Reasonable Policies and Tactical Training Needed to Respond to Terrorist Ramming Attacks

For those of us in the law enforcement community in the United States, the issue of use of force when dealing with moving vehicles has been a source of considerable debate since it prominently came to light in the 1970s. And it is even more contentious today.

Numerous “expert panels,” police associations, major city police departments, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the courts have weighed in on this issue. Many of these groups have advocated not shooting at or from moving vehicles unless deadly physical force is being used against the officer or another person, by means other than the moving vehicle. Those who advocate this approach state unequivocally that law enforcement agencies must prohibit shooting at vehicles.

Many of these experts claim that shooting the driver, causing the driver’s incapacitation or death, or shooting out the tires or critical engine components, won’t stop a vehicle being used as a weapon. However, in researching this topic and looking at these claims, I found very few references to scientific or statistical studies of actual vehicle shooting incidents to support their beliefs.

‘Where Reasonably Possible …’

At CrimeCenter, we understand that use of force is an unavoidable part of policing, and one that is under increasing public scrutiny. That’s why we developed Use of Force and OIS Management software that empowers sophisticated internal investigations and manages risk while preparing for the requirement of NIBRS reporting of use of force and officer killed or assaulted incidents. With national data collecting a better understanding of incidents involving vehicles may develop.

As an experienced, certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst and retired First Grade Detective from the New York City Police Department, I also understand the importance of having reasonable policies and tactical training in place for officers who are putting their lives on the line every day.

That’s why I disagree with imposing a total prohibition on officers shooting at moving vehicles. I am not advocating an open season on vehicles. Nor am I advocating having no policy whatsoever. But there will be incidents where a vehicle is being used as a weapon and, to save lives an officer will be forced to violate the policy prohibiting shooting at a vehicle. Upon an objective, and fair investigation of such incidents, I am convinced an officer’s action could be deemed reasonable and justifiable. For this reason, I suggest less restrictive verbiage, such as, “where reasonably possible, avoid …” or something similar, as opposed to “shall not.”

Making matters worse, a police department’s policy may be more restrictive than a state’s use of force law, which causes confusion to the officers and the public alike—especially in high-profile cases.

In developing guidelines, we also must acknowledge that there are differences in policing major metropolitan cities versus policing rural communities. Among those differences are: the size of the agency; solo or two-person patrol units; density of the population; geographical size of the jurisdiction; time of day; lighting; cover and concealment; response times of backup units; availability of nonlethal vehicle immobilization options; funding; training; and now, terrorism—just to name a few.

Practice Like You Play

I would like to focus on the last issue I listed, terrorism, and its impact on changing the policies of shooting at moving vehicles. As members of the law enforcement community are aware, terrorists have moved away from structured, sophisticated attacks carried out by core terrorist organizations, to unstructured, simple attacks carried out by unaffiliated, inspired terrorists. The tactic of choice is to utilize vehicles—trucks and cars—to conduct what have been called “ramming attacks.” We have seen these attacks occur at the University of North Carolina; Ohio State University; Nice and Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; Israel; London, England; New York City, and so on.

Now, many major city police departments are modifying their vehicle use of force policies and are specifically training their officers on how to differentiate a “terrorist ramming attack” from other motor vehicle incidents. Officers also are receiving training on tactics to employ, including: avoiding cross fires, identifying primary and secondary targets, and what to do once the vehicle has been stopped. In addition, the training explains that the “shall not” policy has a caveat for “exigent or exceptional circumstances,” which include stopping a “vehicle ramming attack.” However, actions taken by an officer still must meet the “objectively reasonable” standard.

The biggest issue, as I see it, is tactical training. For the non-terrorist attack crime of utilizing a vehicle as a weapon, all law enforcement agencies should be teaching tactics that give officers the best options, where possible, to avoid putting themselves in a position where the only reasonable option is to shoot. Before you can say it, I know—it’s easier said than done. But that doesn’t change the fact that all law enforcement agencies are obligated to train and equip their officers with all the necessary tools and knowledge to follow their agencies’ policies.

That said, let’s jump into training officers to shoot at ramming attack vehicles. As I interact with law enforcement agencies all over the country, I have not currently seen or heard of any updates to agencies’ firearms training to respond to that threat. If your agency is now establishing policies to shoot at ramming attack vehicles, then training your officers to shoot at stationary targets and shoot from stationary positions is not going to cut it. To use the old sports adage, you must practice like you play. That means making your officers confident and proficient at performing this task that they may have to perform to conform to your agency’s policy.

In addition, law enforcement agencies might want to rethink their choice of ammo and select one properly suited to meet this possible scenario.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but it is my hope that I have stimulated the law enforcement community’s thinking on these issues.

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