Questioning Policies

Questioning Policies

Should Alexandria police officers fire at moving vehicles?

In the aftermath of Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel’s 52-page report on the Feb. 25 police shooting of a Springfield teenager, some are questioning the wisdom of the city’s directives outlining the use of force. Existing policy in Alexandria allows officers to shot at moving vehicles under certain circumstances. But policy in other jurisdictions — including Washington, D.C. and New York City — forbids officers from shooting at moving vehicles.

“It’s difficult to hit a moving target, and innocent people are too easily hit,” said Councilwoman Joyce Woodson. “Firing into a moving vehicle is the status quo. But the trend is moving away from that, and a lot of jurisdictions are adopting a policy that says officers should not fire at moving vehicles.”

Councilman Andrew Macdonald also said he would support changing the policy of allowing police officers to shoot at moving vehicles, saying that the practice is dangerous and futile.

“We need to do everything in power to make sure that we never have another tragedy like this,” Macdonald said. “What good could ever come from shooting at a moving vehicle? There’s got to be a better way.”

OFFICER CARL STOWE, acting as a security guard for a diner, went to the parking lot after being told a group had not paid its bill. Aaron Brown, 18, was a passenger in the 1995 Jeep Cherokee as it veered toward the officer.. According to Sengel’s report, Officer Stowe fired six shots — the third ripped through Brown’s heart, killing him at the scene. The fatal shot was fired at an angle that was perpendicular to vehicle, indicating that the officer was no longer in danger of being hit by the vehicle when he fired the deadly shot.

“While Stowe was not in the path of the jeep at the instant he fired the shot which killed Brown, the forensic evidence of the case and scientific studies of human reaction time established that Stowe could not reasonably have been expected to have reacted differently and stopped firing before he fired the fatal shot,” Segel concluded. “He was placed in a position of reasonable apprehension of death or serious injury by the subsequent actions of the driver of the jeep, and he was entitled to defend himself.”

But Sengel’s report was narrowly focused on whether or not the officer had violated the Virginia criminal code. The question of whether or not Officer Stowe acted within the policies of the Police Department has yet to be answered.

“Officers are trained never to fire at a moving vehicle, even if it appears that the vehicle is trying to run them down, unless the officer has first taken evasive action,” said Patrick Malone, an attorney representing the Brown family. “He had no reason to pull his gun and start firing.”

But Jim Lay, Stowe’s attorney, disagreed.

“Officer Stowe thought he was about to be run over,” Lay said. “When the administrative process has concluded, it will make clear that Officer Stowe performed in a manner that’s consistent with existing policies.”

THE SHOOTING was a shocking reminder of how quickly an everyday situation can become tragic. Sengel’s report included interviews with the waiter who said that Brown and his friends left without paying their bill, a passenger who implied that Officer Stowe moved the shell casings before investigators arrived and the accident-reconstruction specialist who concluded that the jeep was traveling 25 miles an hour when it crashed into several parked cars.

“We were doing a dance,” Stephen Smith, the 19-year-old driver, told investigators. “I guess that he saw that I was going, maybe if he heard the engine or if he saw how fast I was coming, which I didn’t realize I was coming, he thought, he might have thought his life was threatened.”

Stowe is a 13-year veteran of the Alexandria Police force. In the days leading up to the incident, he worked three 12-hour shifts. On Feb. 24, he worked from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. providing security to the Alexandria federal courthouse during the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. At 1 a.m. on Feb. 25, he reported for duty at the International House of Pancakes on the city’s west end. About three hours later, Stowe was in the path of the oncoming vehicle.

“It was apparent that he was just trying to run me over,” Stowe told investigators. “He kept turning in the direction I was moving.”

SENGEL CONCLUDED that the shooting was tragic and unintended, but not criminal. He declined to file charges, leaving it up to the Police Department to decide if the existing directives had been followed.

“Our Internal Investigations unit is still looking into this incident,” said Amy Bertsch, a public information officer for the Alexandria Police Department. “Certainly, a policy review could be one aspect of the investigation.”

Ultimately, City Council members will be faced with the decision about whether or not to change the city’s existing policy regarding shooting at moving vehicles.

“I think there’s support in Alexandria for changing the policy,” said Councilwoman Woodson, whose term ends next month. “I would certainly support changing the policy.”