Shooting at a moving car is almost always against Philadelphia police regulations but that hasn’t stopped officers from shooting 43 people in vehicles, killing eight of them, since 2002.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports eight out of 10 times that police shot into vehicles, officers were found to have violated department policy with the most common disciplinary action against them being only a simple reprimand.
Based on Internal Affairs documents gathered from civil litigation and interviews with attorneys, police, and community members, the Inquirer concludes Philadelphia tax payers have had to shell out over $5.8 million for police shootings involving moving vehicles over the last 13 years.
Officials have repeatedly attempted to curb the problem by narrowing the circumstances in which officers can fire their weapons. They have had little success.
In 2001, then-Commissioner John F. Timoney ordered police not to shoot fleeing people if they didn’t present a threat of imminent death or serious injury to officers or others.
Timoney also strengthened rules on shooting at cars so officers could not open fire unless occupants were threatening their lives with some deadly force other than the vehicle.
Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey introduced new rules in May 2014 after two undercover officers shot and critically wounded a pizza deliveryman, an incident still under investigation by the district attorney.
Ramsey prohibited officers from firing at a vehicle unless they themselves were under fire. But since then, police have shot people inside moving vehicles at least four times, wounding three.
In March, the Department of Justice made 91 recommendations to reduce police shootings in Philadelphia after Ramsey had requested a federal review in 2012.
The report found, among other things, that Philadelphia police took more than 250 days to complete the average shooting investigation. Police should try to complete the shooting investigations in 30 days, the Justice Department advised.
In an interview, Ramsey pledged to move as quickly as possible on the Justice Department reforms.
Officers must understand the consequences of their split-second decisions, Ramsey said. “By the time you pull the trigger, the car has moved and now your target is somebody else. There could be other occupants in the car, even children.”
Ramsey acknowledged the policy he implemented in 2014 requiring police to hold fire unless they themselves are under fire from someone in a vehicle, will take time to sink in.
“I’ve been around a long time,” he said. “I don’t expect anything to stop on a dime.”
Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist and national expert on the use of force, said officers must be trained to get out of the way of a moving vehicle first and shoot only as a last resort.
“If they hit the driver, they now have an unguided missile,” he said. “It risks everyone, all the civilians, and everyone around. This is why most departments have banned it.”
Another worry, Thomas Streed, a behavioral scientist and former San Diego homicide detective says, is contagion – “the first shot is an invitation for the other [officers] to open fire.”
Prior to the recent Inquirer report, data collected in a study by the Philadelphia Integrity and Accountability Office found that 53 of the 72 police shootings involving unarmed suspects in the city involved moving vehicles between 1998 and 2003.