EDITORIAL: Aurora police take a shot in the dark with shooting-at-cars policy

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There’s real danger to everyone in a recent change in Aurora police policy that now allows discretion in whether and how a police officer should shoot at bad guys fleeing in cars.

Police caused a stir earlier this month when a change in the never-shoot-at-a-fleeing-car policy was modified, and rightfully so. For years Aurora, like most large and modern police forces across the country, had a strict policy about cops firing at getaway cars: Don’t. Not ever.

The policy is based on solid, time-honored research that shows that shooting Hollywood-movie style at bandits in cars endangers the officer, potentially innocent people inside the car, and plenty of innocent people outside the car. It’s pretty easy to see the logic here. Bad guy shoots at people in a grocery store parking lot. Officers arrive. Suspect throws a motorist out of the car and hijacks it. A brave cop jumps out of his squad car and holds his gun at the oncoming shooter as the stolen car barrels toward him. The cop starts shooting into the windshield to keep shooter from getting away. One police bullet gets the guy in the shoulder. Suddenly, the shooter hits the accelerator and not the brake, loses control of the car and careens into four innocent people at a bus stop, or a couple who saw what was happening and thought fast enough to get out of the way — until the officer shot the gunman and they inadvertently became targets.

The scenario is so real and so predictable, that police have forbidden such shootings because the outcome is almost never what it is when it plays out in the movies.

Shooting at fleeing cars has been an issue in the recent past here in Aurora, where an officer was fired, in part, for shooting at three teenagers. On March 20, 2011, former officer Chris Falco was called to the scene of an auto parts theft in an auto junkyard.  The teenagers were stealing parts and got caught by Falco and other cops. The likely thieves piled into a truck and refused to get out of it when officers sneaked up on them. The teenagers gunned it, nearly running over one officer as they tried to barrel out of the lot. Falco and another officer fired into the truck, violating Aurora’s policy. One boy was killed.

The reaction to shoot at the car is a natural one, but it’s one that must be contained, because bullets and the laws of physics don’t stop two tons of speeding automobile from illustrating the ultimate law: bodies in motion stay in motion — until they hit something, or someone.

The problem with what could be seen as a minor change in policy is that the very nature of officers shooting at moving cars is anything but well-considered. These shootings are reflexive rather than reasoned. The circumstances that the changed policy now allow for don’t happen in the real world. The reason the policy existed is that it’s impossible to make a considered decision in battle-field-like conditions. It’s just too dangerous.

What the new policy is intended to do is to allow an officer who, after the fact, has a compelling story about why he or she shot at a fleeing car to avoid automatic discipline. So if the officer takes the shot and nobody gets hurt, it’s no harm, no foul.

That’s the wrong answer to a legitimate problem. Even though the new policy states, don’t shoot — unless — it means, that under circumstances a cop deems justified, he or she can shoot. But the prudent policy exists because it’s impossible to coherently make that decision to shoot in just about every conceivable scenario. Almost.

So if the bad guy is alone in the car speeding away on an empty rural road intent on murdering lots of people and the cop shoots at the fleeing car from behind?

We get it. But instead, the policy needs to change to allow police officials flexibility in disciplining officers not just for shooting at moving cars, but in any action taken. The rules in how police must handle themselves and situations are there for good reasons, and in real life there could certainly be good reasons to make an exception to discipline — but not to police procedures.

Aurora needs to keep the don’t-shoot-at-moving-cars policy, but change its unwieldy discipline system.