Shooting at Moving Vehicles

Policy, equipment & tactical considerations


Jeff Chudwin | From the September 2006 Issue Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Waukesha, Wisc., Armed Robbery & Shootout

The Wales Bank in Waukesha, Wisc., was robbed by two gunmen wearing body armor and carrying .30-caliber rifles. During the ensuing pursuit, the father-son duo ambushed and murdered Waukesha Police Captain James Lutz. In the final moments, they hijacked a van and forced a citizen to drive them through a group of police units setting up containment. As the van was driven toward the police officers, the citizen driver was able to bail out. With the hostage clear of the van, officers fired on the offenders, who were firing on them. The offenders took control of the van and forced their way through. Heroic police action forced them to drive off the road and crash into a tree, and they were then taken into custody. The father and son were both convicted of murder and sentenced to life with possibility of parole after 100 years.

The officers actions were clearly within the law and the policy of the departments involved. The need to stop the offenders was obvious, and the threat to public safety if they escaped was extreme. The exchange of gunfire was caught on videotape and discussed at length around the country. Officers asked one another, What would we do? How would we get it done?

If this type of incident occurs in other towns and cities around the nation, officers firing on the escaping shooters would be in direct violation of written policy and may well be disciplined. Nationwide, agencies have adopted absolute language prohibiting officers from firing at or from moving vehicles. Such policy places officers who are under immediate threat of death by gunfire in the untenable position of risking death to comply. And if they fire in self-defense and/or to protect the public, they risk losing their job.

When I travel around the country teaching use-of-force and firearms training courses, I ask officers what their agency s policy is concerning shooting at or from moving vehicles. Many reply that they are prohibited by policy from acting. I then ask if, despite the written order, they would return fire in defense of their life, other officers and citizens if they are fired on in a drive-by shooting. Virtually all reply they would do so, but know they may suffer the effects of their actions long after the incident.

As we discuss officer safety and survival issues, it s clear absolute policy language that does not allow officers to actively and aggressively respond to high-level violent attacks is fundamentally flawed. This conflict between such agency policy and officer safety is unnecessary. To address this issue, agencies should simply take the same approach they take with all other difficult and dangerous job-related tasks: training, supervision/leadership and policy language that trusts the judgment and skills of the officer on the street.

Lawful, Understandable, Effective

Create policy that clearly informs the officer what the agency requires. Policy should not restrict officers more than state or federal law, or applicable court decisions. Don t base policy solely on agency/municipal liability concerns balance it with officer safety and survival needs. Policy should not force officers to stand down from needed actions to protect themselves or the public from injury or death.

Suggested policy language may include the following: Officers shall not shoot at or from a moving vehicle unless they reasonably believe there exists the use of force or threat of force likely to produce great bodily harm or death to the officer or another.

The newest patrol officer should be able to understand and carry out policy. But when use-of-force policies run more than a dozen pages and include unworkable absolutes, who can honestly believe their officers read, understood and are secure with the orders?

Bottom line: The most basic function of law enforcement is the safety and protection of the public. Policy must enhance both officer and citizen safety, not degrade it.

Equipment

Officers must understand the effectiveness and limitations of firearms in stopping violent offenders using autos as attack platforms. Street incidents and field tests have shown that police handguns, rifles or shotguns cannot quickly or reliably stop a vehicle. To stop a vehicle quickly requires incapacitating or disabling the driver. And, to stop an attack from vehicle occupants requires skilled firearms use and ammunition that will penetrate laminate safety glass and sheet metal.

In the Waukesha incident, many dozens of varied handgun rounds were fired at the gunmen in the van. Lack of penetration by the projectiles coupled with the gunmen s armor protected the gunmen; it took the high-speed impact with a tree to put an end to this terrible event.

The Gurnee, Ill., Shootout

A gunman randomly murders a citizen. The first-responding officer is shot and wounded. Three other officers arrive, and two deploy .223 carbines with 55-grain polymer-tipped bullets. One officer locates and fires multiple rounds at the shooter, who is behind the windshield of his stopped auto, firing on the officers. Though well-aimed, the officer s bullets disintegrate on the laminate safety glass and have no wounding effect. The shooter runs for a building and is killed by a shot to the head.

This incident demonstrates superior police response, but inadequate bullet performance.

Solution:Make knowledgeable firearms and ammo choices for patrol officers that are effective in anticipated street confrontations.

The history of officer-involved street shootings shows that many happen in and around autos.

At a training event, the officers involved in this shooting spoke to the Illinois Tactical Officers Association membership. Reviewing the offenders planning, weaponry and the officers response demonstrated that the officers responded with determination and bravery against determined violent criminals. However, they lacked the type of weapons and ammunition needed to incapacitate the offenders through the auto barrier.

In ammo and weapons testing after this incident, the 1-oz. 12-gauge shotgun slug effectively drove through auto glass and sheet metal while retaining both weight and structure to cause significant incapacitating wounds. Ballistic tests conducted by the FBI, DEA, the International Wound Ballistic Association and numerous other agencies show that bullet design, velocity and weight affect barrier penetration. Police-duty handgun calibers are marginal at best and require a bullet design that does not come apart after driving through the barriers.

The standard .223-caliber patrol rifle proves most capable when loaded with bonded or solid bullet types, such as the Federal Tactical or Corbon DPX bullets, and achieves the best performance against intermediate barriers found in vehicles. The Federal Tactical bonded .223 round is the choice for a number of federal agencies. Testing has illustrated that full-metal-jacket, soft-point and hollow-point .223 ammo breaks apart as the bullet drives through the hard materials, leaving little to nothing left of the bullet to have wounding value.

Tactics & Training

Some say we can avoid the issue of firing on a vehicle and occupants by getting out of the way or getting behind cover. But what does an officer do when there s no time to do so and/or no cover nearby? The successful tactical response against an immediate deadly force attack is to move off the line of force while directing effective fire on the threat. An aggressive counter response most often provides the key to success. Policy that prohibits this response is a roadmap to failure.

Knowledge of tactics, continued training and practice afford the highest probability of officer survival and success. Develop a training program that addresses the tactical issues and provides realistic training. Reinforce the lesson that officers must not move out in front of a vehicle driven by an escaping offender and then fire in self-defense. Incidents that require officers to fire on vehicle occupants should occur when the offenders create the highest level of danger, not the officer.

Supervision & Leadership

Leaders must lead by example in all matters. We trust officers to make life-saving decisions daily. With policy language, we must place trust in the judgment and skills of the officer on the street.

In the U.S. Marine Corps, it s said all Marines are first and foremost riflemen. In law enforcement, regardless of rank, every police officer is first and foremost a patrol officer. There can be no double standard or hidden meanings, no wink and a nod that all s well that ends well. Whether it s the chief or the probationary officer, all of us must be ready to answer the call. What tools and mindset we take to the fight will be based on the policy and training developed and fostered by our agency.

All policy is open to public inspection. The word on the page is the word we will be held to. Make sure your agency s policy will stand the test of the street and, if needed, the courtroom.




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Jeff ChudwinJeff Chudwin is the 2009 Law Officer Trainer of the Year, serves as chief of police for the Village of Olympia Fields, Ill.

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