Denver police chief: Policy on shooting at cars is ‘pretty restrictive’

Chief of @DenverPolice says he's not sure yet if rules for shooting at cars should change

Denver’s Chief of Police Robert White said Thursday that his department’s policy regarding officers shooting at moving vehicles is largely in line with other departments across the country.

That policy came to the fore this week after two Denver officers shot and killed a 17-year-old girl in the Park Hill neighborhood Monday morning. Police say the officers opened fire on Jessica Hernandez as she drove a stolen car toward the officers. One officer's leg was fractured in the incident.

“Our policy is pretty restrictive,” White said in a press conference Thursday. “We do not pursue stolen autos, and barring very mitigating circumstances, we don’t fire into moving vehicles.”

Doubts about investigation

White said little new about Monday’s shooting at the press conference, citing the an ongoing investigation of the matter. He stressed that earlier statements he made were based on preliminary information, and that details known about the case may change as the investigation continues.

One inconsistency: Earlier this week, White said an officer's leg was injured by the car. On Thursday, White said it isn't yet clear how the injury occurred.

"Whether it occurred as his attempt to get out of the way of the moving vehicle or struck by the moving vehicle -- that's part of the investigation," White said.

Hernandez’s friends and family have staged multiple protests this week, demanding information about the case. White said Thursday he’s heard their complaints, but asked for their patience.

“I respect individual’s rights to protest, as long as its done lawfully and legally,” he said. “I would ask them ... to be patient and value the investigation.”

The teen's mother, Laura Sonya Rosales Hernandez, told the Associated Press Thursday that she doesn't trust the police investigation.

Denver's policy compared to others

The Denver Police Department's policy regarding officers shooting at cars is less restrictive than Aurora's. Denver's policy says moving vehicles alone can constitute a justifiable threat toward officers, while Aurora's policy does not. "A moving vehicle alone will not presumptively constitute a threat that justifies a member’s use of deadly or potentially deadly force," Aurora's policy states.

Both policies, though, strongly discourage shooting at moving vehicles in general.

“Above all, the safety of the public and the officer must be the overriding concern when the use of force is considered,” Denver's policy concludes.

Denver police officers have shot at moving vehicles four times in the last year. Two suspects were killed and three were injured. A spokeswoman for the Aurora police department said there have been three such incidents there in the last two years.

White said his department is reviewing all such incidents in the last two years and may change policy as a result. The city’s independent monitor is looking into the police department’s policy as well.

Mark Silverstein, with the ACLU of Colorado, wonders if the department just sends out an email to alert officers of the change.

"If that’s all they do, that could explain why we have four incidents in the last seven months that appear to be violations of this very strict policy," Silverstein said. He pointed out that the two officers involved in Monday’s incident had many years on the force – and were likely accustomed to the older policy."

A law enforcement expert told Colorado Matters Wednesday that most “progressive” police department restrict officers from shooting at moving vehicles.

"It’s a very dangerous practice because you don’t know where the vehicle is going to go if you are successful in shooting the driver," said Geoffrey Alpert, professor of criminology with the University of South Carolina.