Training scenario: An unmedicated, psychotic driver crashes through a protective barrier, hits and injures a police officer, smashes police cars during a chase at speeds up to 85 mph on densely populated streets, and speeds off towards a potential terrorist target.
You have one second to react – what is your response?
By now you have recognized this scenario as the real-life incident that played out on the streets of our nation’s capitol last Thursday. On a dry mid-afternoon in Washington, D.C., Miriam Carey, a 34-year-old woman reported to be suffering from postpartum depression, inexplicably attempted to drive through a White House security barrier, injured a Secret Service agent, and led police on a wild chase that ended in her death amid a hail of police gunfire.
The controversy over the police response (both the U.S. Capitol Police officers and Secret Service agents were reportedly involved) is not unexpected. Not only was Carey unarmed during the incident, her 1-year-old daughter was also in the vehicle. Carey’s sister, Valarie Carey, said as much during a scathing press conference reported by the Chicago Tribune:
“I’m more than certain that there was no need for a gun to be used (by police) when there was no gunfire coming from the vehicle,” Valarie Carey said. “I don’t know how their protocols are in D.C., but I do know how they are in New York City.”
With due respect for Carey’s grieving family, the safety protocols put into place at the seat of American government are, and must be, unique. The capitol is a treasure trove of terrorist targets, and one need only call up the image of the decimated federal building in Oklahoma City to realize what a single, car-sized explosive device can accomplish in such an environment.
Another article, this one in the Washington Post, developed a story line on the following quote: “The vast majority of big-city police agencies — including in the District — prohibit or strictly limit their officers from shooting at moving vehicles.”
While many serious questions regarding the use of firearms must be answered, the Post’s presumptive statement is pure drivel. With the simple decision to kill, a car can be used as a weapon. Realizing that, what responsible police officer would hesitate to fire at a moving car if it were clear the driver was an imminent threat to human life?
Police guidelines on deadly force generally stop short of restricting specific actions for a simple reason – in a chaotic system (i.e., the street), there are an infinite number of scenarios which could conflict with a narrow doctrine. Instead, most policies prescribe a specific mindset: Identify the threat and use the minimum amount of force necessary to stop it.
So yes, a two-ton car (which is, by the way, capable of traveling with four tires flattened by gunfire) driven by a destructive individual is a serious threat, especially when its pointed towards a potential terrorist target.
As guardians of symbolic structures and thousands of people, the officers on the scene in Washington, D.C. had to assume that the crazy driver crashing through barriers had a dark purpose. Without the luxury of time to deterine otherwise, they responded with deadly force.
The progression of details will, of course, emerge. Important questions will be asked: Did they know a child was in the car? Was there an opportunity to use other means, such as spike strips, to disable the vehicle? From the safe vantage of hindsight, a final judgment will be rendered.
By that time, police officers around the country will have faced an untold number of new scenarios. Many will be simple, requiring easy choices. Some will be hard.
And a few, like the shooting in Washington, D.C., will be a no-win situation.