DENVER (AP) – An independent city official who monitors the Denver Police Department said he had been investigating its policies and practices regarding shooting at moving vehicles before a 17-year-old girl was shot and killed.
Nicholas Mitchell made the investigation public on Tuesday saying such shootings pose unique safety risks to officers and the community.
The shooting of Jessica Hernandez on Monday was the fourth time in seven months that a Denver officer fired at a vehicle after perceiving it as a threat.
Police have said two officers fired after Hernandez drove a stolen car into one of them. A passenger in the car has disputed the official account, saying police opened fire before the vehicle struck the officer.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that officers may not use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect unless the person is believed to pose significant physical harm.
Still, policies vary among agencies, and some departments have banned or discouraged the practice.
The Albuquerque Police Department, for example, ordered officers in June to stop shooting at moving vehicles after a Justice Department report found a pattern of excessive force.
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The Cleveland Police Department changed its policy before federal investigators concluded its officers too often used unnecessary force.
In Denver, Mitchell’s analysis is looking at how national standards compare to the policy in Denver that allows officers to fire at moving cars if they have no other reasonable way to prevent death or serious injury.
The policy urges officers to try to move out of the way rather than fire. “An officer threatened by an oncoming vehicle shall, if feasible, move out of the way rather than discharging a firearm,” it says.
Mitchell is reviewing several cases in which Denver officers fired at cars they considered to be deadly weapons. Those cases include the fatal shooting of Ryan Ronquillo, 21, who officers said tried to hit them with his car outside a funeral home in July.
Prosecutors have declined to file charges in that case.
Experts say shooting and disabling a driver can send a car out of control.
“If you were to shoot at the driver you would have an unguided missile, basically,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which suggests departments forbid officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless there’s another deadly threat involved, such as a weapon.
The Denver Police Department welcomes Mitchell’s inquiry and identified the officers in the shooting of Hernandez as Daniel Greene, a 16-year-veteran, and Gabriel Jordan, a 9-year-veteran.
One of the officers suffered a leg injury.
Department spokesman Sonny Jackson declined to comment further on the case.
“The facts of the case will bear themselves out,” he said.
The passenger, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns, said Hernandez, her friend, lost control of the vehicle because she was unconscious after being shot.
Prosecutors promised a thorough probe of the shooting as a small group of angry protesters demanded swift answers and called for a special prosecutor to investigate the death.
The shooting occurred amid a national debate about police use of force fueled by racially charged episodes in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.
Investigators in the Denver case will be relying on witnesses and police accounts because the department has only just started to buy body cameras for its officers, and those involved were not yet outfitted. Denver doesn’t use in-car dashboard cameras, either, which experts consider a best practice for accountability but can be costly for larger departments.
The shooting happened after police determined a suspicious vehicle in an alley had been stolen, Chief Robert White said. The two officers opened fire after Hernandez drove into one of them as they approached the car on foot, police said.
The passenger said officers came up to the car from behind and fired four times into the driver’s side window as they stood on the side of the car, narrowly missing others inside.
Officers with their guns drawn then pulled people out of the car, including Hernandez, who they handcuffed and searched.
Both officers involved in the shooting have been placed on routine administrative leave pending the investigation.
– By Sadie Gurman, AP Writer
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