ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. – Police departments across the U.S. — including in large cities such as New York and Denver — strictly limit shooting at moving vehicles because they consider the practice ineffective and not worth the risk to human life.
But dozens of shootings still occur each year — with deadly results — because many departments continue to give officers too much leeway to open fire, according to groups advocating for stricter policies.
Last month, sheriff’s deputies fatally shot an unarmed Black man in his car as he appeared to drive away in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The deputies were cleared Tuesday by a prosecutor who said that Andrew Brown Jr. was using his BMW as a “deadly weapon.”
Police-reform advocates say officers should only fire if deadly force other than the vehicle is being used, or to stop terrorism. And while not all law enforcement experts agree, the issue is among many practices that are being scrutinized amid nationwide calls for police reform and racial justice sparked by George Floyd’s death in police custody last May.
Several cities, including Phoenix, have enacted stricter policies since June 2020 and more are considering them, according to the advocacy group Campaign Zero. Cities that already have strong restrictions include Las Vegas, Miami and San Francisco.
The body camera footage in North Carolina shows six Pasquotank County sheriff's deputies surrounding Brown's car with guns drawn while serving drug-related warrants at his Elizabeth City home.
The video shows one of the deputies putting his hand on the driver’s side door, then yelling and recoiling as Brown backs up. Seconds later, the same deputy appears to be in the path of the car as Brown moves forward.
The deputy avoids a direct hit after pushing his hand onto the moving car’s hood and quickly moving aside. Gunshots are then heard, and officers appear to continue firing as the car moves away from them. Brown was killed by a bullet to the back of his head.
District Attorney Andrew Womble, who showed the footage at a news conference, said the shooting was justified.
“When you employ a car in a manner that puts officers' lives in danger, that is a threat,” Womble said. “And I don’t care what direction you’re going — forward, backward, sideways. I don’t care if you’re stationary. And neither do our courts and our case law.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who eulogized Brown at his funeral, said in a statement that Womble's justification was “bizarre” and “unconvincing." Kirk Rivers, a community activist in Elizabeth City, said deputies “made the car a weapon by standing in front of it.”
Some law enforcement experts say firing at moving vehicles should be avoided.
“Unless someone in the car is shooting at police officers, you can get that car another day — but you cannot get that life back,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit, independent group that studies policing issues.
“The whole idea is not to put yourself in a position where you feel you have no choice but to use deadly force,” Wexler said. “We don’t want police officers to stand in front of cars to risk their lives. And we don’t want them shooting at vehicles to risk life.”
The Pasquotank County sheriff's use-of-force policy says deputies should move out of a car's path instead of shooting at it, “when feasible.”
The policy also states that a deputy should only fire when he or she “reasonably believes there are no other reasonable means available.”
Wexler said such a policy gives too much leeway to deputies to put themselves in danger — and to open fire. The rules, he said, have to be “very restrictive and accompanied by training."
In a 2016 report, the Police Executive Research Forum called for strict limits on firing at vehicles unless other force is being used. It cited a reduction in lethal force cases resulting from New York City's policy.
Shootings by the city's police declined from nearly 1,000 a year in 1972 to 665 the following year, "and have fallen steadily ever since, to fewer than 100 per year today,” the report stated.
New York City changed its policy in 1972 after an officer shot an 11-year-old boy who was fleeing in a stolen car. The city of Denver made a similar change after a 17-year-old girl was fatally shot as she drove a stolen vehicle toward an officer in 2015.
Earlier this year, Phoenix enacted a stricter policy on shooting at moving vehicles. It makes an exception for when there is a threat other than the vehicle itself. And it makes an exception for apparent terrorist acts.
Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, said 55 people were killed by police last year in situations where a moving vehicle was the only alleged threat.
“Every single year, we’re tracking 50, 60, 70 people who are being killed by the police in these situations,” Sinyangwe said.
When officers shoot into moving vehicles, criminal charges are rare. Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University, said he's aware of 11 police officers in the U.S. since 2005 who’ve been charged with murder or manslaughter after they shot someone who they claimed used their car as a weapon.
But some law enforcement experts argue officers must have leeway in rare instances where they could be saving their own lives or others.
“We can’t imagine every scenario,” said Brian Higgins, a public safety consultant and former police chief in New Jersey. “You just don’t know if an officer has no choice.”
Higgins, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said internal affairs investigations and state and federal probes also hold officers accountable.
“To make an automatic blanket statement that it should never, ever happen is not feasible,” he said.
Lavoie reported from Richmond, Virginia.