SALT LAKE CITY — They are dangerous scenarios that require a police officer to make numerous split-second decisions.
When an officer believes his or her life or the lives of others are in imminent danger, the officer will pull his or her gun out of its holster and prepare to use deadly force if necessary.
But when a moving vehicle is involved, the situation becomes even more complicated.
An officer has just seconds to decide: "Is the vehicle moving toward or away from me?" "Am I at risk of being hit?" "Does the driver post an imminent threat to myself or others?" "Does the driver have a gun?" "Does the driver have a history of violence?" "Is deadly force the only way to resolve this situation?"
"The reality is, there are so many split-second decisions that have to be made," said Brett Rawson, general counsel for the Fraternal Order of Police and a POST certified police officer. "There's no question that it's very, very difficult, I think beyond what most people can imagine, to be in a critical incident and have to make those types of split second decisions.
"It's absolutely one of the most difficult scenarios police officers find themselves in."
Since Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill took office in January of 2011, he has determined that the actions of five officers involved in four shooting incidents were not legally justified.
What all of those unjustified shootings had in common: a vehicle was involved.
• The most high-profile unjustified shooting was the 2012 shooting death of Danielle Willard, 21, by West Valley police detectives Shaun Cowley and Kevin Salmon. Cowley told investigators he fired after Willard started to back up her car to get away. But Gill ruled that Cowley was not behind Willard's vehicle when she began to back out, but rather at the side of her car and was not in imminent danger.
Cowley's attorneys, who include Rawson, have disputed Gill's findings. Cowley was fired; Salmon remains on leave. Gill has yet to decide whether to file criminal charges against the officers.
• In 2011, Salt Lake police officer Shane Conrad fired five rounds into 19-year-old Dennzel Davis' car, striking Davis once during an undercover drug bust. In that case, Gill ruled that Conrad's first shot, which he used to try and gain entry into Davis' car, was not legally justified.
After that shot was fired, however, "Davis again threw his car into reverse and moved rapidly toward the fast food restaurant." At that point, the subsequent shots fired by Conrad were justified.
• Also in 2011, Salt Lake police officer Matthew Giles fired eight times at a teenager in a stolen car attempting to flee police near 1600 West and 400 South. One bullet hit the boy. The juvenile had already purposely rammed a police car in an attempt to escape. But the officer's account of what happened did not match the evidence, Gill said. The teen driver was reportedly trying to avoid Giles, who put himself in the path of the moving vehicle.
• In yet another incident that same year, the actions of West Valley police officer Jared Cardon was found to be legally unjustified when he fired at a fleeing vehicle. In that situation, Gill said the fleeing suspect was clearly trying to avoid Cardon, whose life was not in imminent danger.
Prior to those incidents, one of the last unjustified shootings in Salt Lake County before Gill was elected also involved a moving vehicle. Three sheriff's deputies fired at least 10 shots at a fleeing vehicle in 2007. Then-District Attorney Lohra Miller ruled the shooting was not legally justified.
Gill has also determined, however, that nearly 30 officer-involved shootings — some involving vehicles — were legally justified.
Officers shooting at moving vehicles became a hot topic of discussion for police departments all across the country during 2013. The following three departments, for example, issued new rules restricting when officers can fire at vehicles:
• In August, the Cleveland Police Department banned officers from firing at moving vehicles unless deadly force is being used against the police officer or another person "by means other than the vehicle."
• In June, the Anchorage, Alaska, Police Department announced: "Unless use of deadly force is otherwise justified, an officer shall not shoot at a moving vehicle if the vehicle is being used as the only weapon."
• In February, the Pittsburgh Police Department announced that its officers may not "discharge a firearm at or into a moving vehicle or its occupants unless there are shots being fired from that vehicle."
To shoot or not
Utah has no statewide policy regarding officers firing at vehicles. Each police agency has its own rules. Those policies range from being strict to offering little guidance at all, said Wade Breur, bureau chief of Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training.
Utah Highway Patrol troopers, for example, may only shoot at a moving vehicle "when deadly force is justified."
What they can't do, Breur said, is use their guns as a means to stop a vehicle from fleeing by "shooting the tires" or place themselves in the path of a moving vehicle — such as jumping in front of a car — in order to shoot.
In November, an incident near Taos, N.M., caught national attention when a police officer fired at a minivan with a mother and her five children inside. The mother, who refused to follow the officer's orders during a traffic stop and created a chaotic situation, was driving away from the officer when he shot at her vehicle. The officer claimed he was trying to shoot the tires. He was fired from the department.
Breur said shooting at tires to stop a fleeing vehicle is something done in the movies. It's not something officers in Utah are trained to do.
"We train that you only use that force which is necessary," he said. "(The Department of Public Safety) only allows officers to shoot at moving vehicles when deadly force is justified."
Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank says the policy for his department is a little less complicated when it comes to shooting at moving vehicles: don't do it.
"A handgun does not stop a car. And even if you shoot the driver, the car keeps going. So better to get out of the way of the vehicle than to shoot it and have it continue to roll down the street," he said. "We never want a car going down the street without a driver in it."
The policy not to shoot at moving vehicles was implemented during former Chief Rick Dinse's administration. It was made, in part, because officers were sometimes jumping in front of vehicles and putting themselves in harm's way in order to justify firing a shot.
"You don't stop a vehicle by standing in front of it. That's not a good technique," Burbank said. "It doesn't turn the car off or stop it from moving. It's faulty logic to think a handgun or rifle will stop a 5,000-pound vehicle."
But Burbank noted there are always exceptions to the rule.
"We tell officers not to strike somebody in the head with your flashlight. But if that's all that you have and your life is in danger, then certainly it would be an exception. It's one of those things you have to evaluate on a case-by-case basis," he said.
Brent Jex, president of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, said POST has taken a "very aggressive stand" on training officers about this issue and have come up with a plan that balances firing at anything that moves versus never firing at all.
"An officer can use deadly force when there is reason to believe their life or the life of third party is in danger of death or serious injury," said Jex.
Jex points to 76-2-404b of the Utah Criminal Code that states an officer can use deadly force when "effecting an arrest or preventing an escape from custody following an arrest, where the officer reasonably believes that deadly force is necessary to prevent the arrest from being defeated by escape; and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect has committed a felony offense involving the infliction or threatened infliction of death or serious bodily injury."
"It's too easy to just say that you're either going to always fire or never fire, because there are so many factors that go into it," Jex said.
But where there has been controversy in Utah is disagreement over whether officers involved in unjustified shootings reasonably believed — or should have reasonably believed — that their lives were in imminent danger.
Training in Utah
Jex believes all police department administrators and county attorneys in Utah should be certified by the Force Science Institute, a group that offers week-long training sessions on the scientific principles of deadly force encounters.
Despite the instruction provided at POST, Rawson said training officers to face possible deadly force situations with a vehicle involved is difficult. For one, it's hard to account for every possible scenario in a classroom. Plus, there's "never going to be training where they drive a car at you."
"Police officers are trained to stop a deadly threat with a use of force that is deadly in return. There is no training in law enforcement to shoot at a car. Rather, you shoot to stop the threat," Rawson said. "If you can articulate those facts, you can shoot at fleeing vehicles."
While Gill admits vehicles present unique challenges when investigating officer-involved shootings, the context of each shooting has to be looked at individually. He agrees that one rule does not cover all scenarios.
That's why he said his office is committed to continuing to help educate officers and provide them with the best possible training.3 comments on this story
"We continue to make sure to give the best available information and the broadest set of training to our officers so they can be safe and keep their responsibilities to the community," he said.
In November, Gill, along with the Unified Police Department, unveiled the new VirTra V-300 LE simulator, the most life-like use-of-deadly-force training machine available. Gill said the simulator can be programmed to involve moving vehicle scenarios.
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