There are a few things your mom tried to teach you as a kid. Don’t touch the hot iron, always have clean underwear on, and look both ways before crossing the street. That last one is probably the most important because touching a hot iron or wearing dirty underwear won’t kill you, yet walking out in front of a moving vehicle just might.
Every few weeks, video feeds show us officers standing in front of vehicles with guns drawn and shouting commands at the driver. Oftentimes, these officers are trying to stop whoever is in the car from driving away. Yet rarely does the originating enough meet the criteria to use deadly force to prevent escape.
Drunk drivers, drug dealers, auto thieves are all prone to try to escape arrest and jail time. The scene usually plays out that the person refuses to get out of the car and may try to put the vehicle in motion. In an attempt to stop the person from leaving, an officer may be inclined to step in front of the vehicle and order the person to stop, exit, and give up.
Drawing a line in the sand with your position and firearm is usually a bad idea, especially in front of a several thousand pound vehicle with a motivating criminal. Still, we see it over and over again where officers put themselves in front of vehicles in an attempt to persuade/intimidate/force the driver to stop. Your mom’s would not be very happy with you if she saw you do that.
The action of putting oneself in front of a potentially escape-driven motorist leaves them little options, they can either give up, or put the vehicle in motion. If they put the vehicle in motion, it leaves the officer with little options as well, get out of the way or use deadly force. Both of the officer’s options may be incredibly hindered by the lack of distance and response time, which usually results in officers opting for deadly force.
Positioning yourself in such a situation is a form of officer-created jeopardy. If you haven’t heard of this buzz word, you should, because many courts are very familiar with it, and a jury deciding your fate will become familiar with it as well. Officer-created jeopardy is a strategy that seeks to deem an officer’s force excessive or unreasonable because the officer put her or himself in a position where force was their only option.
Graham v. Connor tells us that force is objectively reasonable based on the severity of the crime, imminent threat, or continued resistance/escape. Looking at the severity of crime, a drug dealer, auto thieve, or traffic violator doesn’t fit into the same classification as an active shooter, serial killer, etc. Therefore, placing yourself in front of their vehicle to prevent escape is not essential. Continued resistance or escape is also tied to the offense and offender, which leaves us with imminent threat. Yes, standing in front of a motor vehicle would create an imminent threat to the officer, but by whose choice?
In the heat of the moment, officers are drawing lines in the sand by standing in the path of a vehicle with guns drawn, oftentimes over minor or moderate offenses. This is a lose-lose-lose scenario. You lose if the suspect gets away, you lose if you use deadly force and get criminally charged or sued, and you lose if you are injured or killed. So why do it? Is a traffic violator or auto thief worth your career or life?
Worse yet are the times when an officer fires at the vehicle who narrowly avoided hitting them, oftentimes shooting at the driver’s side of the vehicle, which demonstrates the officer was no longer in the direct path of getting struck. Some trainers will argue reaction time and perception cause the officer to fire seconds after the threat has passed. That might sit well with officers in a classroom, but sharp attorneys have ways to make sure such concepts do not sit well with juries.
Agencies have taken steps over the past few years to restrict or outright ban shooting at moving vehicles, unless the officer is about to be run over is the usual exception. Where agencies and trainers can improve upon that is by directing and training officers how not to put themselves in that situation where they are about to be run over. Officers need to be trained and expected how to avoid the temptation to put oneself between the suspect’s vehicle and their freedom. This goes back to what mom tried to warn us about, look both ways before crossing a street because putting yourself in front of a moving vehicle isn’t smart. Imagine a world where mom’s wrote policies for police officers, I bet we would have a lot less incidents.
About the Author
Brian Landers is a former law enforcement officer and current professor of criminal justice. He also serves as an expert consultant and witness for police use of force incidents throughout the United States. He can be reached at [email protected]