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Force Science Institute writes:

A growing number of agencies are specifying in policy that moving motor vehicles per se should no longer be considered deadly threats and that officers should not use deadly force to protect themselves or others from vehicular attack. Firing is permitted only when someone inside a vehicle is posing an immediate lethal threat with some means other than the vehicle itself. To defend themselves, officers are encouraged to move to cover out of a vehicle’s path rather than shoot.  The unforeseen problem with such an ultra-restrictive mandate, according to Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, is this . . .

 Given the realities both of vehicular assaults on cops and of human performance under stress, violations of these policies may be inevitable, resulting in a rash of unfair disciplinary actions while failing to achieve the goal of reducing officer-involved shootings.

“Most often,” says Lewinski, “these policies seem to be driven by political pressure and are based more on speculation than on solid behavioral science.

“In my opinion, prohibiting a police officer from shooting to disable a driver or persuade him to stop using a vehicle as a weapon is likely to increase the risk of injury and death to officers and possibly to innocent civilians as well.”

Before a department adopts a blanket no-shoot policy, Lewinski suggests that the following questions be candidly considered:

• Will officers really be able to comply with the policy?

“Behavioral science tells us that in many cases the honest answer to that question is ‘No,'” Lewinski says. He explains:

“Regardless of how a written policy may view them, moving motor vehicles in and of themselves can be deadly weapons, and some offenders do use them to target cops. Officers are well aware of this serious danger.

“In training, officers are taught that when their lives are at grave and immediate risk and there is no other feasible option to protect them against serious bodily harm or death, they are to draw their sidearm and shoot–or, if they already have it in hand, to fire it at the threatening suspect. In other words, you meet imminent deadly force with deadly force.

“This is instilled to the depth that a shooting response to a life threat is virtually automatic and reflexive, similar to throwing out your hands when you trip and are about to fall.

“Automatic decision-making dominates when there is too little time–seconds or less–to analyze a threat and determine a reasoned response. Vehicle assaults commonly occur under such time-pressured conditions.

“In a best-case scenario, a no-shoot policy will underscore the potential dangers of vehicles, motivate officers to plan ahead and strategically avoid making themselves vulnerable. But vehicular assaults often unfold dramatically, rapidly, and unexpectedly–beyond an officer’s control. And that’s when the policy falls apart.

“Chances are that an officer facing an on-coming vehicle will not even remember a no-shoot policy amidst his or her desperate, instinctive reaction. If it does flit to mind, it’s likely to cause confusion, hesitation, and/or inappropriate action. Anything that causes you to think about options when there’s no time to think will impair your performance.

“All this is to say that however well-intentioned they may be, rigid no-shoot policies hold officers accountable to an unrealistic standard of behavior. That’s why agencies that have adopted stringent policies tend to still have officers who shoot at cars. They aren’t necessarily being defiant. They just can’t overcome a compelling trained reaction.”

• What retraining realistically will be required to achieve compliance?

“First,” Lewinski says, “we need to know a lot more about the nature of vehicular attacks and the circumstances under which they occur than we do now. We can’t design and train good tactical responses without a thorough knowledge of the problems we’re addressing. And at the moment, there is no reliable, comprehensive research on vehicular assaults.

“Also we don’t know how much or what kind of training is necessary to change behavioral instincts. Certainly it takes more than just announcing a policy change and expecting automatic conformity.

“One major Canadian agency that adopted a rigid no-shoot policy ‘retrained’ its officers by exposing them to one simulator scenario involving a vehicle coming toward them. That department later reversed its new policy as a failure, after shootings at moving vehicles continued to occur.

“For a department to override an officer’s instinctive response and instill its preferred decision-making to an effective level, it must reinforce the new value repeatedly and far before any real-world incident occurs. This includes providing officers with the experience necessary to read and correctly respond to the kinds of situations they are likely to encounter on the street.

“In effect, the training must create a new automaticity as a default reaction that officers will resort to without conscious thought under the massive stress of a mortal threat.

“Training to this level will be very intensive and very expensive. I’ve assessed training in three different countries, and I have never seen a police training program capable of doing this. Without it, it will be very difficult to build anything more than an initial awareness of the policy change.”

• Does the proposed policy reflect the true complexity of vehicular assaults?

“Strict no-shoot policies offer a simplistic solution to a complex problem,” Lewinski says. “Like most simplistic solutions, they often fail to take important factors into consideration.

“These policies try to impose what might be called the ‘El Toro’ model of reaction–officers are expected to perfectly escape the path of an oncoming vehicle much as a matador sidesteps a charging bull, thus avoiding the need to shoot. But that may not be possible.

“An officer may have fallen or be injured and physically unable to leap out of harm’s way. Or an on-looking officer may need to save an injured fellow officer or a child who’s immobilized by fear.

“Or there may not be time to escape if the vehicle is rapidly accelerating and the officer is only a car length or two away. Research has shown that for the average person to sprint even two strides and cover four feet takes about three quarters of a second, not allowing for the time required for a threat to be perceived and processed. An officer will be even slower because of the weight of his or her duty gear. The officer’s response time will often be significantly greater than the acceleration and travel time of the vehicle.

“Because of a trick of the mind called ‘looming,’ a more distant vehicle moving forward may appear to be closer and speeding faster than it actually is, and an officer experiencing that terrifying phenomenon may feel an enhanced urgency to shoot in hopes of stopping the driver.

“In reality, you don’t have to be directly in front of or in rear of a car to be in jeopardy. With a slight turn, a moving vehicle can easily compress against or hit an officer standing to the side. The closer you are, even to the side of a vehicle, the faster it will seem to be going. Mere proximity can appear to more than double the actual speed.

“When you’re in range of a vehicle coming in your direction, it’s difficult to predict exactly where it may go and how it may threaten you. The potential path of danger–the area a moving vehicle couldcover–can change in a fraction of a second and be far wider than an officer can flee from.

“To expect a safe escape 100% of the time can be quite illusory. This is especially true when the incident occurs unexpectedly, unfolds rapidly, and creates an almost immediate threat to life.

“One fear that seems to drive no-shoot policies is the ‘uncontrolled projectile’ concern. That is, if the driver is shot and incapacitated, the vehicle would then become an ‘unguided missile’ that may cause significant damage or injury before it finally stops.

“Again, this seems to be a theoretical assertion that’s made without documented research; as yet, there is no scientific basis for it. It seemed logical when I first started to investigate the human factors in officer-involved shootings, but having closely analyzed dozens of incidents in which officers shot and either killed or seriously wounded a driver attempting to assault them with a vehicle, I have found that the vehicle invariably has rolled forward two to eight car lengths and then stopped.”

• Have outliers been considered?

“People who write policy generally have some specific concepts in their head of the kind of situations they are addressing,” Lewinski says. “With no-shoot restrictions, they may envision a vehicular confrontation where an officer can feasibly sidestep the threat, or they may imagine a suspect car fleeing away from a scene where shooting would be clearly inappropriate.

“But they may not consider the kinds of outlier possibilities in the crazy world of policing in which the policy makes no sense.

“Some years ago an offender in San Diego stole a National Guard armored tank and proceeded to drive down a street squashing parked cars and endangering motor traffic and pedestrians. In Toronto, a barefoot EDP in the dead of winter hijacked a snowplow and went on a two-hour rampage during which he struck and killed a police sergeant.

“Does a policy that prohibits the use of deadly force against the driver of a moving vehicle really serve the public good in such circumstances?

“Sometimes on traffic stops, officers reach inside a vehicle for the keys or open a driver’s door for an extraction and get trapped or pinned in the vehicle when the driver suddenly accelerates and speeds off. Sometimes officers are crushed or pinned against another vehicle or some other object. Deadly force in these situations may be the only choice that can save them.

“When formulating policy, administrators need to be aware that there are many unanticipated variables that may arise, not just the ones they are intending to prohibit.”

• What’s better?

“Of course,” Lewinski says, “there are circumstances in which shooting at moving vehicles is illegal or at least undesirable, and the proper parameters of use of force need frequent reinforcement. So does tactical training that lessens the risk of officers unwittingly placing themselves where they are vulnerable to vehicular attack.

“But by the same token, it is hardly defensible to impose restraints on self-defense that are unrealistic, unscientific, and likely to prove unenforceable. A number of departments that have adopted stringent no-shoot policies have, in fact, reversed themselves because these measures proved not to be feasible.

“While this issue continues to be researched, any policy specifically addressing deadly force and motor vehicles should permit officers to protect themselves and others from what is reasonably perceived to be a threat of death or serious injury or, under the guidelines established by the Supreme Court, to prevent the escape of a violent felon.

“An alternative is not to single out vehicles for special mention but to implicitly include them in a broad policy that permits deadly force at an officer’s reasonable discretion when an imminent threat is perceived.”

33 Responses to Force Science Institute: “Don’t Shoot At Vehicles” Police Policy Ill-Advised

  1. It seems that in most of the shootings you see on YouTube the cops put their bodies in front of the suspects car. It seems as if they want to shoot. Do you really think that your couple hundred pound body will stop a couple tons. Better tactics would be more beneficial IMHO.

    • I doubt anyone is either thinking that their body will stop the car, or that they want to create a deadly force situation where none would have otherwise existed. They probably just want the car to stop.

      Now, while we can talk all day long about why that’s a pretty dumb idea, we have all the time in the world to talk. Just as for a normal person, a human/deer/large inanimate object suddenly appearing in front of your car may cause a near instinctive reaction of slamming on the brakes, wanting a car to stop _right now_ when you’re on foot may cause a near instinctive reaction of stepping in front of the car. It would work for a running human, and instincts evolved long before the car.

      Instincts can save your life, or they can get you killed. One of the most important functions of training is to use them to your advantage when possible, and create new ones when it is not.

      • The only time I’ve ever watched anyone die was when I got to the grocery store after an old lady hit the wrong pedal and killed four kids. I was acting on training, trying not to control the scene (thinking someone else already had, not realizing that I had literally just looked down at the wrong moment). There was my first mistake. My second was thinking that a kindly lady in scrubs identifying herself as an RN knows anything about first aid (several of the bystanders). I still blame myself for at least two of those deaths, but I’ve found a way to live with it.

        Anyway, when the very first first responder hit the scene, he drove up on the sidewalk right towards two of the three still living victims. I don’t know what my reasoning was at the time, but I jumped in front of him. Adrenaline is crazy, and self preservation becomes a joke when you’re watching a toddler bleed out. I knew that my body wouldn’t slow down that silver Civic hatchback (see: adrenaline is crazy, above) but I still jumped in front of it. And I wasn’t the only one, he dodged another person directing traffic to get to me.

        Long story short, after hundreds of funerals and thousands of action movies, I thought I was jaded toward death. Helping roll a Buick out of a storefront and watching the remains of a twelve-year-old girl fall out changes one’s perspective for life. And yet, instinctively, my response to round two was to become another victim. I’ve literally been there, and I don’t know why I did it. They were running hard enough I bruised my left palm on the hood. I seriously could have been yet another casualty in that accident. I still get uneasy in grocery store parking lots, but I prefer to consider it a learning experience. It’s more important that I see it as one of the many possible evils in the world than admit defeat and check out.

        • I’m sorry that you had to experience that- but I tend to think that when tragedy affects us so strongly, one of the few good things you can take away is that it confirms you have not lost your humanity. When we stop caring, when we laugh it off because we actually think it’s funny instead of as a coping mechanism, it means something inside us has died. I hope it never happens to me. I’m glad it has never happened to you.

    • only way to change autonomic responses are…. Brainwashing, or volunteery training at or near daily times for years or something like basic training for months.

      fight or flight responses are even harder to change. the instinct to defend yourself and inflict equal or great force then perseved, is at the core of ALL life. your either Cattle that runs and responds when their is no other choice, a Defender willing to sacrifice your to save others in your community/clan/family, or a predator! but even weakest amung us will defend to the death if needed.

      just like flinching at an incoming object, you can train to instead catch it, dodge it, some even let things hit them. natural response is to block or strike it down aka flinching.

      how do you change or modify a base instinct? the left wants to legislate control over even our baser instincts.

      1984 is here, wake up or die like cattle.

    • Exactly. I was recently involved in a situation where an officer had to use OC spray to subdue someone, I don’t feel comfortable giving details since its not out of court yet but lets say the “attacker” had a heart condition, the officers had both OC spray and Tasers, they were mildly aware of the “attackers” health conditions so I think that’s what let to the officer going for OC spray first despite the “attacker” wearing sunglasses (which were knocked off). That said if in another situation Officer X uses a taser on Attacker Y and Attacker Y dies because he has a heart condition that is NOT reason to ban tasers! Less than lethal solutions are less than lethal but they are not 100% non-lethal and you can’t expect that! I recently saw a thing about a guy dieing from an allergic reaction to OC spray, banning OC spray because 0.00001% of the population may be allergic is insane. Similarily areas like San Francisco banning Tasers gives officers less options for dangerous encounters.

  2. Times when a cop could use and RPG or 50 caliber to the radiator and engine block but not immediately available, darn! Truth is nothing will stop a vehicle in motion immediately but telling police, and others, to just get out of the way makes little sense either. Another bureaucrat trying to figure out a hypothetical response to a real world scenario. Nothing in this kind of thing ever turns out as planned.

  3. Use a car like a weapon then expect the police to use their pistols like weapons. God knows some fool tries to run me over I would shoot them as well.

      • You (and others to be sure) are missing the point of the policy. Not every movement of every car is a malicious action of a violent culprit .. but the training being handed out lately primes responders to reflexively presume so.

        A mother, a nurse IIRC, with her 1 yr old daughter became confused in a detour area in DC, out came guns everywhere, she panicked and grazed a gate trying to do a turnaround, all of a sudden she’s a ‘terrorist crashing through a gate’ .. so the police chase her down .. and shoot her to death.

        Was that overreaction? Is it an instantaneous death penalty crime to be confused in traffic? Typically that’s a statutory infraction and not a per se crime of Any manner, certainly not one bearing summary execution.

        This kind of thing happens more than some people like to admit, but their bosses-bosses hear about it and can see a trend that, as subtly as possible, without admitting blame from over-Fifeing, needs to be reeled back in to the acceptable side of lawsuits. Not regarding wrongful death, etc, but regrading a much Larger, more embarrassing, and harder to solve issue – over-Fifeing.

        If someone is Clearly a belligerent actor, Clearly a -not only real but also immediate- threat of injury to a person/destruction of property (as the actual Laws tend to read), Clearly malicious and aggravated in attempts to harm … then blow their g d heads off! Huzzah! Tap ’em again to make sure!

        But not every one who hits the wrong pedal, nor every one who went the wrong way, nor even everyone who’s proceeding confused through a misbegotten cluster-f that the locals ‘think’ is a proper DUI checkpoint, is trying to “run down” the officers.

        This even applies to fleeing. Fleeing (without observable Malicious action) does not carry summary execution as one of it penalties. Not even close. Rather than launch into a hail of gunfire in the middle of Godknowshwere, let your buddies ride them down in a couple of minutes in a spot of planned wisdom, go to the traffic cameras to get their plate and location, call it in. The first trained reflex should not be to presume intent and snuff the driver ..

        .. is all that the policy change is really saying.

    • In at least one case, a cop claiming to be the “victim” of vehicular assault actually jumped into the path of the vehicle in their mad frenzy to shed blood for the government. Check out the Samantha Ramsey shooting.

      No doubt mail-order-Phd Lewinski would stamp that case justified.

      • Hopefully by now you’ve read knightofbob’s comments and had a chance to consider his words for a while… maybe someone who doesn’t appear to be a cop will be worth listening to.

        • There lies the difference: a cop has his mind set to murder knowing he will be protected by government privilege. Regular people do not do this.

  4. A car can be a lethal weapon. Any “policy” that denies people the ability to meet force with force is an abomination — whether it applies to cops or to us.

    I don’t believe that cops should have greater rights than us, but we have the right to self-defense, so why shouldn’t cops? And if an officer abuses his authority, let him be punished. But don’t deny him his right of self-defense.

  5. Never tried to play superman & stand in front of a car, had several aim for me intentionally. Or just to drunk to see. I love. 357Sig, also one of the proving tests for ammo use is shooting both windshield &door. That’s supposedly reason a lot of agencies are going to cor-bon. 9mm critical duty.

    • I did (see above). It’s one of the dumbest things I’ve done in my life, and I have no excuse. To be honest, it’s one of the last things that happened that day I’ve second guessed, even though it was an incredibly stupid empty gesture. Anyone who’s never been in an emergency would be surprised how many thoughts can go through one’s head in less than a minute, as I’m sure you know.

  6. Pretty sure shooting at a car violates rule #3
    “Always Be Sure Of Your Target And What Is Behind It!”

  7. Every military historian, and stategist would say that the enemies next TTP would be to incorporate vehichles (like they haven’t already). Todays reatrictions on EOF are tomorrows “unforseen threats.”

  8. It will be interested to see this issue debated fully by those in the lethal force community. I’ve been concerned for some time that our officers have been trained to fire at the first sign of a threat, before they really have time to evaluate it. I theorize that this is made necessary by inadequate time spent on firearms training and I believe this is responsible for the cases of suspects shot many, many times for pulling out a cell phone or similar “suspicious” moves.

    But back to the vehicle issue: Remember the two women who got shot up in Los Angeles when the rogue cop Dorner was on the loose? 102 bullet holes in their vehicle! And a “surfer” on his way to the beach around the same time was fired at in his vehicle as well. It is said that all three survived only due to poor marksmanship. You could probably find dozens of overzealous vehicle shootings by police with a bit of Googling.

    It really has become a problem, in my opinion.

    • “this issue debated fully by those in the lethal force community”

      The debate is over. This has been the standard for years. TTAG is late to the party, as usual, on police related issues. As far as overzealous vehicle shootings by police, it doesn’t happen as much as you think but when it does you can bet the media and the chicken little’s of society will make a big deal about it.

  9. There was a case in my town a couple of years ago where a 19 year old got pissed off at his dad for not buying him cigarettes and took off in his truck. The father made the mistake of calling the police, you know, to teach the kid a lesson. He ended up backing up the truck into a cop car at a stop sign and fleeing. The cops eventually got him corralled and he made it clear he was not going to give up, so they shot him dead. The dash cam video made it to the intertubes and after watching it I had 2 thoughts. First, they didn’t need to kill him. They had a duty to disable the vehicle, but a few rounds into the radiator would have taken car of that in pretty quick order. Second, if I were on a jury, there’s no way in hell I’d convict a cop on that one. Everything we do comes with a price, and if we do something monumentally stupid (like trying to run over a cop in your truck) that price you’ll pay is likely to be your life.

    • I’ve never heard of a duty to disable a vehicle.

      I have heard many times in training that the use (discharge, not drawing) of a firearm is by default, lethal force, and to be used only when necessary to protect human life. The priority of life where I work is in order, hostages, bystanders, officers, suspects. If the suspect threatens the life of one of the categories above his own, then lethal force may be appropriate.

      The same logic applies to regular folks as well as police. This is why people sometimes get prosecuted for warning shots- if you didn’t feel you needed to defend your life or the life of another, lethal force is not appropriate.

      If you think over-use of Tasers is bad, then tell cops or anyone else that it’s ok to start shooting to convince someone to listen to you. The results would be entirely predictable, and tragic.

  10. Department policy should not dictate weather a police officer should use deadly force if they truly feel threatened with severe injury or death, rather personal accountability, civil liability as well as actual legal repercussions would better curtail unnecessary homicides by Police officers.

  11. Any blanket policy that restricts police from meeting deadly force with deadly force is idiotic and manages to ignore decades of caselaw. While police departments may restrict officers in lots of ways- like by telling them they can’t contact homeland security to report illegal aliens, for example- telling them they can’t protect themselves with legally justified force is nuts and will probably result in more of the same caselaw later on.

  12. It is dangerous to tie the hands of police. This is just another attempt to create a utopia world that will get innocent people and the police killed. Using spike strips does not stop a 50 mile an hour get away car.

  13. Why not a blanket policy that states, “When dealing with law enforcement personnel you are required to follow their instructions and DO NOT, argue, scream, run away on foot, drive away, resist arrest. You will live to have your day in court, vice eternity being dead.”

    We have Public Service Announcements for other issues, why not how to behave while interacting with law enforcement?

  14. I think officers really need to adjust tactics but a ban on this type of thing is insane, particularly for an agency that deals with a lot of traffic incidents. I think for example an officer jumping in front of a vehicle and ordering it to stop and when it doesn’t using lethal force by dumping a mag is not a good tactic because even though the driver *should* have stopped the officer technically made a dangerous situation even more dangerous by jumping in front of a vehicle…depending on the severity of the crime I just can’t think lethal force after positioning yourself in front of a motor vehicle is something a reasonable minded person would do. If its some BS traffic violation where the person has a small amount of weed or illegal drugs I would argue they don’t represent anything more than a nuisance to LE officers and potentially society but not a threat to public safety….Now if its a career armed fleeing felon turned terrorist with a sign on the back of his vehicle that says “I’m on my way to pick up the yellow cake uranium to load into my nuclear bomb in the middle of a major city” then lethal force is totally justified.

    One situation I instantly thought of was an Illinois State Trooper on a traffic stop. He talks with the suspect but they are in an adjacent county where the guy committed some type of crime, the county had not yet put that into the system so this guy came back clean, trooper goes back to vehicle and waits for a bit, a Game Warden / Wild life deputy comes by to assist the trooper, and the suspect backs up hits the troopers vehicle, the trooper tries to get to cover but the suspect intentionally rams his vehicle and pins the troopers legs between the two cars and floor boards the vehicle, life or death, the suspect didn’t use a gun. The Game Warden shot the suspect to death because the Troopers life was in danger….now thats a clear cut use of force situation but the more policies you create the more hesitation becomes common place. I can probably think of a half a dozen scenarios where certain actions might not pass a blanket ban on the use of lethal force on moving vehicles.

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