Experts: Police deadly force limited to threat of death, serious bodily harm

Policing experts say that use of force standards for officers would not allow police to shoot a suspect just because he got behind the wheel of a police vehicle. But deadly force is allowed to stop a suspect who then uses the vehicle in a manner that causes the threat of serious bodily harm to the officer or others.

“Deadly force may be used when there is a high probability that there is going to be a loss of life,” said Patrick Oliver, a Cedarville University professor of criminal justice and former police chief.

On Monday police say Raymond Walters Jr., 32, of Dayton crashed his truck on Airway Road, then jumped into a Riverside Police vehicle responding to the wreck and fled to Dayton, where officers allege he caused a multi-vehicle crash that killed two children and injured 10 — including him — near the Dayton Metro Library downtown.

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Oliver and Tom Hagel, a professor of law emeritus at the University of Dayton, both said they would not comment specifically on the Monday situation in discussing the rules governing use of force.

The Monday incident began on Xenia Avenue in Dayton, where Walters is suspected of stabbing his father inside the black truck that Riverside Police later found had crashed on Airway Road. Police officials said at a Tuesday news conference that Riverside Police were unaware that the crash they responded to was related to the stabbing minutes earlier.

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At some point Walters got into the officer’s vehicle, and video shot by a witness from the Airway Road scene Monday night shows a Riverside Police officer standing in the street, using a Taser on someone inside the police sport utility vehicle. The vehicle is then driven backward rapidly, the passenger door open. Another Riverside Police vehicle in pursuit was hit and disabled before the suspect drove to Dayton at speeds of up to 101 miles per hour and was involved in the crash, police say.

Police arrested Walters, who had recently been released from prison and who Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said may have been on methamphetamine Monday.

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Hagel said the use of a Taser would be the appropriate amount of force if all a suspect did was get inside a police vehicle. But driving the vehicle backward at full speed when people are in a position of being hit can be construed as posing an immediate threat of serious bodily harm or death, he said.

“What you are talking about is seconds here, a decision-making process that has to take place in seconds,” Hagel said. “When you are talking about split seconds, you have to look at it through that lens.”

Hagel and Oliver both said that it is not appropriate for an officer to try to shoot out the tires of a fleeing vehicle in an effort to stop it. Road spikes and other similar products can be set up to stop a vehicle, Oliver said.

“Police are not trained to shoot at tires,” he said. “You don’t know where that round is going to go, so generally that is not part of ‘use of force’ training.”

The Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy trains officers on the use of firearms and Tasers, as well as how to pursue a suspect and how to end a pursuit, said Steve Irwin, spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. Irwin said individual law enforcement agencies have policies on both use of force and pursuits.

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The rules governing use of force were set in the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner, which was based on the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protecting people from unreasonable search and seizure, Oliver said.

“First and foremost deadly force can be used to protect the life of another,” Oliver said. “And police officers are generally trained to shoot to kill, not to shoot to injure.”

That decision to use deadly force “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with 20-20 vision of hindsight,” Oliver said.

The three factors considered are “the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others and whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight,” Oliver said. “The most important of the three is number two.”

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