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Pittsburgh police get rules for shooting at moving vehicles

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 10:15 a.m.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are wrestling with the issue of officers shooting at moving vehicles when lives are threatened, national police experts say.

Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper on Friday issued an order prohibiting officers from firing “at or into a moving vehicle or its occupants unless there are shots being fired from that vehicle.”

The order was issued four weeks after officers fired on a car careening toward busy nighttime streets and sidewalks on the South Side. Their shots wounded the driver and an occupant while grazing a bystander.

Harper's order, which was not announced publicly, drew criticism from the Fraternal Order of Police, which vowed to oppose it, and concerns from Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, head of the Public Safety Committee. Both questioned whether it could endanger officers and the public.

Pittsburgh police Patrolman Robert Swartzwelder, who serves on the FOP's Labor-Management Committee and as a part-time firearms instructor, said the order will force officers to choose between risking their lives or careers.

“I would use deadly force to defend my life,” Swartzwelder said. “If you were using that vehicle against me, I would use deadly force and take my chances with the department.”

John Firman, director of research for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said departments across the country have introduced similar policies.

The association offers a model policy similar to Harper's order. It says that cops can fire at a moving vehicle when someone inside is threatening lives, but the vehicle cannot be considered a weapon.

“This is an ongoing problem around the country, and one that has to be dealt with by local policy and local decision-making,” Firman said.

FOP Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 President Mike LaPorte, a city police sergeant, said the union intends to file a grievance with the city. Harper did not consult the FOP in issuing the order, he said.

“I don't understand why they would make policy more restrictive than Pennsylvania law when the law clearly states you are authorized to use deadly force to protect your life, or the life of someone else when you are at risk of death or bodily injury,” LaPorte said.

Police bureau spokeswoman Diane Richard said the order stands pending a review by command staff, who will recommend to Harper potential policy changes. The chief can change policy at his discretion, she added.

“The chief is aware that it this a concern that is widespread across the country, and he is trying to do what's best for our jurisdiction and the safety of our residents and police officers,” Richard said.

The problem with shooting into a car is that the driver could become incapacitated, said Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina.

“If you happened to hit the person driving, then you've got an unguided missile,” Alpert said.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for TribTotal Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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