The toll of pedestrians killed by terrorists using vehicles as indiscriminate weapons has prompted big-city police departments to reassess long-standing policies governing officers’ use of deadly force. In several U.S. cities, including the District of Columbia, blanket rules banning police from opening fire at moving vehicles have been relaxed, the idea being to prevent the sort of attacks that have cost dozens of lives in France, Germany, Canada and, just last year, Lower Manhattan.
The policy shifts look like common sense, but it’s also critical that police forces proceed with caution - and bear in mind the grim history that gave rise to the bans in the first place.
In New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities, prohibitions on officers opening fire on moving vehicles were adopted decades ago after investigations exposed repeated instances of unwarranted shootings. Those were especially common in cases involving stolen vehicles, whose occupants were sometimes unarmed.
After a 1998 series of articles by The Washington Post found that more people were fatally shot by police in the District than in any other big city, the department adopted new training techniques and policies. The result: Police shootings, which ran about 30 annually in the 1990s, plummeted by about 80 percent.
The new policies implemented then included a prohibition on shooting at moving cars except in cases in which the driver or a passenger opened fire first. That rule was similar to one applied by New York City in the early 1970s, which also helped produce a dramatic drop in officer-involved shootings.
The prohibitions at the time were amply justified.
The result of shootings by police at moving vehicles, not unlike vehicular chases by police, can easily be mayhem, especially in a city.
Still, the threat of terrorist attack presents clear new challenges to police departments and officers in the field, and the justification for new rules is apparent.
The Washington Post