When Car Chases Meet Bullets

The dangers of high speed pursuit are very well known. And yet, they happen with surprising frequency.  After all, when an officer turns on his turret lights, you pull over. If you don’t, if instead you hit the gas and try to flee, it’s a smack in the face. So what if the reason for the initial stop was a broken tail light, as innocuous a violation as there can be. Contempt of cop will not go unpunished.

Two incidents recently (and there are many more, but that’s not the point) have given rise to some thought about how a car chase ends in death in a barrage of bullets. Is there something about a car chase?

In the Cleveland killing of Timothy Russell, 42, and Malissa Williams, 30, the chase started when a car backfired, which an officer mistook for a gun shot.  It ended with 137 shots fired, enough of which entered their bodies to end their lives. There was no weapon in their car, no shots fired by them. The outcome for Russell and Williams was clear. For the police?

In Cleveland, cops who fired 137 bullets at the car of an unarmed black couple… The couple were riddled with bullets following a car chase which began when the sound of a car backfire was mistaken for a gunshot by police. Khalek noted:

Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath said Tuesday that a series of disciplinary hearings surrounding the chase found 64 officers guilty of “administrative charges ranging from excessive speed to insubordination.”

However, “No one will be fired, and the longest suspension will be 10 days,” reports 19 Action News, adding that several officers were cleared of any wrongdoing.

The cops disciplined this week were not the cops who unloaded their guns, but were all in some way involved in the incident. A review of the shooting officers is still to come.

Discipline was imposed for violating rules of pursuit, failing to stop when ordered to do so. Whenever there are so many shots fired, people demand to know why. It always strikes me as more important that any shots were fired.

Then there is the killing of unarmed 34-year-old mother, Miriam Carey by District of Columbia police.

But the only shooters in last Thursday’s incident, despite the reaction by Capitol police and members of Congress, were Capitol police officers themselves. Miriam Carey, the woman they shot, was unarmed. Police say she tried to ram a barricade (an “outer perimeter” fence, or checkpoint) in front of the White House before speeding off, leading police on a chase through Washington, D.C.

Seventeen bullets later, Carey was dead. Fortunately, her one-year-old daughter in the car was not.

This isn’t to justify the conduct of flight from police, speeding away in a car rather than be stopped. For Carey, it appears that mental illness was at play. For Russell and Williams, it’s not clear.  But regardless, they ended up dying in a barrage of bullets.

There must be a connection here that eludes me, because no cop is deemed in the wrong for having killed people who posed no imminent threat of harm.  And spare me the comments about how all cops are evil and murderous. It’s just not helpful.

So why must these chases end in death?

That it’s wrong, needless and, well, murder, to an outsider’s mind is one thing, but what I struggle trying to understand is why police make the connection between a car chase and the need to kill.  Is there no other outcome?  Is this fury at the hubris of the driver for noncompliance? What is it?

Usually, this would be the point where I would insert my thoughts as to why these tragedies happen, the common thread between them and possible causes, but this time I’m stymied.  So the cops can’t stop a car with their bare hands? So what? Eventually, the car will come to a stop and that’s that.

Is it timing? Are they in too much of a rush that they can’t wait for the car to come to a stop?  It could be fear that the driver will get away, but cars have these great things called tags on them that identify who the owner is and where the car gets parked. No, it’s not perfect, but is its imperfection worth a life?

Within these issues is the perpetual question of why police are granted greater latitude from ignorance than from knowledge. They don’t know if the people in the car are harmed or bent on causing harm, so they get to kill without first finding out?

Then the first rule of policing kicks in: A cop isn’t required to let the criminal take the first shot before protecting himself. But does it not begin with a level of certainty that the person they are about to kill is, indeed, about to shoot, or is a vivid imagination sufficient to kill first?

What I would hope to learn is a cop’s view on how this all plays out.  Why must a car chase end in a barrage of bullets? I don’t get it.


32 thoughts on “When Car Chases Meet Bullets

  1. REvers

    You’ve asked a question that could probably form the basis of a whole bunch of doctoral dissertations for sociology and psychology students.

    My guess? Some of the problem is bound to be the fact that, to cops, there tend to be two kinds of people: Cops and The Enemy. The military mindset adopted by law enforcement over the last 30 years or so just adds to that problem, or maybe it’s what causes the problem to start with. Add to that the deference that cops get in court (and on the front page, which is probably what’s important to management) and the almost total lack of consequences for shooting someone (thirty days off, with pay, is not a punishment I would be terribly unhappy to receive, although I guess it does take away the opportunity for overtime). The result is people who end up on the wrong side of the lawn.

    Besides, it’s fun to try to hit a moving target.

  2. nidefatt

    The supreme court gave cops the green light in Harris to kill anyone that starts a high speed chase. You probably remember that one, Scalia basically watches the video and makes a load of factual findings and we all go “huh? aren’t you supposed to be doing appellate review?”
    Lately around here the police have been tazer happy. Guy runs off in Walmart, get tazed in the back, falls and splits his head open. Another guy in his late 60s and disabled gets tazed in the back, falls, and gets brain damage.
    There was a lot of litigation going on in the 9th circuit on excessive force and tazers not long ago. See Mattos v. Agarano. Essentially, the 9th said yeah it’s excessive but cops shouldn’t have known better.
    I dunno. This is kind of fundamental “are we living in a police state” stuff, and it doesn’t look good.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s bad enough I had to delete a dozen nutjob comments about how all cops are gun-happy murderers and need to be killed. It would be appreciated if the lawyers can avoid hyperbole a bit. It just feeds the nutjobs and they start spitting again.

  3. Fubar

    SHG wrote:

    What I would hope to learn is a cop’s view on how this all plays out. Why must a car chase end in a barrage of bullets. I don’t get it.

    And with increasing frequency these days, a barrage of police bullets flying toward people who were not even subjects of the pursuit, but just happened to be present where the chase led.

    I fear that an honest answer from your desired commentator would include the reason you hypothesized in your first graf. Incoherent rage appears to have displaced common sense, public safety, and even adherence to law, as guiding principles for far too many police within our lifetimes.

    1. SHG Post author

      I fear given the nature of most of the comments I’ve gotten for this post that my desired commenter would never comment. I really don’t need 50 flaming assholes screaming how much they hate cops, and if that’s what happens when I write, then maybe it’s time to stop writing.

  4. rafiv

    I am inclined to give DC cops a pass. They and most other federal associated agencies are trained to be on the lookout for suicide/car bombers. Given the almost exponential increase in female suicide bombers globally, I think the DC police shooting is more understandable. Local law enforcement should not be granted such latitude.

    1. George B.

      DC cops *are* local law enforcement, nothing more. The Hill is swarmed with federal LEO’s of a dozen ilks, but the DC cops are not among same.

      1. rafiv

        I respectfully disagree. They are trained like most federal Leo. Save for NYC, they are also the most militarized.

        1. SHG Post author

          I demur on the question of how DC cop are trained as I have no familiarity. I’m surprised, however, that you would give them a pass so easily. While I can appreciate that they may be more reactive to threats to people in government, perhaps even a car bomb where Peoria wouldn’t have such an expectation. our Capital remains filled with a lot of Americans, and they shouldn’t end up riddled with bullets quite so easily and needlessly just because the cops are prepared for terrorists.

          1. Jesse

            The incident in DC was no more justifiable than any other police shooting, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. Federalized police forces in the prescence of national politicians will always shoot first, ask questions later, whether it’s in Baghdad or Washington. And a number of those DC cops likely were the same people that were previously shredding non-compliant vehicles at checkpoints in Iraq anyway.

            1. SHG Post author

              You were almost okay until you hit Baghdad. Why not assume they rape babies too? You don’t get to manufacture your dystopian fantasy, then use it to justify your opinion of how evil they are. Not you. Not me. Not anyone.

          2. rafiv

            I agree with your larger point that the fact that DC has high profile targets shouldn’t excuse law enforcement from exercising restraint and requiring them to respect the fact that we are citizens and not subjects. Sadly the latter is something many state actors struggle with.

            In hindsight, I should have been more precise in my answer because my deference to the police is really fact specific. A vehicle attempted entry at White House, did not defer to the Secret Service calls to stop, sped away in a safety corridor, moved to another high profile target, Capital Hill, refused to stop, and tried to pierce a second secure perimeter. Tragic but understandable under these very narrow circumstances.

            1. SHG Post author

              Are you sure you want to say “understandable”? That’s the point about acting out of ignorance rather than knowledge. They didn’t know her purpose, so they get to kill her. Better safe than sorry. Is it wrong to demand better? If it’s understandable, then you’re prepared to accept it as an unavoidable fact of life?

  5. Barry Sheridan

    It would appear that some members amongst the various law enforcement bodies in the US have lost the plot, 137 shots at a car with an unarmed couple in it, just one incident of many in which the reflex seems to be once one shot is fired everyone starts shooting and go on shooting until no one has any ammunition left.

    I appreciate that in general these cases are few and far between, which given the number of firearms with American hands is remarkable. That officers are wary dealing with certain situations is also understandable, but just to blaze away as some cases show is crazy. Weapons discipline and accurate shooting is absolutely essential. It is ironic then that this loss of control is taking place during a period when the US military, long accused of being trigger happy, is actually on a path towards greater fire discipline. There is a real need here for the authorities to hold those guilty of shooting unarmed innocent people to account. Wearing a uniform is no excuse or protection from the application of civil and criminal law.

  6. Ted H.

    I think the question raised here is: which party ought to bear the greater risk or bodily harm — the police or the civilians with whom they might interact? Generally I think the police ought to bear a heavier burden than civilians because part of their mission is to protect civilians. Perhaps a reformulation of Blackstone’s comment on our criminal justice system is apt here: that 10 suspects who intend to harm an officer go unharmed, so that one suspect who does not intend to harm an officer go unharmed.

    1. SHG Post author

      Very interesting way to look at it. But the First Rule of Policing precludes that paradigm. In these car chases, they are by definition not threatened with harm as the person drives away. The threat has passed. Therein lies the question of why pursuit and a barrage of bullets after the threat has passed?

      1. Ted H.

        When do police perceive a threat to have passed? Or are you arguing that there is no threat to begin with in a chase? Cars are capable of inflicting serious bodily harm. Perhaps they have reason to believe that anyone who flees has a higher probability of carrying a weapon. I think the confusion here is that pursuit has been elided with confrontation for purposes of the threat analysis. The hail of bullets comes once the chase has ended and the police engage to arrest. I searched “First Rule of Policing” and I’ll simply end with my thought that the paradigm ought to shift. And perhaps it will with more public backlash from publicized police brutalization.

        1. SHG Post author

          The First Rule of Policing is “make it home for dinner.” This relates to the threat to them, not a generalized threat to others.

          The point I was trying to make is that (using the Cleveland case as an example) the interaction was initiated because a cop (maybe more) heard the sound of a car backfiring and thought it was a gunshot outside their police station. This is a direct threat to them, someone they believe is shooting at them. Car drives away. It’s no longer a direct threat to them. They chase the car, thus bringing themselves back into the zone of danger of the threat. More cops join the pursuit. The car finally stop and a barrage of bullets follows.

          The initial perceived thread to them ceased when the car drove away from the police.

          As for cars being capable of inflicting serious harm, that’s a red herring. The car fleeing from pursuit is far more dangerous than the car driving away normally. The police in pursuit present a danger as well. So to the extent danger was presented to the public, it was exacerbated by police conduct. The only “risk” involved was that the person who was erroneously believed to be firing shots initially would get away.

          1. Ted H.

            If the police reasonably believed that a person unlawfully shot at them then they’re obligated to pursue, no? In Cleveland, based upon the belief that shots had been fired at them already, once they stopped the suspects in the vehicle, they fired based upon the belief that they would be fired upon again. This gets to my first point about the more relaxed standards for self-defense that police officers enjoy — it seems that they’re able to use lethal force to defend themselves in situations involved a less than reasonable belief of imminent bodily harm. I think police officers ought to be required to demonstrate some objective risk of imminent bodily harm, and not simply a get home to dinner at all costs mindset.

            As to the harmful aspects of a vehicle qua vehicle, once the officers have surrounded a vehicle on foot after vehicular pursuit, that vehicle poses a risk because the suspect might strike the officer’s body with the vehicle. Also, during vehicular pursuit, both vehicles pose a risk to the suspects in the vehicle (yes, I believe the police owe a duty to protect those suspected of crimes), the police (e.g. ramming and PIT maneuvers), and any potential bystanders.

            1. SHG Post author

              We’re going around in a circle. We’re in agreement that they shouldn’t be permitted to use deadly force in the absence of an objective basis to believe they are in imminent risk of serious or deadly harm.

            2. Ted H.

              Yet cases like ones in this post pop up, where police had highly questionable bases for their use of deadly force. I think its that the culture of policing has a my skin over their skin mentality, or “make it home to dinner” even if the suspect might never again. Do you

            3. SHG Post author

              I’ve written a great deal about this over the years. This isn’t my first time at the rodeo. Yes, I am deeply troubled by the First Rule, and have been for a very long time.

            4. Ted H.

              accidentally hit enter. Yeah we’re going in circles…good discussion anyway…helped me to clarify my thoughts. Look forward to commenting in more posts.

  7. George B.

    Note that some PD’s Rules of Engagement explicitly forbid shooting at cars EVEN when {allegedly} “”attacking”” the cop.

    Instead “Get out of the way” is the SOP. This avoids the convenient “I was in fear of my life” justification for opening fire. Plus the obvious: killing the driver does not engage the brakes on an passenger car.

  8. Jesse

    Guess you deleted my comment.

    My point was one of the militarization of the police given the common practice of recruiting former soldiers. I’m not saying that police are trained to unload machine guns on americans, but that police departments nationwide have been hiring people that have that kind of experience.

    Also, I’m just a layman commenter, not learned in the law nor law “enforcement”, but I’m still not surprised at what happened. If you are in the general sphere of the Emperor and his Senate, you will not be allowed to have an “episode” where you have anything even close to being considered a weapon. It doesn’t matter that all those sites have redundant barriers and snipers and missiles and all of that, if you go nuts in the capitol, you are probably going to end up dead.

    I don’t think the officers surrounding DC use the First Rule of policing. They are also very aware that they are “protecting” the VIPs. They are aware that they are standing ground for people that have the reins of power.

    1. SHG Post author

      When you consider posting a comment, think whether it’s fact-based and illuminates the problem, or whether it’s venting your personal animosity and being used as an opportunity for hyperbole and anger. If the former, it’s welcome. If the latter, it’s worthless. There are places to vent. Just not here.

  9. Ben Robinson

    I can think of one good excuse to shoot at a car: where the driver has demonstrated willingness to use the car as a weapon. Putting the driver out of commission doesn’t put the brakes on, but it keeps him from maneuvering to hit more victims/make it harder to get out of the way.

    What exactly does it mean to “demonstrate willingness to use the car as a weapon?” I don’t have the kind of experience it would take to answer that. It would have to be conduct more aggressive than just fleeing when ordered to stop, but the police shouldn’t have to wait for the car to hit an innocent bystander if anyone watching would agree on what the driver is trying to do.

    There are some powerful psychological influences – to chase anything that runs away, to shoot at whatever the guy next to you is shooting at, to never admit defeat if there’s anything at all you can do – that want to turn a borderline situation into a feeding frenzy. Then because the human mind is so good at fitting whatever happened into the valid paradigm in hindsight, it’s hard to gather clear data and learn to spot the feeding frenzy impulses and compensate for them.

    1. SHG Post author

      But that tends not to be the scenario. The car is finally stopped, the defendant either sits there or gets out, then boom. That the perp used the car as a weapon earlier provides no better excuse, as it’s not belated payback but protection from harm. Once the threat abates, there is no reason to shoot.

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