A Year Before Fatal Encounter, LMPD Changed Policy On Shooting At Moving Vehicles
The recent Louisville Metro Police shooting of Brian Allen Thurman has gotten attention as the first fatal police shooting since the city announced it would turn these investigations over to the Kentucky State Police.
But this is also the first time an LMPD officer has shot and killed someone in a moving car since the agency changed its policy on shootings involving moving vehicles late last year.
LMPD Officer Harry Seeders pulled Thurman over in the Portland neighborhood around 10:30 p.m. on November 22. The car Thurman was driving was reportedly stolen. Seeders’ body camera shows that Thurman turned off the car and showed Seeders his hands, but he then turned the car back on.
There was a commotion on the other side of the car — it sounds like a woman’s voice yelling — and Seeders approached the back of the car, now in reverse, yelling “stop.” Thurman hit him with the car, and Seeders began to fire his weapon into the Honda CR-V.
He fired five shots. Thurman died at University of Louisville Hospital that night. LMPD said a woman fled the scene.
Before November 2019, Seeders’ actions would have been measured against LMPD’s policy, which prohibited shooting at or from a moving vehicle unless returning gunfire from the car. Even then, the policy stressed, officers should only shoot at a moving vehicle “when it does not create an unreasonable risk of harm to innocent persons.”
But last year, LMPD changed that policy to allow police to shoot at or from moving vehicles in response to deadly force. A moving vehicle itself is not necessarily deadly force, the policy says, unless it’s being used in a “vehicle ramming attack” — anytime a driver is trying to injure or kill someone with their car.
LMPD spokesperson Sgt. John Bradley said the old policy may have been ambiguous when compared to the agency’s broader use of force policy, which allows an officer to use deadly force when they believe they or another person face an immediate threat of death or serious injury.
Many police departments have loosened their policies on shooting at moving vehicles in recent years, in response to terrorist attacks across Europe and the United States where cars or trucks were driven into crowds. But some experts say these rare events will never outweigh the risk to public safety of allowing police officers to shoot at moving vehicles.
“That opens the door to an officer saying, ‘I thought he was going to run me over so I shot him,’” said Geoffrey Alpert, who studies policing tactics at the University of South Carolina. “That’s the exact reason the prohibiting policy is in place, because that excuse was used far too often, and people that shouldn’t be dead are dead.”
Shooting Car Turns It Into 'Unguided Missile'
Since the agency was founded during city-county consolidation in 2003, LMPD forbade shooting at moving vehicles, except to return gunfire.
The former policy was in line with policing best practices from organizations like The Police Executive Research Forum, which is leading the city’s search for a new police chief. PERF recommends that police departments prohibit shooting at or from moving vehicles unless deadly force is being used against the officer — by a means other than the vehicle itself.
That’s in part because if a car is being used as a deadly weapon, shooting the driver may not actually make the situation safer for the officer, bystanders or any passengers.
“If you shoot me, and I’m driving the car, now you've turned it into an unguided missile,” said Alpert. “It could come to a stop, but just as easily it could run into a house and kill 10 people.”
Plus, there’s often a much simpler solution at hand, Alpert said: “The officer could take two steps backwards and get out of the way.”
The push to prohibit shooting at moving vehicles started in New York City in the 1970s. When the NYPD banned the practice, police shootings there declined more than 40%, and have continued to decline since.
John Timoney, the deputy commissioner of the NYPD at the time, directly attributed the decline to the policy change.
“If a cop can give a valid reason why he or she shot at a moving car (I have heard a few in my time), it can be treated as an exception to the rule,” Timoney told PERF. “But in the large majority of cases, a strict rule against shooting at cars will not only save lives, it will keep our cops out of trouble, out of the press, and God forbid, out of jail.”
Like Louisville, the NYPD has also loosened its policy in recent years to permit officers to shoot at moving vehicles that are being used as part of a ramming attack. But the manual specifies that this clause is meant to address an “extraordinary event” like when an officer needs to shoot at a moving vehicle “to terminate a mass casualty terrorist event.”
Both the NYPD and the Washington, D.C. police departments consider a ramming attack as a car being driven into a crowd or a building.
In Louisville, a ramming attack is anytime a car is, or aims to be, driven into a building, person, crowd or another vehicle.
When Thurman backed the vehicle toward Seeders, that could be construed as a ramming attack in Louisville, but it wouldn’t be in New York or Washington, D.C.
Bradley said LMPD considers a threat to one person’s life to be as significant as a mass casualty event, and doesn’t want to put a number on how many people must be in danger before the police are allowed to use deadly force against a moving vehicle.
LMPD policy does specify that officers should “avoid tactics that could place them in a position where a vehicle could be used as a weapon against them.”
New Policy Part Of Local Ordinance
The current LMPD policy isn’t just enshrined in the agency’s standard operating procedure. Metro Council has turned it into local ordinance — and some local leaders are pushing for it to become state law.
Council members Jessica Green and Brandon Coan sponsored a bill in October that codified some of LMPD’s existing use of force policies, including the policy on shooting at a moving vehicle. Coan said they worked with LMPD, the County Attorney and community members to reach consensus around eight use of force policies, from chokeholds to de-escalation to requiring officers to intervene if they witness excessive force.
There was a lot of debate about many of these measures, Coan said, but they found an easy consensus around the moving vehicles policy.
The language in the ordinance is effectively the same as what’s currently in LMPD’s policy: police officers can shoot at moving vehicles if the vehicle is “being used to strike a person, a crowd, another vehicle or a building or structure when capable of causing mass injuries, serious physical injuries, or the death of another person.”
The ordinance, which passed 15-10, is intended to ensure that a future police chief can not roll back these use of force policies.
“We are saying that the processes and procedures that are in place right now, will always be important and that's no matter if Robert Schroeder, Yvette Gentry or Mike Jones is the chief of police of the city of Louisville,” Green said during one of the council meetings. “In my mind, these things never need to change.”
If LMPD wanted to return to the old policy that said officers shouldn’t shoot into moving cars unless being fired on, Coan said, the Metro Council would probably have to change the ordinance to reflect that.
The policy as it's currently written also got the endorsement of the city’s Criminal Justice Commission. This group of Jefferson County criminal justice stakeholders included this policy on its slate of legislative proposals that it has endorsed for the upcoming legislative session.
That list of policies then goes to the Jefferson County delegation, as well as the chairs of the judiciary committee, to encourage them to file legislation to codify it in state law.
“It’s a policy that other police departments around the country have adopted, so it's not a new idea that originated with the criminal justice commission,” said Scott Furkin, the executive director of the Louisville Bar Association and chair of the legislative committee of the commission. “But it’s certainly one we found merit in.”
Correction: An LMPD officer killed Brian Allen Thurman on Nov. 22. The date was incorrect in a previous version.