Atlanta officer fired as shooting at cars by police gets new scrutiny

Deravis Caine Rogers, suspected of breaking into cars, drove away last month when an Atlanta police officer fired at his silver sedan, striking Rogers in the head. The 22-year-old died at Grady hours later and became the 12th of 13 Georgians shot and killed by police this year.

Atlanta police have confirmed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the agency has moved to terminate the young officer involved in Rogers’ shooting after an internal investigation determined it was not necessary.

“The force used was ruled excessive because there was no obvious threat made toward the officer,” said Sgt. Warren Pickard, an APD spokesman, who would not release the officer’s name but said he had less than five years experience.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s office are also investigating Rogers’ death. Howard would not discuss the case, but the GBI has said there was no weapon recovered from the vehicle that Rogers drove away in. The agency has been in touch with the officer’s attorney and is trying to set up an interview, said GBI spokesman Scott Dutton.

“That will be one of the final steps before we conclude the case and present it to the district attorney,” he said.

Police officers in Georgia rarely face discipline for shooting and killing civilians, a groundbreaking investigation by the AJC and WSB-TV found last year, so APD’s action July 1 to terminate the officer is by itself remarkable.

But Rogers’ death also highlights a law enforcement tactic that is receiving new attention as communities track police shootings more closely: should officers shoot at unarmed suspects in cars?

Rogers is the 14th Georgian fatally shot by police in a vehicle since 2010, despite the fact that he didn’t have a gun or other weapon that threatened the officers, according to AJC data. Twelve of the other shootings were all deemed justified after officers claimed the vehicle itself posed a threat and they had no choice but to shoot to protect themselves or the public; one is still open.

The GBI revised its use of force policy in June to strongly discourage agents from firing into moving vehicles. A few days earlier, San Francisco adopted a ban on officers firing into a moving vehicle unless occupants pose a threat with some other weapon. Philadelphia tightened its policy a couple years ago to restrict officers from firing into vehicles unless they are being fired upon.

Experts say firing into moving vehicles is dangerous, is ineffective to stop the vehicle and poses unnecessary risks for officers and the public. U.S. Justice Department guidelines have discouraged the practice and for years many major departments have restricted officers from firing into cars unless the occupants threaten them with a gun or some other weapon.

New York City was one of the first agencies to ban officers from shooting into vehicles more than four decades ago. Still, many departments across Georgia and the rest of the country don’t have policies or adequate training that address how to deal with suspects in cars.

“Do you think if you shoot someone you’re going to stop the vehicle?” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which advises departments on use of force issues and has discouraged the practice of shooting at moving vehicles. “Now you have an unguided missile. There’s just no good reason for it.”

Atlanta policy has broad exception

Atlanta Police are prohibited from firing their gun to stop a fleeing vehicle, but the department policy has a broad exception that says the restriction doesn’t apply if the use of force is “reasonable and necessary.” That leaves wide latitude for officer judgment and discretion.

Ken Allen played a significant role in loosening the policy. He was a young officer in 1994 when he responded to a complaint about drugs at a park in northeast Atlanta. As he and two other officers approached a Jeep and said, “Police,” the vehicle drove toward Allen.

He fired his handgun, hitting the driver and grazing a passenger. Allen said the driver jerked the car in a different direction after he was shot and Allen escaped without injury.

“There are circumstances that happen so quickly,” he said. “There are times you don’t have the ability to do anything but react. The (reaction) is to shoot the vehicle off of you or shoot the vehicle to stop its forward progress.”

APD, however, suspended him for three days because Allen’s bosses said he violated policy when he fired at the vehicle. Allen fought the suspension. In 1998, a judge agreed that the policy was too restrictive because it violated self-defense and arrest laws. His case, Allen v. the City of Atlanta, is still known within the department, which afterward changed its use-of-force policy to make it less restrictive.

Allen said more and better officer training needs to be done about the threat of vehicles and how to react, but he is against policies that completely ban all use of guns against vehicles. Sometimes, he said, that is an officer’s only option.

“There’s no doubt it saved my life,” said Allen, who retired in May after 30 years on the force, much of it active in the International Brotherhood of Police Officers union. “It certainly saved me from great injury. I would have taken the full impact of the vehicle.”

Most controversial shootings often involve cars

Some of the most controversial police shooting cases in recent Georgia history involved officers shooting unarmed motorists. In 2014, a federal jury awarded a $2.4 million settlement to the widow of a minister shot and killed five years earlier. Plainclothes officers in the midst of an undercover drug operation shot the Rev. Jonathan Ayers at a Toccoa convenience store when he drove away. Ayers, 28, believed he was about to be robbed.

Last year, Smyrna police fatally shot a Goodyear mechanic in the back as he tried to drive away in a Maserati when officers served him with a warrant. The case drew criticism and protests, but the officer was ultimately cleared in the death of Nicholas Thomas, 23, after prosecutors determined the car was used as a weapon.

The 2010 death of a young, unarmed mother in Brunswick is still drawing controversy and protests. Officers fired eight bullets through Caroline Small’s windshield, striking her in the head and face, after she led officers on a low-speed chase that ended on a residential street.

A GBI supervisor later called the killing the worst police shooting he’d ever investigated. Still, a local grand jury and a federal judge deemed the killing legal. The AJC/Channel 2 Action News investigation drew national attention to the case last year and exposed problems with the way it was handled by the Glynn County Police Department and the local district attorney.

“The death of a child is the hardest thing a parent can ever endure,” Karen McGehee, Small’s mother, wrote to Glynn County grand jurors June 23, seeking to have the case reopened. “Caroline’s death is extremely difficult for me because it was so unnecessary.”

Policies need to be reexamined, DA says

Thousands of departments nationwide still have inadequate policies for when officers can and can’t fire into moving vehicles, according to an investigation by The Guardian newspaper last September.

The Guardian found that at least 30 people had been shot and killed in the first eight months of last year in incidents where police claimed their moving vehicle was the weapon. In many of the cases, agencies had lax policies to guide officers.

Similarly, a Washington Post count of fatal police shootings last year found that of the nearly 1,000 fatal shootings in 2015, a quarter occurred during a pursuit — either on foot or in a vehicle.

Many law enforcement experts said that more restrictive pursuit policies could help lower the number of fatal shootings.

“Based upon the national data, I think it’s a good idea that our community examine these policies,” said Howard, the Fulton DA.

The GBI’s Keenan said part of the GBI policy change came when he started examining the shootings in Georgia that his agency investigates.

“There are instances where the officer has put himself or herself in jeopardy by putting themselves in front of a vehicle,” he said. “That can sometimes lead to a shooting incident.”

The GBI’s old policy was silent on shooting into vehicles. The new policy adopted June 27 doesn’t have the tight restrictions like New York or Philadelphia, but it does discourage shooting into vehicles. Keenan said improved data collection is necessary so agencies can adapt and operate more safely.

“Some of these tactics are outdated,” he said. “It’s rethinking the way we train officers to perform their duties to promote safety of officers and the public. That has to be an ongoing process.”

The GBI based its policy, in part, on a similar one in New Orleans. New Orleans’ policy restricts firing a weapon at a moving vehicle unless the occupants have a gun or another weapon besides the vehicle. Ronal Serpas, a former chief in Nashville and New Orleans, said when they implemented these polices they had a significant reduction in the number of officers shooting at vehicles.

“If you shoot the driver, the vehicle becomes a missile, unattended, it’s out of control,” said Serpas, a criminal justice professor at Loyola University New Orleans. “The training and evolution of this policy is (to) get out of the way. Let the car go. We can always do further investigation to find the person.”

Data reporter Jennifer Peebles contributed to this report.

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