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That Life-or-Death Second

March 07, 2004

A city that just buried a police officer killed when answering a domestic violence call doesn't have to be reminded that being a cop is a dangerous job. Every day, every shift, every encounter can turn deadly. But police officers also are given the enormous authority to kill civilians along with the terrible responsibility of deciding when deadly force is justified. They often have only seconds -- if that long -- to weigh risk against responsibility. That's why well-thought-out guidelines followed by rigorous training are critical.

The Los Angeles Police Department, in its policy manual, prohibits shooting at moving vehicles except as a last resort. That may come as a surprise to anyone who watched on live television two weeks ago as LAPD officers opened fire on a car backing toward them, killing the robbery suspect inside.

In the repeatedly aired videotape, it was hard to interpret the slowly moving car as an immediate threat to the officers or others' lives, which the Supreme Court has ruled is the only justification for using deadly force. The shooting is under investigation, and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton warned against jumping to conclusions. But given LAPD history, it's hard not to conclude that there is something wrong, if not with this specific shooting then with police policy, training or both.

A Times analysis last Sunday found that LAPD officers had fired on motorists more than 100 times since 1985, despite the prohibition. Internal investigations found about 60% of the incidents to be "in policy" because the officers believed their lives were in danger. It didn't matter that, in many cases, officers made errors before the shootings that increased the danger to themselves.

A wrongful-death lawsuit is pending against an officer whose 2002 shooting of a truck driver after a routine traffic stop was ruled in policy by Bratton, even though the chief faulted the officer for allowing the driver to return to his still-running truck and then jumping on the running board to try to stop him. Vehicle shootings have cost Los Angeles taxpayers millions of dollars in civil settlements and jury verdicts.

Police departments in Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit and other cities have banned shooting at moving vehicles. Bullets rarely stop speeding cars but can kill bystanders, either directly or by hitting the driver and leaving the vehicle to careen out of control. And because the academy does poorly at training LAPD recruits to exercise "all reasonable alternatives" -- including getting out of the way -- current policy puts officers at risk too.

After a series of pursuit-related crashes, Bratton last year imposed strict limits on the car chases that used to be a staple of local television, saying they posed too much danger. He says he is considering a similar ban on firing at moving vehicles. Last week's shooting is one more reason to do so.

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