A Harris County Constable Precinct 5 deputy shot and killed a man during a traffic stop on Beltway 8 yesterday, but the office is playing coy about its policies regarding shooting at moving vehicles.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Houston Police Department spokesman Kese Smith said Precinct 5 Deputy R. Felix was working traffic on the beltway when he received a call about a car with multiple toll violations. He spotted the vehicle and pulled it over to the left shoulder. We reached out to HPD, whose homicide division is investigating the incident, but spokesman John Cannon told us Smith was not working today and that no other spokesperson knew the details of the case but Smith, so we're relying on the Chron's reporting here:
The car smelled of marijuana, the deputy told officials, and the unidentified driver didn't have a license or proof of insurance. During the traffic stop, the driver repeatedly reached on the floor of the car, digging through papers as if he was reaching for something, Smith said.
The deputy called for backup, opened the car door and told the driver to step outside the vehicle. The driver turned on the car, as the deputy told him not to. The deputy drew his weapon.
The suspect began to accelerate as the driver's side door of the car was still open. The deputy thought he might get run over, and held on to the door as the car traveled about 120 feet.
Officials say the driver reached for the deputy's gun. When the deputy felt the man's hand on his hand and gun, he fired his weapon twice. Backup hadn't yet arrived.
The driver was pronounced dead at the scene. Officials didn't know if he had been shot once or twice.
Felix was treated for bruises, and was otherwise fine after the altercation. Inside the man's car, officers found cash, an "old-style barber razor" and a bandana, Smith said. It was unclear if there was marijuana in the vehicle.
It's unclear why an old-fashioned barber's razor would be relevant here, unless it was under the seat or it looked as if he were trying to reach for it in the confrontation with the officer. As for the bandanna, we have no idea what to make of that detail.
What might be more relevant here is a better explanation as to why an officer would hold onto a car door instead of jumping out of the way if it looked like the driver was trying to take off. Perhaps even the constable's policy on shooting at or into a moving vehicle might be worth explaining. Law enforcement agencies all across the country have recently been revising their policies to increase restrictions on when officers can shoot at moving vehicles, and federal guidelines say officers should not fire at a moving car.
In a 2013 report investigating use of force in the Cleveland Police Department, the Department of Justice found that "shooting at vehicles creates an unreasonable risk unless such a real and articulable threat exists. First, it is difficult to shoot at a moving car with accuracy. Missed shots can hit bystanders or others in the vehicle. Second, if the driver is disabled by the shot, the vehicle may become unguided, making it potentially more dangerous."
The following year, a DOJ report regarding the Albuquerque Police Department included similar statements, saying that "shooting at vehicles is generally a poor tactical choice and exacerbates the chances of vehicles becoming more dangerous instruments."
We called Constable Precinct 5 to find out what its moving-vehicle policy is, but when spokesperson Roy Guinn picked up the phone, he didn't seem particularly knowledgeable about his own office's procedures.
"We don't shoot at cars," Guinn said. "The only information I have is what was released yesterday, which is that one of our officers was involved in a shooting during a traffic stop, the subject was killed and HPD is investigating. I don’t know what happened on that scene. Whenever we answer questions about a scene, we get asked general questions that have nothing to do with that scene, and then we get quoted for applying those answers to what happened at the scene. The information I have is what I’ve already given, and any other questions are hypothetical that don’t relate to that scene."
We asked him to clarify whether the precinct's policy was to never, in any circumstance, fire a weapon at a moving car.
"We don’t shoot at moving cars," Guinn said. "That has nothing to do with this case."
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To further clarify what the precinct's policy is here, we sent a note to the precinct's general email address, seeking to confirm whether Guinn's "we don't shoot at moving cars" is the official, written policy for the precinct. Here's what we got back:
"Precinct 5 has issued a statement regarding the shooting that occurred on 4-28-16 and the investigation has been taken over by the Houston police Department. Any further information
regarding this incident should be directed to HPD."
Update: HPD just put out this statement on yesterday's shooting:
A Harris County Precinct 5 deputy constable was dispatched to a prohibited vehicle traveling southbound on the Harris County Toll Road. The vehicle had numerous outstanding violations and had just passed through the toll booth location. The deputy constable saw the vehicle and stopped it on the inside shoulder of the toll road at the above address.
As the deputy constable made contact with the driver (suspect), the driver was unable to provide a driver’s license and the deputy constable began to detect the odor of marijuana. The deputy constable then asked the driver to step out of the vehicle. The driver refused and began reaching around the interior of the car. The suspect then started the car. The deputy constable attempted to prevent the suspect from fleeing and drew his duty weapon for his safety. As the car began to move forward, the deputy constable was afraid he would be dragged by the vehicle or run over, due to the fact he was between the vehicle and the vehicle's open door, very close to the retaining wall. As he feared for his safety, the deputy constable found himself partially in the vehicle as the suspect was fleeing and still refusing to stop. The deputy constable then discharged his weapon and struck the suspect before the vehicle reached a higher speed. Paramedics arrived and pronounced the suspect deceased at the scene.
As is customary when any law enforcement officer discharges a weapon inside the city limits resulting in an injury, the incident is being investigated by the HPD Homicide Division and the Harris County District Attorney's Office.