Rampaging driver shot dead on Capitol Hill: Did cops do the right thing?

The Columbine shootings and the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to changes in police shoot-to-kill policies. The family of Miriam Carey, shot and killed following a car chase, say police over-reacted.

Carlo Allegri/REUTERS
Valarie and Amy Carey, sisters of Miriam Carey, the woman involved in the Capitol Hill shooting, address a news conference outside their home in Brooklyn Friday. Miriam Carey was engaged in a dramatic car chase through Washington, prompting a lockdown of the U.S. Capitol before officers shot her dead.

The family of Miriam Carey, who led police on a rampaging car chase from the White House to the Capitol before being shot dead by police on Thursday, says the 34-year-old dental assistant had problems, but posed no real threat to anybody.

The deadly shot came after Ms. Carey, with her one-year-old daughter in the back of her black Infinity coupe, crashed into White House barricades, sideswiped at least two police cars, crashed into gates at the Capitol, and then stepped out of her car.

Diagnosed with mental health issues, Carey had told friends she believed President Obama was stalking her. She was supposed to have been in Brooklyn on the day she rammed the White House gate.

The tragic shooting, which came during a particularly tense week in a capitol recovering from the Navy Yard mass shooting and as leaders argued about how to end a partial government shutdown, has shined a light on what some say is a troubling progression in “shoot-to-kill” police protocol.

The Columbine High School killings in 1999 and the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington two years later dramatically changed US police shoot-to-kill procedures. In the case of active shooters, police no longer wait to muster backup, but are told to charge after shooters and disable or kill them as soon as they can.

In bomb-sensitive Washington, the Capitol Police in 2004 toughened their shoot to kill protocol in the cases of suspected suicide bombers, demanding officers not wait to shoot.

On Friday, Carey’s family said she was neither a suicide bomber nor an active shooter, and thus the decision to shoot her was unnecessary. They also faulted police procedures, saying officers had a chance to stop Carey without killing her, and should have been more careful given there was a child in the car. It’s not known if officers knew about the child, who was uninjured.

“Deadly force was not necessary,” said Carey’s sister, Valerie Carey, a retired New York Police Department sergeant. “They could have rammed the car or disabled the car.”

"My sister could have been any person traveling in our capital," she added. "Deadly physical force was not the ultimate recourse and it didn't have to be."

Some criminal justice experts disagree.

Maki Haberfeld, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told CNN that police couldn’t have known whether Carey posed a threat or not.

"We live in times of heightened alert as far as terrorist activities are concerned," she told the Atlanta-based cable news organization. "The fact that she was not displaying a gun doesn't mean anything, because bombers don't necessarily display anything. They have the explosives around their waist, usually.”

The new protocols are understandably disconcerting to police, David Klinger, a cop turned university criminologist, told the Atlantic magazine. Using deadly force has historically not been the first thought for American police officers, “but now they have to contemplate it …  We’re going to have to come to the conclusion in our society that in some situations the police need to shoot people.”

The Capitol Police internal affairs unit is investigating the shooting. The main issues are likely to be whether police thought Carey had a bomb and whether they gave any warning to Carey that they were going to shoot.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police in 2005 issued standards for how to deal with suspected suicide bombers, where officers are not required to wait until threat is imminent before firing. Since 2004, the US Capitol Police have been trained to shoot suspected bombers who refuse to stop and be searched.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that it’s not an unreasonable reading of the US Constitution to allow officers to shoot if they have a serious suspicion that the suspect intends to do serious physical harm. The court said warning should be given “where feasible.”

By the time Carey was shot and killed, she had already hurt two police officers – a secret service officer struck by her car as she raced away from the White House, and a Capitol Police officer who was injured when his squad car struck a barricade during the mile-and-a-half chase.

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