When Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel plowed a 20-ton truck into a Bastille Day crowd last year in France, killing 84 people, Miami Beach police began to re-evaluate a policy that stopped officers from firing weapons into moving vehicles.
After seven more vehicles over the next seven months rammed crowds in terror attacks from Ohio State University to London and Spain, claiming 40 more lives and injuring hundreds of others, the city officially changed course.
Police in Miami Beach, one of the world’s top tourist destinations, would once again be permitted to fire weapons into moving vehicles, but only if an officer “reasonably believes” that a ramming attack is actively unfolding.
“I was thinking about [amending the policy] for a while. There has to be an exception to the rule,” Police Chief Dan Oates said.
As the city’s new police chief, it was Oates who pushed the deadly-force issue that halted shooting into vehicles back in 2014. The thought back then was that a vehicle hurtling forward with an incapacitated driver could do more harm than if a suspect got away.
But as terrorists adapted so did Miami Beach police.
On Sunday night, the result of that tactical change back in May likely played a part in the shooting death of 22-year-old Temple University student Cariann Hithon.
Hithon was shot and killed inside her car by a Miami Beach police officer on 12th Street between busy Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue. The BMW she was driving had come to a halt after sideswiping several cars, then unexpectedly jolted forward and rammed a Beach police officer standing in the roadway.
Officer David Cajuso, a two-year Miami Beach police veteran, is home and recovering after a brief hospital stay.
A cellphone video of the shooting shows Miami Beach police officer Michael Angulo fire several times into the driver’s side window of the BMW as the car moves forward along 12th Street after striking Cajuso. Angulo’s Internal Affairs file shows only one disciplinary action taken against him since his hiring in 2012.
It wasn’t clear Thursday why he was disciplined. Miami Beach did not comment on Sunday’s shooting, which is being investigated by Miami-Dade police.
The 2014 no-shoot policy in Miami Beach came with the recommendation of the Police Executive Research Forum and its executive director, Chuck Wexler. He said that change mirrored a move by New York City police back in 1972 that has saved the lives of pedestrians and police.
Still, Wexler realizes police departments must adapt as the type of terrorism threats change.
“The 1972 New York policy is still very relevant,” Wexler said. “But we also recognize in those type of potential terror situations, there needs to be some kind of sensitivity.”
The Miami Beach shooting death of a driver at the hands of law enforcement was the second in a week in South Florida. On Oct. 1, Lester Machado, 24, was killed in a hail of bullets by Hialeah police after officers said he repeatedly rammed police cars and drove at officers who were on foot.
Machado did not have a weapon. But unlike Miami Beach, Hialeah never had a policy in place that stopped officers from firing into moving vehicles. If Hialeah officers feel there is an imminent threat to life from a vehicle, they can open fire.
Hiealeah PD spokesman Carl Zogby said Machado was using his car as a deadly weapon and that officers “were in fear for the public’s safety.”
Miami Beach originally changed to a no-shoot policy in 2014, not long after Chief Oates came aboard and three years after the Memorial Day weekend shooting death of Raymond Herisse rocked the city.
Herisse, 22 at the time, drove down from Palm Beach County to take part in the party scene over Memorial Day in 2011. After being stopped near Collins and 16th Street by police, he fled in his Hyundai, crashing into vehicles, running up the sidewalk and side-swiping police on bike patrols.
Police from Miami Beach and Hialeah opened fire, pumping 116 bullets toward Herisse, 16 of them hitting the target and killing him. Also in the line of fire: four innocent bystanders who were badly injured by bullets.
Though all the officers who fired were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, the shooting played out nationally, stained the police department and forced change: By September 2014, Miami Beach police officers could no longer shoot into moving vehicles unless an officer or another person was immediately threatened with deadly force from something other than the vehicle.
The move shadowed policies in some other departments like the city of Miami and was mostly hailed by policing experts.
Until this past February, Miami-Dade police — one of the nation’s largest police departments — maintained a less restrictive policy, allowing officers to fire if they feared for their lives or believed others were facing an imminent threat.
Now, like Miami Beach, county police are only permitted to fire into a moving vehicle if they or the public are threatened by a weapon other than the vehicle. Also like Miami Beach, the county permits some leeway in its policy: An officer can fire into a moving vehicle if it is being used during an act of terror.
“That was the hesitation in ours because of everything that was going on,” said Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez. But in a situation when a vehicle is not being used during a terror attack, shooting “doesn’t stop the vehicle from moving forward. The best policy is to move out of the way.”
Miami Beach police decided it was finally time to alter its deadly force policy after a May attack by Khalid Massod, who drove an SUV into a crowd on a sidewalk along London’s Westminster Bridge, rammed a barrier outside of the Parliament house and stabbed a police officer to death and killed three others.
“We amended the policy to provide an exception to the rule based on what has happened overseas,” Oates said. The chief specifically referred to an August attack at the tourist destination La Rambla in Barcelona where a van rammed into a crowd and killed 13 people and injured more than 100 others.
Still, other local police departments in cities with robust tourist-based economies have managed to resist changing the deadly-force policy.
Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said the issue has been discussed, but he sees no need to amend the policy because it’s ultimately his decision whether or not the city finds an officer’s shooting justifiable. Any charges ultimately brought against an officer would come from the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.
Miami’s no-shoot policy was originally started under Chief John Timoney over a decade ago. But Timoney always gave himself an out, saying he’d justify a vehicular shooting if an officer had tire marks on his chest.
“Our policy is you will not shoot at or from a moving vehicle unless there is a weapon other than the vehicle,” Llanes said. “There is no need in my opinion to change the policy because the chief has the ultimate decision. The chief has latitude.”