Crime & Justice

Experts question tactics after CHP shoots unarmed man in Fullerton

CHP will investigate Sunday's shooting internally.
CHP will investigate Sunday's shooting internally.
Photo by Todd Lappin via Flickr Creative Commons

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Experts are questioning the tactics used by undercover California Highway Patrol officers in Sunday's fatal shooting of an unarmed man in Fullerton.

The issue: police officers are generally taught to not shoot at moving cars. 

Sunday's incident occurred after CHP officers, who were in plainclothes and driving an unmarked car, followed Pedro Villanueva, 19, to a dead-end street in Fullerton. They were investigating illegal street car racing.

When the officers attempted to stop and question Villanueva, he allegedly “drove directly into the path of officers,” according to the CHP. Fearing for their lives, both officers opened fire, killing Villanueva and wounding a passenger.

But police training and policy experts say officers should do their best to avoid shooting at drivers because it may send the car out of control, further endangering the lives of officers and anyone nearby, according to experts.

In fact, the Washington D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum has said departments should prohibit their officers from shooting at moving cars ”unless someone in the vehicle is using or threatening deadly force by means other than the vehicle itself."

The recommendation came in March as part of a wide-ranging report on how to reduce the use of force amid a national outcry over police shootings.

The report notes such policies are embraced by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City police departments. 

KPCC investigation into the practice of shooting at moving cars found the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department engages in the practice more often than the LAPD.

L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell told KPCC his department is looking to tighten its policy on shooting at moving cars to more vigorously discourage the practice. 

Retired LAPD Captain Greg Meyer, now a nationally recognized use-of-force expert – helped re-write LAPD's policy more than a decade ago.

“Basically the policy in plain English became don’t shoot, get of the way, reposition, and try something else,” Meyer told KPCC.

But Meyer said there are exceptions – when a car may be very near an officer and shooting at the driver is a last resort—like in a recent case he examined in Arizona. 

“The officer had nowhere to go, was about to be crushed, and when the officer opened fire the suspect actually turned the wheel,” Meyer said. The suspect died.

But that doesn’t always work, said Michael Gennaco of the OIR Group, a police oversight and evaluation firm in Los Angeles. For nearly a decade, Gennaco ran the Office of Independent Review at the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.

“The chances are just as likely that you will have a disabled driver and you may have more of a threat coming right at you" in the form of an out of control car, Gennaco said.

Officers must also consider the severity of the crime that may have been committed, he said.

It makes sense to fire on an active shooter driving a car. It makes less sense if the person is suspected of committing a non-violent crime.

The CHP has said its officers were investigating street racing. The agency did not immediately respond to requests for its policy on shooting at cars.

Friends of Villanueva took to Facebook to grieve their loss and denounce the shooting.

“You were a good friend, I will never forget all the good memories we had since middle school,” wrote Ashley Huerta Hernandez of Granada Hills. Villanueva was from nearby Canoga Park.

“You were a good person you didn't deserve this but I know you’re in a better place,” she wrote.

They also set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for the family, with a picture of Villanueva sitting with a guitar on the back of a truck.

CHP reviews officer-involved shootings internally. It will be up to the Orange County District Attorney to decide whether the shooting was legally justified.