1. Opinion

Editorial: Tighten police policies on shooting at cars

No one was hurt when a man fleeing police recently pointed his car directly at a Clearwater officer, who then shot at the driver. But the incident serves as a reminder of the danger — both to law enforcement and the public — of police shooting at moving cars. Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies generally discourage the use of force against moving vehicles. In the interest of public safety, they should adopt policies that more explicitly prohibit the practice except as a last resort when an officer's life is threatened.

Clearwater police said 23-year-old Chris Chittarath fled when Officer Adam Wall tried to pull him over for driving recklessly late on one recent Sunday night. He drove his Mitsubishi Lancer into a hotel parking lot, rumbled over some bushes and a curb, then pointed his car at Wall and another officer. Wall fired but did not hit Chittarath, who drove off but was arrested later. Police are investigating and would not say whether Wall violated department policy, which is similar to the guidelines at the Pinellas and Hillsborough sheriff's offices. Clearwater's policy states that police cannot shoot at cars "except as the ultimate measure of self-defense … when the suspect is using deadly force."

Compare that broad language with St. Petersburg's policy, which prohibits officers from firing at moving cars unless "the occupant of a moving vehicle poses an immediate threat with a firearm, or fires upon an officer or another, and all other reasonable means to avoid the danger have failed." In other words, unless someone in the car is wielding a gun, an officer should almost never shoot first. That standard is supported by the U.S. Justice Department and is in place at large departments around the country, including New York City and Miami, because experts say it reduces the myriad unpredictable hazards that can arise from bullets whizzing toward a moving target.

The reasons align with common sense. Shooting at a car's engine is unlikely to stop it. Shooting at a car's tires will disable it but not guarantee that it comes to a safe stop. Shooting the driver renders the car "a totally unguided threat," in the words of one expert. Police bullets could hit an innocent passenger or other bystanders.

A better alternative: Getting out of the way. Policing experts say officers are less likely to be injured by scrambling to get out of the path of a car, rather than staying put and shooting.

Of course, it's important to keep in mind that police must decide whether to use their weapons in the heat of the moment, under extreme duress and faced with danger. No policy should handcuff them from protecting themselves and others. St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway stands by his department's policy, but adds: "If the car is coming toward you and you can't get of the way, then you have to protect yourself and others around you. But if you can get out of the way, you should." That's right.

St. Petersburg arrived at its current policy in the aftermath of the 1996 fatal shooting of TyRon Lewis by an officer, which sparked a disturbance. Clearwater police were not faced with any such circumstance after the encounter with Chittarath ended peacefully. But Chief Dan Slaughter should use the incident as a reason to re-examine the department's policy and consider one that better protects officers and the public. Other Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies should follow suit.