Police are justified in shooting suspects from helicopters — as happened Friday during the pursuit of a wrong-way vehicle on the 215 Freeway in San Bernardino County — only in the most desperate situations and when other tactics might be more dangerous, experts said.
When a suspect is fleeing at high speed into oncoming traffic, spike strips are out of the question, and department rules often prohibit officers from pursuing the suspect by car, experts said. Shooting from a helicopter can be the only option remaining to prevent the likely harm to oncoming motorists, they said.
"It's actually a luxury because many departments don't have sophisticated air support units at their disposal," said Ed Obayashi, a deputy sheriff for Inyo County and special legal counsel to multiple law enforcement agencies. "We are talking about a suspect who is traveling inside what is essentially a 3,000-pound lethal projectile — and the officers need to stop him."
From a legal perspective, Obayashi said, "if the officer reasonably perceives an immediate threat to the public, that justifies reasonable force, including deadly force."
The use of the helicopter technique is so rare, however, that there is no published legal decision testing officers' ability to use the specific tactic, noted Obayashi, a former public defender who now advises law enforcement agencies on use-of-force issues.
Jodi Miller, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, was tight-lipped about many details of the shooting, declining to say how long the helicopter had been following the suspect or how close it was when the shots were fired.
Miller said the officer made the decision to fire because the suspect "had been threatening the safety of the public by traveling at a high rate of speed, running stop signs and red lights, narrowly missing pedestrians and traveling southbound on the northbound freeway." The suspect, who was wanted in connection with a home-invasion robbery, was identified by police as Nicholas Alan Johnson, 32, of Fontana. He died after being struck by the helicopter gunfire and then jumping out of his vehicle.
Deputies say they don't know whether Johnson died because of the gunfire or if he was fatally injured by his leap from the vehicle.
Sheriff's deputies had attempted to pull the man over during a traffic stop in Fontana about 12:50 p.m. but he fled. Within minutes, the pursuit from Fontana to San Bernardino reached speeds of more than 100 mph. Johnson then drove the wrong way onto the 215, Deputy Deon Filer said.
His Yukon sideswiped at least one vehicle during the chase. After Johnson jumped out of the SUV, it crashed into another SUV carrying three people, officials said. The pursuit ended near Palm Avenue and Kendall Drive.
The three people were taken to a hospital with unknown injuries, Sheriff's Department officials said. An adult male and a 13-year-old child were later released. An adult female was still hospitalized and "recovering," officials said.
Although police might be justified in using the tactic, it appears extremely rare. The most famous incident in Southern California occurred in 1982 and involved a bank robbery suspect.
According to Times reports at the time, Stephen Moreland Redd, 37, robbed a bank in Orange County and was pursued by authorities during a wild 110-mph chase and gun battle through three counties.
Police said Redd fired at officers with an automatic weapon in one hand while steering his car with the other. One officer was wounded.
He surrendered after a San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department deputy in a helicopter hovering 20 feet above the freeway fired on his car with a .357 Magnum pistol. Officials told The Times that the deputy waited for a break in freeway traffic before firing the shot, which hit Redd's rear-view mirror.
Retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's Cmdr. Charles "Sid" Heal said the tactic is rare but departments do practice it. "It is not has hard as some would think, but there are some adaptations," he said.
He said the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department have trained with sharpshooters for tactical assaults from helicopters.
Staff writer Shelby Grad contributed to this report.