Shooting at cars spurs most discipline by DPD

By: Brian D. Crecente
Cops shooting at cars spurred nearly all of the discipline handed out by the Denver Police Department for police shootings over the past decade.

Four of the five officers disciplined for police shootings from 1990 to 2000 shot at people whose only weapon was a car, even though such cases account for only 15 percent of the shootings that left people killed or injured.

A Rocky Mountain News analysis of police shootings in which someone was killed or wounded for that decade shows:

Police shot 13 unarmed drivers. Three died. Three passengers were wounded.
In every case, officers were cited not for the bullets that hit drivers or passengers but for shooting at the car itself, which is considered dangerous and violates department policy.
Cars were the second most common weapon used to threaten officers in police shootings. Guns were No.
1, involved in 46 incidents.
Police were hit by cars in three cases. No officers were seriously injured.
Denver taxpayers have paid about $877,000 in legal fees and settlements in four of the car-shooting cases.
Deputy Chief David Abrams says the department trains officers to get out of the way of cars.

“We tell them it’s like an alligator: The front end and the back end are dangerous,” he said. “Stay out of the way. And if you are on the side, why are you shooting?”

Police are trained to shoot at drivers only if someone is in danger of being run over, or if the driver committed a felony with a deadly weapon and is fleeing.

The Denver District Attorney’s Office also trains police to move to safety rather than fire. A presentation the DA gives to cadets sums it up:

Shooting the driver can make the vehicle more dangerous.

If the person were not in the vehicle … would you be justified in shooting them? Would you even be thinking about shooting them?

The fatal shooting of William Abeyta raises questions for critics about whether those guidelines were followed.

On Jan. 18, 1995, police chased a suspicious vehicle through the streets of Denver to a quiet residential neighborhood in southwest Harvey Park.

Once there, three officers killed a teen and wounded another when the stolen Jeep lumbered toward them on two flat tires. The Denver district attorney’s case file gives this account:

Officers Doug Stephens and Timothy Rusk started following the Jeep Cherokee about 2 a.m.

A few miles into the pursuit, the 16-year-old driver, William Abeyta, spun out in a dirt parking lot and sideswiped the patrol car.

Abeyta lost control of the Jeep again as he turned onto King Street and sideswiped a parked car.

He drove up King Street and then suddenly made a U-turn and was hit by one of the two pursuing patrol cars.

A second patrol car, carrying officers Angelo Abeita and Frank Harrington, tried to block Abeyta, but he rammed them.

He then drove a couple dozen more feet before coming to a stop.

Officers Stephens, Harrington and Abeita, thinking the chase was over, got out of their patrol cars and started walking to the front of the Jeep, preparing to catch the teens if they got out to run.

But that didn’t happen.

“I looked at the driver,” Abeita later told investigators. “He gunned the engine and the next thing I know, he’s coming right at me.”

Abeita said he drew his gun, moved to his left, shouted “Stop!” and fired once at Abeyta.

Harrington said he was about 15 feet in front of the Jeep when it started moving toward them.

He said he was afraid Stephens and Abeita were in front of the Jeep, so he fired three times, screaming at the driver to stop.

Stephens told investigators he was directly in front of the Jeep when it started moving toward him.

“I am hearing the engine racing,” he said. “He’s spinning out and accelerating; there’s no way he’s going to be stopped.

“I thought the Jeep was going to hit me if I didn’t shoot and I knew Angelo (Abeita) was in an even worse position than I was and the guy kept coming. I was yelling stop, stop, stop and the Jeep was right in front of me.”

But according to police investigators, all 12 of the shots that hit the vehicle came from the side or the back of the Jeep. Stephens’ last five shots riddled the back corner and rear of the Jeep. None of the officers was in front of the Jeep when they fired, according to the district attorney’s case file.

Three bullets hit Abeyta. One hit him in the back below his left shoulder, cut through his heart and a lung and killed him.

A single bullet hit the 16-year-old passenger, Michael Dennis, in his side. He survived.

The Jeep continued down the street, a dead teen at the wheel with his foot jammed on the gas pedal, and plowed into a fence post in front of a house near the end of the street before coming to a stop.

Sparks and smoke swirled around the Jeep as the officers approached it from behind. Officer Rusk, who had been trapped in his patrol car by the earlier collision, ran to the Jeep and turned off the engine.

He said Abeyta was sitting at the wheel, his eyes still open.

Dennis, the passenger, later told investigators that he had his hands thrust out the window and was yelling, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.” He said they were just trying to get away, not hit the officers.

The officers were cleared of criminal wrongdoing and the department’s Firearms Discharge Review Board found no policy violations.

The city paid about $265,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Abeyta’s family after a jury awarded them $400,000, according to the city attorney’s office.

Police Chief Gerry Whitman defends the officers, saying that Abeyta had demonstrated his willingness to attack them when he rammed their patrol cars.

But Denise DeForest, who heads the Public Safety Review Commission, said the commission is drafting a letter asking the chief to impose discipline.

“The commission was very concerned about it,” she said. “Concerned about the statements made by the officers and the shooting itself.”

She said the commission feels the three officers endangered each other and the passenger.

Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police use of force, says the Abeyta case is a good example of when not to shoot.

“This is exactly why you don’t shoot at vehicles,” he said. “You had an unguided missile that fortunately hit a pole instead of running into a house and killing three children in their bedroom.”

But Alpert doesn’t place the blame fully on the officers. He says preventing such shootings is about training, supervision and accountability.

“You don’t want officers concerned about making a decision when their life is in serious jeopardy,” he said. “But you also don’t want an officer shooting at a person who is trying to flee, not trying to attack them.”

This story original ran in the Rocky Mountain News on Oct. 26, 2001

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