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Shooting at moving vehicles: Rules for Utah police vary statewide

Published: Saturday, Jan. 4 2014 4:55 p.m. MST

The use of deadly force when a moving vehicle is involved can be one of the most difficult situations an officer encounters. Yet each police agency in Utah has different rules about shooting at vehicles, ranging from strict policies to none at all.

Jordan Allred, Deseret News

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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."

Unjustified shootings

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.

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