Crime & Justice

LA sheriff essentially bans deputies from shooting at moving cars

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, pictured in March 2016, has changed the department's policy on shooting at moving cars in an attempt to cut down on the practice.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, pictured in March 2016, has changed the department's policy on shooting at moving cars in an attempt to cut down on the practice.
Amanda Myers/AP

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The L.A. County Sheriff's Department has changed its policy to essentially ban sheriff's deputies from shooting at moving vehicles unless another deadly weapon is present.

For years, deputies in pursuit of a suspect in a car said they feared being run over and shot. Some suspects have said they were just trying to get away.  

Law enforcement agencies from across the country have restricted shooting at vehicles, including another major agency in the Los Angeles area, the Los Angeles Police Department. Leaders point to safety issues: if the driver is disabled, a two-ton car can careen into innocent bystanders.  

The sheriff department’s change comes on the heels of a KPCC investigation, which found deputies shot into moving vehicles and struck the suspect at least nine times between 2010 and 2014. In only one case did the deputies say the suspect was armed, documents from the L.A. District Attorney's Office show.

Related story: Shooting at suspects in cars is dangerous, LA sheriff found, so why didn't it stop?

In 2015, shootings incidents involving cars spiked to four shootings in which officers hit the suspect, three non-hit and one incident when the deputy shot at the vehicles tires, according to the department.

“There was a concern about the number of shootings at moving vehicles we were having," said Assistant Sheriff Todd Rodgers.

The policy rewrite, which went into effect August 4, states "firearms shall not be discharged at a stationary or moving vehicle" or its occupants unless deputies are being threatened with a gun or some other "deadly force by means other than the moving vehicle."

The previous policy stated that fear would not "presumptively" justify a shooting.

“This is more descriptive and specific,” said Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers. “We are trying to impress upon deputies that its generally ineffective to shoot at a moving vehicle."

The department also published a new training video for deputies that describes the new policy and why it’s not a good idea to shoot at moving cars. Any departure from policy will be reviewed on an individual basis, Rogers said. 

One case involving shooting at a car could cost L.A. County millions of dollars. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors Tuesday is expected to vote on a $2.8 million settlement for a man who was sitting in the back seat of a moving car when he was shot by a sheriff's deputy. 

In that case, which dates back to August 2013, deputies came upon a man spray painting graffiti on a cinderblock wall along Rosemead Avenue in Pico Rivera around midnight. 

When the deputies approached the man, he “dove into the open front passenger side window” of a nearby Chrysler 300, according to a summary given to the board. 

“Almost immediately the driver of the vehicle accelerated toward one of the deputies,” according to the summary. The deputy attempted to get out of the car’s path, but the driver “deliberately steered the vehicle toward the retreating deputy while continuing to accelerate.”

Deputy Cuauhtemoc Gonzalez opened fire. The car steered away from him and stopped a few feet away. Three men came out of the car and surrendered. A fourth lay slumped in the back seat. One of the deputy’s bullets had struck Gonzalo Martinez in his left eye. Martinez, now 23-years-old, lost the eye. Bullet fragments remain in his brain.

“His parents essentially are taking care of him,” according to Martinez’ attorney, Dale Galipo. “We don’t believe he will be able to be employed.”

Despite the settlement, sheriff’s officials maintain the deputy’s decision to shoot was sound. 

“The deputy sheriff feared for his life and deployed deadly force against a vehicle’s driver who drive his vehicle directly at the deputy sheriff,” the summary stated.

The deputy was found to have acted correctly under the old policy. The L.A. County District Attorney declined to file criminal charges. 

It's unclear how the department would treat the same case with the revision in place.  Rogers said he was not familiar enough with the circumstances of the incident to make that determination. 

The problem, Galipo argued, was not with the old policy, but with the sheriff's department enforcing it.

“The sheriff’s department’s has a good policy of not shooting at moving vehicles,” he said. “The only problem is many of the deputies don’t follow it.”

This story is part of a KPCC investigation into officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County.