Crime

Recent incidents reignite debate on police shooting into moving vehicles

Florida Highway Patrol fatal shooting in Miami Gardens

A Florida Highway Patrol spokesman discusses the Chevron gas station surveillance video footage showing a trooper firing at a driver who was trying to get away in Miami Gardens on Wednesday, May 25, 2016.
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A Florida Highway Patrol spokesman discusses the Chevron gas station surveillance video footage showing a trooper firing at a driver who was trying to get away in Miami Gardens on Wednesday, May 25, 2016.

Law enforcement officers from two different agencies found themselves in precarious positions in the past two weeks and ended up shooting into moving vehicles. The consequences were painful, and in one case, grave.

The driver of one of the vehicles was killed by gunfire. A passenger in his car and a woman in another vehicle were injured when the man who was shot lost control of his car and crashed. In another incident, police bullets missed the driver, but grazed a passenger’s head and struck a young girl in the wrist.

In both shootings the injured passengers may have had nothing to do with a crime. The shootings, at the start and end of Memorial Day weekend, reignited a debate about the dangers and effectiveness of police using deadly force to subdue the driver of a moving vehicle.

Some cops see it as a last ditch effort to save themselves from a powerful speeding projectile. Others in law enforcement believe more harm than good can come from the act, with a car careening out of control or innocents being injured.

Departments like Miami and Miami Beach have adopted policies that only allow officers to fire into moving vehicles if a weapon other than a car is visible and a threat. Other departments have been slow to change and still allow officers to fire into moving vehicles if they perceive the vehicle as a threat to them or bystanders.

For those who have reformed their use-of-force policy, the results have been stark.

Miami adopted the change after riots erupted when police officer William Lozano was cleared by a jury in the 1989 shooting death of motorcyclist Clement Lloyd in Overtown. Since then, no one has been shot and killed in a moving vehicle by a Miami police officer and no officers have suffered serious injuries from being hit by a moving vehicle.

“The concern,” said former Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa, “is that officers have one less tool to use. But if you shoot someone in a car, instead of worrying about a bullet, now you have a 3,000-pound bullet out of control. It’s better to catch the guy later than to have another disaster.”

Miami Beach adopted the same policy as Miami in 2014. The change was spurred by recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum, which studied a 2011 Miami Beach case that gained national attention and put an unkind light on the department.

In 2011, Miami Beach and Hialeah police on patrol on Ocean Drive during a crammed Memorial Day weekend fired 116 bullets into Raymond Herisse’s slowly careening Hyundai, killing the driver and badly injuring four innocent bystanders. The officers were eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, but some of the victims sued and won damages.

The two vehicles that were shot into by police since May 25 were moving at only a few miles an hour. That’s fast enough to badly injure an officer, but probably slow enough for a cop to jump out of the way.

Chuck Wexler, who heads up one of the nation’s leading police consulting groups, said too many bad things can happen when an officer fires into a moving vehicle. The car can careen out of control and cause major damage if the driver is struck, or innocents can be badly injured or killed by a bullet or a careening vehicle. His group was instrumental in the change made on Miami Beach.

“There’s one policy we’re ironclad on,” said Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “Do not shoot into moving vehicles. No good can come from an officer standing in front of a car.”

Miami-Dade police and the Florida Highway Patrol — the agencies involved in the most recent vehicle shoots — have been resistant to wholesale change, though Miami-Dade has tinkered with its policy in recent years.

Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez said his agency tweaked its policy about five years ago. Officers are now trained to get out of the way of a moving vehicle and only shoot as a last resort. A review of the department’s deadly-force policy is also under way by an outside agency, he said.

“The act of fleeing shouldn’t be the reason for firing at a car,” the director said. “You’re only allowed when the vehicle is being used as a weapon and there is no possibility of escape. Officers are trained not to put themselves in a bad spot.”

The FHP chose not to respond to questions for this story. The agency provided its use of force policy, which states that a trooper can use deadly force if he or she is facing “imminent death or great bodily harm.”

The two most recent instances of firing into moving vehicles took place at an intersection in Miami Gardens on May 25 and at a Burger King parking lot in the same city on Memorial Day.

In the first case, Florida Highway Patrol trooper Misael Diaz said he was following a Nissan Altima driven by Doll Pierre-Louis that was going over the speed limit. When Pierre-Louis came to a stop at the intersection of Northwest 167th Street and 37th Avenue behind a white car, Diaz pulled his motorcycle up alongside and got off the bike.

A Florida Highway Patrol spokesman discusses the Chevron gas station surveillance video footage showing a trooper firing at a driver who was trying to get away in Miami Gardens on Wednesday, May 25, 2016.

Then, for some reason that hasn’t been explained, Diaz positioned himself between the front end of Pierre-Louis’ car and the rear bumper of the white car. When Pierre-Louis slowly backed up the Altima, Diaz — fearing he was going to get crushed if the car lurched forward — jumped on its hood. Then, as Pierre-Louis tried to make a U-turn with Diaz still clinging to the hood, the officer fired into the front windshield and jumped off.

Pierre-Louis, 24, managed to steer the car about eight blocks north, until he lost control and hit an SUV head-on. Pierre-Louis died. Also injured were Markisha Fenelon, 20, a passenger in the Altima Pierre-Louis was driving. Emilie Bastien, 60, who was driving the SUV that Pierre-Louis hit, was also injured.

Pierre-Louis has a series of arrests by several agencies dating back to 2007 that include strong-arm robbery, grand theft and drug possession. The family has hired an attorney, Marwan Porter, and said it plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the FHP.

“All too often deadly force is used as the first option when it should be used as the last option,” Porter said. “This was an extremely unnecessary and unfortunate incident that could have been resolved differently and avoided.”

In the second recent incident, on Monday, two Miami-Dade patrol cars pinned in a stolen Mercedes SUV in a Burger King parking lot at Northwest 179th Street and 27th Avenue. When driver Tyrese Johnson, 17, tried to flee the scene, hitting the open front passenger door of the patrol vehicle in front, officers fired.

Then on Monday, two Miami-Dade patrol cars pinned in a stolen Mercedes SUV in a Burger King parking lot at Northwest 179th Street and 27th Avenue. When driver Tyrese Johnson, 17, tried to flee the scene, hitting the open front passenger door of the patrol vehicle in front, officers fired.

Johnson wasn’t hurt. But a bullet grazed the head of 17-year-old Keimari Dugue, and another bullet hit 15-year-old Jasmine Sairras in the wrist. Neither had life-threatening injuries. But both told police they had no idea Johnson was in a stolen car. Police sources said Johnson supported their claim.

Johnson, a serial car thief, arrested at least four times in the past five months while in a stolen vehicle, was charged with grand theft and and the attempted murder of a police officer.

The Memorial Day shooting was one of several into moving vehicles by county cops in the past year. In November, a police officer in South Miami-Dade opened fire on the driver of a stolen police van that he said wouldn’t stop when ordered. The detective said that when he approached the truck on foot, 19-year-old Jorbel Cruz accelerated toward him. The officer fired into the truck, striking Cruz. Also struck were Cruz’s friend Joel Cabrera, 19, and an unnamed juvenile.

Then in April a county detective in an unmarked vehicle in Northwest Miami-Dade said he ordered Francisco Perez Trejo to stop his Toyota Camry. When Trejo disobeyed the order and appeared to reach for something, the officer fired. Trejo was not mortally wounded. No weapon was found in his car.

Trejo’s attorney Judd Rosen said the cops weren’t wearing any police identification. He said they just jumped out of an unmarked car and yelled.

“They just shot him. He never moved,” said Rosen. “They jumped out of an unmarked car. He had a severe infection. And now he has a bullet stuck in his body.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which doesn’t comment on ongoing probes, is investigating the police shootings in Miami-Dade and for the FHP.

John Rivera is president of the Police Benevolent Association, Miami-Dade’s largest police union. He said he supports the current county policy as long as it remains supported by state law. Rivera said in a perfect world cops wouldn’t have to chase bad guys who pose a threat.

“Law enforcement, by the nature of what they do, is dangerous,” said the PBA chief. “And sometimes it’s ugly.”

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