Denver conducting two reviews of police department policies for shooting at suspects in moving cars

DENVER - In a tense national climate surrounding officer-involved shootings, Denver now has two ongoing reviews into the policies surrounding a very specific category of police shootings: those that involve a suspect in a moving vehicle.

Both Denver Police and the City's Office of the Independent Monitor acknowledge that opening fire at a suspect in a moving vehicle may pose different dangers than firing at a suspect in any other situation. In fact, those potential dangers are codified in the police department's policy for the discharge of firearms:

"Firing at a moving vehicle may have very little impact on stopping the vehicle," the rule posits. "Disabling the driver may result in an uncontrolled vehicle, and the likelihood of injury to occupants of the vehicle (who may not be involved in the crime) may be increased when the vehicle is either out of control or shots are fired into the passenger compartment."

The most recent incident involving officers shooting at a moving vehicle occurred on January 26 at the intersection of 25th and Niagara. A 17-year-old girl was behind the wheel of a stolen car that hit an officer, police said. The officers opened fire, killing her.

In an interview with the Denver Post, Police Chief Robert White said that before the shooting, the officers told the occupants of the car to get out.

"The vehicle started driving towards him, which pretty much had him between a car, and I think a brick wall or a fence there, and out of fear for his safety he fired several shots and the other officer fired several shots," said White.

That incident and three others over the last seven months are the subject of an investigation by the city's Independent Monitor. The goal is to evaluate the state of the Police Department's policies, practices and training involving shooting at moving vehicles.

The Independent Monitor announced his investigation into these four incidents on Tuesday, saying he wants to compare Denver's policies to other policies around the nation.

Denver's Department of Public Safety and Police Department will also review the policies that apply to these situations, according to spokeswoman Daelene Mix. She said the two departments agreed to do the review on Monday after the shooting, but did not announce it until Wednesday.

"I have directed the Chief of Police to examine existing policies to determine their appropriateness," the Executive Director of the Department of Public Safety said in a quote provided by her office. "While the Police Department's policies in this area are among the most stringent in the nation, a closer look may help identify strategies that can mitigate some of the outcomes we have seen in Denver."

However, 7NEWS found that two recent reports by the U.S. Department of Justice have stated that it would be preferable to prohibit officers from shooting at moving vehicles altogether.

Last month, a Department of Justice review of the Cleveland Police Department found:

"Shooting at vehicles creates an unreasonable risk unless such a real and articulable threat exists. First, it is difficult to shoot at a moving car with accuracy. Missed shots can hit bystanders or others in the vehicle. Second, if the driver is disabled by the shot, the vehicle may become unguided, making it potentially more dangerous."

In an April review of incidents involving the Albuquerque Police Department, the Department of Justice wrote:

"…shooting at vehicles is generally a poor tactical choice and exacerbates the chances of vehicles becoming more dangerous instruments."

"We don't shoot into cars barring mitigating circumstances, and mitigating circumstances are that somebody's life is in immediate danger and the officers have no other option, but to shoot to protect their life or someone else's life," White told the Post.

DPD's policy for the discharge of firearms includes a specific provision for shooting at moving vehicles. Under that policy, officers may shoot at a moving car if they reasonably believe the vehicle or suspect pose a threat of death or injury and the officers have "no reasonable alternative course of action."

The subsection applying to this particular situation is just a small part of the overall policy. Other parts of the policy describe how officers are required to give some warning before shooting, if possible, and situations in which they may decide to open fire on a suspect.

Another important subsection details that police should not fire their weapons unless they would be legally justified in killing the suspect or where there is likelihood of serious injury to other persons. They are also prohibited from firing warning shots and firing solely for the purpose of protecting property.

In the shooting that occurred this week, other teenagers were in the vehicle. One of the passenger's mother told 7NEWS by phone that she believed the driver was trying to protect the other children by driving out of the line of fire. 

Full text of DPD policy:

105.05       Discharge of Firearms    (revised 11-2011)

(1) Officers shall not discharge any firearm in the performance of their duties except as authorized by law and the rules, regulations and procedures of the Denver Police Department.

(2) All members of the Denver Police Department shall safely handle firearms while performing on-duty assignments and at all times while carrying/handling firearms while off-duty.

(3) When all reasonable alternatives appear impractical, a law enforcement officer may resort to the lawful use of firearms under the following conditions when he/she reasonably believes that it is necessary:

a. To defend him/herself, or a third person from what he/she reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force (C.R.S. §18-1-707); or

b. To affect an arrest, or to prevent the escape from custody of a person whom he/she reasonably believes:

1. Has committed or attempted to commit a felony involving the use or threatened use of a deadly weapon; or

2. Is attempting to escape by the use of a deadly weapon; or

3. Otherwise indicates, except through a motor vehicle violation, that he is likely to endanger human life or to inflict serious bodily injury to another unless apprehended without delay. (C.R.S. §18-1-707). 

4. The following definitions shall apply to all of OMS 105.04(3) a. and b:

a. REASONABLE BELIEF:  When facts or circumstances the officer reasonably believes, knows, or should know, are such as to cause an ordinary and prudent police officer to act or think in a similar way under similar circumstances.

b. DEADLY PHYSICAL FORCE:  That force, the intended, natural, and probable consequence of which is to produce death and which does, in fact, produce death.

c. SERIOUS BODILY INJURY:  Bodily injury which, either at the time of the actual injury or at a later time, involves a substantial risk of death, a substantial risk of serious permanent disfigurement, a substantial risk or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any part or organ of the body, or breaks, fractures (to include breaks or fractures of hard tissue such as bone, teeth, or cartilage) or burns of the second or third degree.

5. It is necessary, "when feasible", to give some warning before engaging in the use of deadly force.  If possible, identify yourself as a police officer, give the command you want followed, and state your intention to shoot.

a. To kill a dangerous animal or one that humane treatment requires its removal from further suffering and alternative methods of disposition are impractical.

b. To participate in authorized training at a target range.

c. To participate in any legitimate sporting activity.

(4) Officers will not discharge firearms under the following conditions:

a. At another person unless the circumstances are such that the officer would be justified under the law if the shot killed the person.

b. Where there is likelihood of serious injury to persons other than the person to be apprehended.

c. As a warning or attention shots. 

d. Solely to protect property.

(5) Moving vehicles

a. Firing at moving vehicles: Firing at a moving vehicle may have very little impact on stopping the vehicle.  Disabling the driver may result in an uncontrolled vehicle, and the likelihood of injury to occupants of the vehicle (who may not be involved in the crime) may be increased when the vehicle is either out of control or shots are fired into the passenger compartment.  An officer threatened by an oncoming vehicle shall, if feasible, move out of the way rather than discharging a firearm.  Officer(s) shall not discharge a firearm at a moving vehicle or its occupant(s) in response to a threat posed solely by the vehicle unless the officer has an objectively reasonable belief that:

1. The vehicle or suspect poses an immediate threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or another person and

2. The officer has no reasonable alternative course of action to prevent death or serious physical injury.

b. Firing from a moving vehicle:  Accuracy may be severely impacted when firing from a moving vehicle, and firing from a moving vehicle may increase the risk of harm to officers or other citizens.  Officers should not fire from a moving vehicle except in self defense or defense of another from what the officer reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.

(6) Above all, the safety of the public and the officer must be the overriding concern when the use of force is considered.

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