When two undercover California Highway Patrol officers opened fire on a moving vehicle in Fullerton this weekend, they used a tactic that federal authorities and law enforcement experts consider dangerous and has been banned by police leaders in Los Angeles, New York and several other major U.S. cities
Law enforcement experts say there’s a simple reason why many agencies bar officers from shooting at moving cars, even if drivers appear to be attempting to ram them: Police service weapons are unlikely to stop a speeding vehicle, and firing a barrage of rounds might only serve to increase the danger faced by officers and bystanders if the driver is shot and unable to control the car.
“Only a fool thinks a … bullet is going to stop a 3,800 pound car. Nobody is really shooting at the vehicle, they’re shooting at the driver,” said Sid Heal, a retired L.A. County sheriff’s commander and chairman of strategy development for the National Tactical Officers Assn. “Then the natural thing is, what’s going to happen if you stop the driver? Is it going to prevent the attack? If not, it’s fruitless.”
The undercover CHP officers, part of a larger detail aimed at combating street racing over the holiday weekend, were monitoring a “sideshow” where truck drivers were performing dangerous burnouts on Sunday evening outside the Santa Fe Springs swap meet, police said. As uniformed officers closed in, 19-year-old Pedro Erik Villanueva, of Canoga Park, fled the area in a red Chevrolet Silverado pickup trick at speeds approaching 90 mph, the CHP has said.
The officers, driving an unmarked car, followed Villanueva for several miles into Fullerton and tried to stop him on North Pritchard Avenue, a residential cul-de-sac, about 10:50 p.m. Villanueva made a U-turn and drove toward the officers, who opened fire, according to Fullerton police.
Villanueva died at the scene. His 18-year-old passenger was shot in the arm, but is expected to survive. The passenger was not charged with a crime, according to a Fullerton police spokeswoman, who declined to identify him.
A CHP spokesman declined to comment on why the agency’s policy was different from other large law enforcement agencies, and referred further questions to the Fullerton Police Department, which is reviewing the shooting alongside the Orange County district attorney’s office.
Under the law, officers are allowed to use deadly force if they believe their lives, or the lives of others, are under imminent threat.
The officers who opened fire have not been identified, and a CHP spokesman was not sure of their status with the department on Tuesday.
On Monday, CHP officials said it was not clear if Villanueva knew he was being followed by police officers. The unmarked car was not outfitted with a dashboard camera because the officers were working undercover.
Friends of Villanueva questioned the officers’ decision to follow the teenager with an unmarked car, contending that he may not have known he was being pursued by police, but rather feared he was being robbed on the dead-end street.
“If a car is following me, it’s unmarked with no lights and doesn’t look like cops, I wouldn’t stop for them either,” said Mohammad Walid, an 18-year-old former classmate of Villanueva’s at Chatsworth High School.
Walid said the police account didn’t match up with what he knew of Villanueva, a baby-faced guitar aficionado and enthusiastic soccer player who was always upbeat.
“Everything he did made me want to do better myself,” Walid said.
The officers’ decision to fire at a moving car also drew scrutiny from law enforcement experts, who said many police agencies, including San Francisco, Chicago and Denver, forbid officers from shooting at vehicles moving toward them. Most of those agencies direct officers to try to get out of the way of a vehicle, unless those inside are attempting to use another form of deadly force against the officers, such as shooting at them.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, said shootings like the one in Fullerton have been considered tactically unsound since the 1970s. He said that force experts reassessed the merits of opening fire at moving vehicles after a 1972 analysis of shootings by New York police officers found that a high percentage involved shooting at vehicles. The change has helped keep officers and suspects safe, he said.
“We have 44 years worth of evidence from New York City that this policy irrefutably reduces officer injuries and injuries and deaths to suspects,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Justice has also advised police departments not to shoot at moving vehicles, even when a suspect is driving toward an officer.
“First, it is difficult to shoot at a moving car with accuracy. Missed shots can hit bystanders or others in the vehicle. Second, if the driver is disabled by the shot, the vehicle may become unguided, making it potentially more dangerous,” the agency wrote in a 2014 summary of an investigation into the Cleveland Police Department’s use of force.
Some police agencies, however, do allow officers to shoot at moving vehicles. Though the California Department of Justice warns that shots fired at moving vehicles “are rarely effective” and suggests officers should move out of the way of advancing vehicles, the policy says it is not intended to stop officers from using deadly force “when it is reasonably perceived that the vehicle is being used as a weapon.”
The San Diego Police Department’s policy resembles the state guidelines. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department does not expressly forbid deputies from shooting at moving vehicles when they are being used as weapons either, but Capt. Christopher Reed, an agency spokesman, said the department would prefer that deputies take cover instead. The policy is also currently under review, Reed said.
Policies prohibiting officers from shooting at moving vehicles have been criticized by other force experts. David G. Bolgiano, a former Baltimore police officer who now works as an attorney specializing in force cases, co-wrote a paper that called such policies “completely out of touch with the realities of deadly assaults on police or innocent citizens.”
“This ignores what should be a blinding flash of the obvious: A 4,000-pound vehicle used as an instrumentality or weapon possesses many times more ‘knockdown’ power than any handgun or rifle,” Bolgiano wrote with another attorney, Douglas R. Mitchell. “So, why should an officer be precluded from shooting a suspect who is trying to run down the officer or innocent other?”
Heal, the retired L.A. County sheriff’s commander, said that line of thinking assumes that shooting the driver would prevent a crash.
“All you can do is take an aimed missile and turn it into an unaimed missile,” he said. “It doesn’t really stop the vehicle.”
Although questions about the officers’ tactics continue to swirl, friends of Villanueva were struggling to comprehend how the rail-thin, wide-eyed teen wound up killed by police officers.
Maxwell Zarifian, who also played soccer with Villanueva in high school, remembered him as a polite teammate who often stayed late to aid other players on the practice pitch. Villanueva’s Facebook profile is filled with pictures of him sitting in the red pickup truck he was driving Sunday night, but friends hoped he would be remembered for more than his potential involvement in street racing.
The teen always seemed cheerful, even when talking about troubles at home or money struggles, said Zarifian, who said he could not believe Villanueva would ever intentionally attack a police officer.
“Pedro wouldn’t have charged at police with his truck if he knew that they were police,” he said. “What was he supposed to do if he didn’t know what was going on?”