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Two recent Portland police shootings could be exemptions to ban on shooting at moving vehicles

Since 2009, Portland PD has banned firing at moving vehicles except in immediate risk of death or injury

interstate shooting portland oregon

Interstate 5 closed in both directions Monday morning in North Portland as more than two dozen police units converged on the highway.

Dave Killen

By Zane Sparling

PORTLAND, Ore. — After Portland police fatally shot one man inside a moving car and wounded another in a disabled vehicle earlier this month, use of force experts say the incidents may illustrate the Police Bureau’s exemptions to its ban on shooting at moving vehicles.

Portland has since 2009 ordered officers not to fire at moving or fleeing vehicles unless an immediate risk of death or injury exists. Bureau directives also say the presence of a suspect in a car doesn’t “presumptively constitute a deadly force threat” and advise officers not to step into the path of a moving vehicle to justify pulling the trigger.

Pitting a 9mm bullet against 4,000 pounds of steel, rubber and glass can lead to unintended deadly consequences, experts said, especially if the suspect is left incapacitated behind the wheel.

“The standard procedure is not to shoot at a moving car,” said Walter Signorelli, a former New York City police officer who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You might hit the guy, and then he might run people over. That’s just common sense.”

Experts said the circumstances of Portland’s two recent police shootings could be acceptable under the bureau’s existing policies, however.

Sgt. Kevin Allen, a police spokesperson, said it’s too soon to conclude whether the pair of recent police shootings fall in line with bureau policy.

“Given that both of those incidents are still in the early stages of investigation, and all the facts have not come to light, it would be highly premature to make any judgments now about whether these incidents are in or out of policy,” he said.

Armed home invasion and carjacking suspect Brandon Keck, 30, was driving at a crawl on Interstate 5 when Officer John Hughes fired 10 shots through an SUV’s driver side window, killing Keck on Dec. 6, according to a police statement and bystander video.

Six additional officers witnessed the shooting, according to a police spokesperson, but it’s unclear from the bystander video if any were standing in the SUV’s path of travel.

Then, on Dec. 11, officers shot and wounded Joshua Degerness, who had allegedly fled a traffic stop and opened fire on police. Police rammed his car into a tree, spurring a two-hour standoff at Lents Park, according to a probable cause affidavit. Degerness, 39, left the bullet-riddled sedan only after a tactical team used a robot to deploy tear gas into the car.

He was released from a hospital Wednesday and booked into jail on suspicion of attempted murder and other charges.

Portland’s policy on shooting at vehicles has been rewritten since 2009. Allen, the police spokesperson, said the bureau regularly reviews its policies. He didn’t know how the phrasing was chosen or when it was last updated.

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John P. Gross, a University of Wisconsin law professor, has argued that the U.S. Supreme Court should prohibit officers from shooting into moving vehicles, saying bullets can turn cars into “unguided missiles.”

Gross reviewed facts of the case and footage of Keck’s death on Interstate 5 at the request of The Oregonian/OregonLive. He said the legal justification for the police shooting hinges on what Hughes knew about Keck’s past actions and potential armaments.

“If you’ve got a vehicle that’s moving that slowly in a congested area, there’s no reason to start shooting at the person,” Gross said. “But if the person is engaging in a pattern of violent criminal activity, well now the officers have a much better justification to shoot at him.”

Police said that earlier in the day, Keck had stolen a car during an armed home invasion in the Grant Park neighborhood and carjacked a vehicle in the Lloyd District.

Police originally claimed Keck had shot a motorist during his alleged crime spree but changed that assertion days later, saying only that the motorist was hurt in an unspecified manner.

Gregory Gilbertson, a former officer and use-of-force expert witness in Washington State, said ricochet bullets are more likely to harm bystanders when cars are traveling at high rates of speed — a fact that may have prompted Hughes to fire at Keck once he slowed down.

“If this officer was aware of the previous carjackings, and now he’s got this guy in his gunsights, I’d have shot him, because he’s going to kill somebody,” Gilberston said. “I don’t say that very often.”

Keck is among four people fatally shot by Portland police this year, while Degerness is one of three who were shot by police and survived.

Darrin R. Carr, who survived, was shot by police in May after he crashed an allegedly stolen car during a police pursuit. None of the other incidents involved vehicles.

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Two of Portland’s more notorious police shootings — the deaths of Kendra James in 2003 and James Jahar Perez in 2004 — involved unarmed motorists sitting in vehicles. In James’ case, Officer Scott McCollister told investigators he was leaning inside the car when it began to move forward, saying he opened fire because he was worried he could be dragged or run over.

Gross, the law professor, dismissed that logic.

“If you’re fearful that the vehicle is going to strike you, you should be moving away from the vehicle, not remaining where you are and using additional force,” he said.

Police agencies began to ban shooting into moving cars in the 1970s, after New York City police shot and killed a 10-year-old boy who dashed out of a stolen car, leading to protests and the institution of the nation’s first such policy. But in recent years, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas have all moved to loosen those prohibitions, citing the potential that terrorists will use vehicles as weapons.

Experts, meanwhile, said Portland’s recent police shootings illustrate how rulebooks can allow for significant leeway.

“It’s hard to make a blanket rule for every possible situation,” said Signorelli, the criminal justice professor. “Sometimes the situation doesn’t fit into the procedure.”

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