neal's passenger inside; two other deputies went to the pickup truck waiting in the driveway.

Officials say the two deputies approached the pickup with guns drawn and ordered Neal, who was behind the wheel, to show his hands. They say Neal showed his hands, but then reached down, started the truck and began to roll forward. While one of the deputies, Cpl. Jim Miller, reached inside the truck to grab the keys, the other, Deputy Michael Borland, positioned himself in front of the pickup and ordered Neal to stop. When the truck moved forward again, Miller stepped back and Borland fired his 9mm Beretta five times through the truck's windshield. Neal was hit twice in the chest and died.

What crime did Neal commit that warranted the use of deadly force against him? At the moment deputies approached him, he had done nothing except pull into a driveway. A sheriff's spokesman said Borland fired because he feared for his life and also didn't want his partner dragged by the truck. But by officials' own account, Miller had stepped away from the truck. That left only Borland, who had chosen to stand in front of the truck, in harm's way if the truck accelerated.

Was Neal a real threat to Deputy Borland? Consider this: The pickup was in a circular driveway and was towing a trailer. This was not a vehicle that could go zero-to-60 in seconds. Couldn't Borland have stepped out of the way?

The Neal shooting is disturbingly similar to the TyRon Lewis shooting in St. Petersburg in 1996. In that case, two St. Petersburg police officers stopped a car they saw speeding. One officer stood in front of the car, another at the driver's side. When the driver did not respond to repeated commands and the car moved forward, bumping the officer standing in front of it, the officer fired through the windshield and killed 18-year-old Lewis. The shooting of Lewis, who like Neal was black, by a white officer spawned riots in St. Petersburg.

Many question chase policies that allow law officers to pursue suspects who have done nothing except flee. We also question the decision to shoot suspects guilty of nothing except giving the appearance that they might flee.

And isn't it a bad idea for an officer to stand in front of a vehicle when a suspect is behind the wheel? In the Lewis case, the St. Petersburg officer violated department policy by standing in front of the suspect vehicle, "a position of disadvantage and danger," and by not exercising the option to move. He was disciplined for the violation. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has no such policy; perhaps it should.

There was another option deputies could have exercised on the night of July 14: They could have let Neal drive away. Neal lived in Oldsmar, was driving a recognizable vehicle and would have been easy to find for questioning later.

We don't know why Todd Earlvin Neal pulled into the driveway of that house or why he chose to start his truck as deputies approached. But both actions seem too minor to justify taking his life.