Train police on vehicle shootings

Images from dashboard video show Seneca Police Lt. Mark Tiller as he approached and fired at Zachary Hammond who was driving a car in a Hardee’s parking lot. Provided.

In South Carolina, law enforcement officers often learn the hazards of shooting at moving cars the hard way— out on the street.

And when that happens, they often feel the sting of public criticism, the dismay of a “bad shoot,” and sometimes even the weight of the law finding that they shot inappropriately.

So State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel’s call for more training of officers facing this situation is a good one for the officers and the public.

In a series of stories last year called “Shots Fired,” The Post and Courier reported that one in four police shootings in our state involve officers who fire at vehicles — some of them high-profile cases that have raised public outcries.

Some have turned out to be necessary. Some have been questionable. And in some, the officer has been found guilty of an offense.

But there is also the collateral damage that can come with shooting at a car. Bystanders can be hit — particularly in urban areas.

That is one reason the Charleston Police Department’s policy says officers should not fire at moving vehicles. But it doesn’t prohibit it entirely.

Criminologists tend to agree that some circumstances demand that an officer shoot. For example, he could be in a narrow alley with no place to move while a car is being driven at him. Shooting at the car could save his life.

The Greenville Police Department policy says that is the only time shooting at a car is acceptable.

But officers in many parts of the state have not been properly trained in how to handle situations involving cars. Indeed, the state Police Academy does not specifically train candidates when to shoot and when not to.

Chief Keel has been encouraging police chiefs across the state to train their officers. But he is also asking the General Assembly to provide more money so that the police academy can do it.

The academy costs the state $6,700 per recruit, and Keel estimates the course should be lengthened from 12 weeks to 16 so that this and other police tactics could be addressed more fully.

It is a tricky topic. Of course it seems reckless to shoot at a car when there are pedestrians nearby, for example. But what about when the driver races away from police who have an urgent reason to stop him? A high-speed chase can be reckless, too.

The answers aren’t always clear. That’s why experts at the police academy should be teaching recruits what to do.

The Legislature does not lack for worthy places to spend money. But the safety of S.C. residents should be one of its top priorities.

Better training could prevent unnecessary deaths, help police officers avoid mistakes and ultimately increase public trust in law enforcement.