Collision Course

A lawsuit challenges deputies who shoot fleeing drivers

Late at night, off-duty sheriff's deputy Zachary Long drove by a subdivision construction site in Humble and saw a man loading roof shingles into a van. When Long approached on foot, he said, the van lurched toward him. He drew his gun and fired. Seconds later, his leg was bleeding where the van had rammed him, and Rodolfo Gonzalez Garcia was dead.

Long said he shot Garcia because he was trying to run him over. But relatives of the deceased 31-year-old, who had no criminal record, doubt the deputy was in serious danger. They contend he recklessly took Garcia's life over what amounted to $98 in stolen roofing. "He didn't have the right to just kill him," said Garcia's father, Arturo Garcia.

Seeking damages for his son's death, Garcia has filed an unusual lawsuit. His attorney, Randall Kallinen, alleges the Garcia shooting and 11 others over the past two years show a pattern: Harris County Sheriff's Department officers fire at suspects just to prevent them from fleeing -- a practice shunned since the days of the Wild West.

The ACLU's Kallinen: "Bullets don't stop cars."
Deron Neblett
The ACLU's Kallinen: "Bullets don't stop cars."

Many of the shootings carry a common thread: Half involve officers on foot firing at automobiles. In the hands of hostile suspects, cars often become lethal weapons, deputies said. But Kallinen said self-defense claims in shootings of motorists are rarely justified, and he's calling for changes in the way the department apprehends potentially hostile drivers.

"Running from an officer is a crime," said Kallinen, who founded the Criminal Justice Chapter of the ACLU in Houston, "but you shouldn't be killed for it."

Shooting at suspects merely to prevent their escape is prohibited by sheriff's department policy in most instances, but an approaching car can be treated differently. "As far as vehicles, let me assure you, a guy in a vehicle can kill you just as dead as any armed robber standing out there trying to get away and popping caps at you," said Ed Christensen, president of the Harris County Deputies' Organization. "So as far as training is concerned, he's assaulting you with a deadly weapon.

"You need to exert that force that is necessary to stop that assault," he said, "and a lot of times it takes a bullet in the driver."

But referring to the incidents in the suit, Kallinen said the lives of the deputies were never in danger. The case describes incidents in which deputies shot a passenger in a car that lunged forward, shot an unarmed man after he jumped in a car with his girlfriend, and shot a driver in an approaching van who refused to stop.

Sheriff's Captain Robert Van Pelt, the department spokesman, and Deputy Long declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Long and several other deputies involved in the incidents suffered minor injuries after they were struck by suspects' cars. Although Long's case is still under review, grand juries have cleared all other deputies of any wrongdoing.

Compared to Houston Police Department officers, Harris County deputies are more likely to shoot at suspects. Over the past five years, the department's 655 patrol officers have shot 54 civilians -- nearly twice the rate per officer as the much larger HPD, which also patrols more dangerous, inner-city neighborhoods.

Mary Powers, a coordinator for the National Coalition on Police Accountability, wasn't surprised to learn that many of the shootings involved cars. She said she has seen a nationwide spike in self-defense claims involving autos.

"It may be that there really is just an increase of crazed drivers," she said, "but my own personal feeling is it is just another excuse.

"Unless you are trapped in an alley or against a wall, there is some way you can get away."

Long opened fire on Garcia at 2:30 a.m. on February 1. His bullet hit the driver in the chest, but it did little to stop him. The full-size Chevrolet van barreled down Woodland Meadows Lane, missed a bend, crushed an oak tree and crashed into the living room of Sean and Kim Wedderburn.

Sean Wedderburn awoke to what sounded like an explosion. He walked downstairs and saw the van, still running, sitting atop the mangled remnants of his Ping-Pong table. Bricks had flown through the room's back wall and into the plaster of the adjoining bathroom. He rushed his four children out of the exhaust-filled house.

Kim Wedderburn still has nightmares. "We were just down in this room a few hours ago," she said, holding her eight-month-old baby, Hailey. "It would have wiped out our whole family."

The Wedderburns are renting a house nearby while their insurance pays for more than $30,000 in repairs. And the family is seeing a counselor to help them cope with stress.

The sheriff's use-of-force policy doesn't specifically address moving vehicles. But it gives priority to protecting the public. "Deputies should be particularly cautious when using deadly force under conditions that could subject bystanders to possible injury or death," it says.

Department spokesperson Van Pelt referred questions to the written policy while declining to comment on any training that deputies receive regarding the confrontation of suspects in moving cars. By contrast, Mike Thaler, HPD executive assistant chief, was forthcoming. "They are instructed to not stand in front of a vehicle that is approaching," he said. "The basic training is, basically, get out of the way."

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