Why Do Police Keep Shooting Into Moving Cars?

The killing of Andrew Brown Jr. highlights a problem departments have struggled to address.

Collage of car with red dots
Fairfax Media Archives / Getty / The Atlantic

When Pasquotank County, North Carolina, sheriff’s deputies went to serve an arrest warrant on drug charges on Andrew Brown Jr. on the morning of April 21, they found him in his car in his driveway in Elizabeth City. As the deputies leaped out of a truck and ran toward Brown, he reversed his car away from them. The deputies surrounded the car, weapons drawn, and shouted at Brown to surrender, but he tried to drive away. Three officers opened fire, fatally striking Brown, as his car careened away before colliding with a parked truck.

On Tuesday, District Attorney Andrew Womble announced that he had concluded the shooting was justified, and that he would not press charges against any of the deputies. As a matter of law, Womble’s judgment is probably accurate: Statutes and courts give police broad discretion to act in a way they feel is “reasonable” in the moment. As a matter of practice, however, the case seems like yet another needless death caused by officers firing at a moving car.

Police leaders realized decades ago that firing into moving vehicles was a recipe for disaster. The idea is intuitive: Officers are unlikely to hit their target—indeed, only two of the 14 bullets fired at Brown hit him—and might strike bystanders. The results can be even worse if their aim is good.

“If you actually hit the driver and are successful, now you’ve got an unguided missile,” Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police use of force, told me. “It’s just as likely if you shoot someone that a foot’s going to go on the gas as on the brake.”

That’s what happened with Brown. Many departments prohibit or discourage firing into moving vehicles, including the Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office.

Yet police keep firing at cars. On April 11, as jurors nearby in Minneapolis heard the trial of Derek Chauvin, police in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, pulled over 20-year-old Daunte Wright. They discovered that Wright had an outstanding warrant, and attempted to arrest him. As Wright wriggled free of handcuffs, dove into his car, and began to drive away, Officer Kim Potter pointed her pistol at Wright, then fired a shot. After Potter shot Wright, his car went a short distance before striking another car, as well as a barrier. He died at the scene. While the Brooklyn Center police chief says he believes that Potter intended to fire her Taser rather than her pistol, the city’s use-of-force policy says that less lethal weapons should usually not be used on people operating vehicles, for fear of collateral injuries.

Brown and Wright are just the latest in a grim litany. In 2015, Officer Ray Tensing shot and killed Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop near Cincinnati. When DuBose tried to drive away, Tensing opened fire. Tensing was charged with murder, but claimed that DuBose was dragging his arm, and a jury deadlocked on the case. Two years later, outside Dallas, Officer Roy Oliver shot and killed Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old boy riding in the passenger seat of a car that police tried to prevent from leaving a party. Police initially said the car was driving toward them, but body-camera footage showed that was false. Oliver was convicted of murder the following year. In 2019, Customs and Border Protection wounded an American at a border crossing in Nogales, Arizona.

New examples pop up in headlines every few weeks. In March, an officer in Berkeley, California, was fired for shooting at a fleeing car, and a Chesilhurst, New Jersey, officer was charged after he tased a man on a moving ATV, against state policy, leading to the driver’s concussion and several broken bones. The same month, a Los Angeles police officer opened fire on a fleeing driver. The LAPD said Travis Elster had tried to hit the officer, but video evidence is inconclusive at best, and suggests that Elster was trying to swerve around him. In February, a New York Police Department officer opened fire after a driver closed a window on his hand.

We don’t know how often these incidents happen, because there’s no standard tracking of them, but The Washington Post’s database of police shootings records more than 1,000 fatal shootings of people fleeing in cars since 2015. That tally is only gesturally helpful—it excludes nonfatal cases, includes some cases that may be justified under departmental rules, and may miss other instances—but it demonstrates that shootings continue despite rules meant to prevent them, and often with lethal consequences.

In many cases, officers who shoot at moving cars may be acting according to the broad leeway the law grants them, but that’s not the only consideration, says Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit that studies and consults on law enforcement.

“There’s a big difference between whether they were justified—that’s one standard—and Could have this been avoided? That’s a different standard,” he told me Tuesday. “Those are two different questions.”

For most of the country’s history, police were permitted to use deadly force against a fleeing felony suspect, a license inherited from English common law. Over time, courts, legislators, and departments all restricted the use of deadly force, culminating in the 1985 Supreme Court decision Tennessee v. Garner, which found that an officer can’t use deadly force on a fleeing suspect unless the suspect presents a serious danger to the officer or others. While acknowledging that it is “no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes,” Justice Byron White wrote for the Court, “it is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape.”

Police departments had already begun to rein in their practices, especially on shooting at vehicles. In 1972, a New York cop shot and killed Ricky Bodden, a 10-year-old riding in a stolen car. Following protests, the NYPD changed its policy to ban officers from shooting from or at moving vehicles unless the person in a vehicle was using or threatening deadly force—not including the vehicle. The change saved lives immediately, and it has gradually been adopted by many other major departments around the nation.

Both the collaborative National Consensus Discussion Paper on Use of Force and PERF recommend adopting a rule echoing the NYPD’s. Many departments have reported drops in police shootings since implementing such policies, though isolating a single cause is difficult. As of 2011, roughly a quarter of departments in the United States had also banned or discouraged using Tasers and similar devices against people in vehicles. (High-speed chases have also been restricted, for many of the same reasons and with a similar reduction in deaths, not only of suspects but also of officers and bystanders.)

But in most cases, these policy changes do not carry the force of law, and besides, reduction is not elimination. Shootings keep happening, and people keep dying. One major factor is that officers continue to view cars and trucks as a threat.

“Police officers are trained that if somebody's in a vehicle, you’re trying to stop them, and they’re noncompliant, the car is a weapon, and therefore this makes the person armed,” says John P. Gross, a clinical associate law professor at the University of Wisconsin who has written on police and vehicles.

That’s how Womble explained his decision not to bring any charges in the Andrew Brown case. Although Brown had a long rap sheet, including assault and assault with a deadly weapon, police did not expect him to be armed, and they didn’t find any weapons at the scene. But Brown’s car reportedly bumped the deputies, and he drove toward them during the attempted arrest. That made the car itself a deadly weapon under the law. (Though Womble showed short clips of body-cam footage at a press conference, a judge has refused to release the full tapes, despite requests from Brown’s family, lawyers, and the sheriff. As a result, independently assessing the evidence is difficult.) Womble said that although he doesn’t believe Brown sought to hit an officer, the intention didn’t matter to his legal analysis.

Officers sometimes find themselves in the way of a fleeing suspect, but unless no escape route exists, experts say that’s usually not a good excuse for opening fire. “All the officer has to do is step out of the way,” Alpert said. “I’ve seen an officer who was trying to get out of the way and fell on the ground. But those are the kinds of few-and-far-between emergencies. When you start seeing bullets in the back of cars and through back windows, it becomes unreasonable.”

Wexler said that deputies’ decision to surround Brown’s car was a tactical mistake, because it placed them in harm’s way. Deputies were aware that Brown had a history of resisting arrest, Womble said during his press conference. “They could not simply let him go, as has been suggested,” he said. “The officers’ duty was to take Mr. Brown into custody.”

But the deputies’ duty to arrest Brown is not the same as their duty to arrest Brown immediately. By putting themselves in the path of his car and then opening fire, the officers risked their own lives, risked injury or death to bystanders, and ended Brown’s life, all for a warrant that could have been served the next day. Authorities knew where he lived—the confrontation occurred at his house—and they had even staked out his residence the night before. (Brown was elsewhere, and reportedly said he believed that police were following him.)

“What is important? The sanctity of human life. Why is that important? Shooting someone in their car over drugs is not proportionate to the crime,” Wexler said. “When the district attorney says they were duty-bound to take him in, we would say, ‘Could you get him the next day? Is it necessary to kill this person?’”

The deputies will not face criminal charges, but they could still face internal discipline. The sheriff’s office’s use-of-force policy discourages firing at moving vehicles and instructs officers to move out of the way, but it leaves far more wiggle room than the PERF recommendation: “A deputy should only discharge a firearm at a moving vehicle or its occupants when the deputy reasonably believes there are no other reasonable means available to avert the imminent threat of the vehicle, or if deadly force other than the vehicle is directed at the deputy or others.”

Brown’s death was somewhat unusual in that deputies were arriving at his house to serve a warrant, whereas police shootings typically occur during traffic stops. Officers are on edge during such stops. Because the United States is saturated with guns, a cop never knows who might be carrying a weapon. Traffic stops can be dangerous. In 2019, for example, more officers died during traffic stops than in any other category of intentional deaths in the FBI’s tracker. Statistically, however, the odds of this happening are tiny: Six officers were killed in traffic stops in 2019, out of nearly 20 million stops conducted. Nonetheless, officers sometimes conduct traffic stops with their hands on their gun, which makes it more likely that they might pull the trigger and fire if a stop turns chaotic. The body-cam footage of the shooting of Daunte Wright doesn’t make clear when Potter put her hand on her gun, but she appears to draw it as he gets back into his car. (Even if she believed that she was reaching for her Taser, Potter would appear to lack justification for tasing Wright under the circumstances.)

Officers could keep a hand on their gun without shooting someone, but that requires them to act with good judgment, which isn’t always the case.

“It’s a lack of training,” Alpert said. “It’s a lack of thinking. It’s a lack of decision making.”

Police may also lash out at suspects who are resisting arrest, as Wright and Brown were. This phenomenon is often referred to as “contempt of cop”: Officers expect immediate and complete compliance, and if they don’t get it, they can become angry and resort to excessive force or other abuses. That, too, reflects a lack of training and lack of selectiveness by police agencies, Alpert said.

“You get your feelings hurt, you get challenged—you don’t need to be carrying a gun out on the street,” he said. “All of us have people make us feel bad, but we don’t have guns to respond. The police do, and they need to understand that. There needs to be an adult in the room, and the idiot suspect usually isn’t that.”

The need for an adult is the rub here, as it is with so many police practices. A combination of evidence-based and commonsense reforms have managed to drastically reduce the chances that an officer will fire at a car with disastrous results. But figuring out how to eliminate the horrifying cases that remain will likely prove harder.