The death of Jessie Hernandez, a seventeen-year-old shot and killed by Denver Police Department officers while she was behind the wheel of a stolen car, has resulted in a new focus on the DPD's approach regarding shooting into moving vehicles. Now, Westword has obtained a letter from Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell to Police Chief Robert White about a review of that policy. In the document, on view below, Mitchell calls shooting at moving vehicles a "potentially dangerous practice that can create significant public safety risks" and cites federal recommendations to numerous troubled departments to start doing things differently.
As we've reported, police are said to have been called to the scene at 2521 Newport Street early Monday, January 26, on a report of a suspicious vehicle; apparently, the occupants were playing music loudly. Officers Gabriel Jordan and Daniel Greene responded, and shortly thereafter, Hernandez was shot and killed, with Jordan suffering a broken leg. A witness insists that Jordan was struck by the car driven by Hernandez after triggers were pulled, not before -- and while police had previously insisted the opposite was true, Chief White was less definitive in a press conference yesterday, stressing that the matter is under investigation. A video of those remarks is on view below.
The DPD had previously released its rules in regard to shooting into moving vehicles. Here they are:
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.
This last emphasis on public safety is contradicted to some degree by what's happened in Denver of late. Here's an excerpt from the Independent Monitor's letter:
While the language of this exception may appear narrow, in the last seven months, there have been four officer-involved shootings involving DPD officers shooting at moving vehicles, with several of the shootings involving multiple officers firing. Two of those shootings resulted in death, and one of them occurred in an area crowded by officers and civilians, raising significant potential concerns about officer and bystander safety.
The incident in a crowded area to which Mitchell refers involved Ryan Ronquillo, who was shot and killed by police in July 2014 at a funeral home, where he was planning to attend the viewing of a deceased friend. A number of mourners were nearby as shots rang out.
Ronquillo was also driving a stolen car, and police say he hit several vehicles before driving straight at them. The Denver District Attorney's Office ruled that the shooting of Ronquillo was justified, even though his friends and family considered what took place murder.
Mitchell's letter doesn't take a position on the discharging-firearms-at-moving-vehicles policy; it's main purpose involves asking for White's assistance "in getting access to the materials required" for an evaluation of the tactic. But he doesn't shy away from raising potential negatives. Another excerpt:
It is difficult to shoot accurately into moving cars, and missed shots can hit bystanders and non-targets in a vehicle. In addition, if the driver of a moving vehicle that is travelling fast enough to threaten an officer is disabled or killed, the vehicle may go out out control, significantly increasing public peril. It is also potentially dangerous for officers. While DPD policy must empower officers to use any and all constitutionally sound tactics that will help them to remain safe, when an officer fires at a moving vehicle rather than attempting to get out of its path, the vehicle does not generally stop. Instead, a moving vehicle with a disabled driver will generally continue to travel towards the officer who may have failed to seize a short window of opportunity to get clear.
Additionally, Mitchell puts special emphasis on the agencies and organizations that have turned against regulations allowing officers to fire into moving vehicles:
In assessing use of force policies, the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ") has recommended that a number of police departments, including those of Albuquerque, Detroit and Cleveland, adopt policies that prohibit shooting at moving vehicles when the vehicles are the only threat to officer safety. Similarly, the Police Executive Research Forum ("PERF"), a premier policing think-tank, has recommended to multiple law enforcement departments that they adopt full prohibitions on this tactic when the vehicle is the only threat. Many other police departments around the U.S., including Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Miami Beach have chosen to fully prohibit this tactic, while others have not done so.
We should know soon whether Denver will be among those cities that continue to let officers fire into moving vehicles, even if momentum seems to be traveling in the opposite direction.
Below, see a 7News video about White's press conference, followed by Mitchell's letter to White.
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