With jaw agape, I watched the astonishing body-cam video of 43-year-old Las Vegas police officer William Umana shooting through his patrol car windshield at suspects Fidel Miranda, 22, and Rene Nunez, 30, as he pursued the stolen vehicle in which they were trying to elude police. Police suspected Miranda and Nunez of murdering 25-year-old Thomas Romero, shooting him several times in the chest at a carwash.
After my first viewing, I thought, what the hell was that? Then my cop mind slows down and reviews a brief mental checklist of what I know about the incident to assess the appropriateness of such an extreme response. Obviously, good people will have honest disagreements about this pursuit. However, here you have armed homicide suspects shooting at cops. If police don’t pursue for this, what would they pursue for? I was taught by training instructors and FTOs (field training officers) that a situation could arise where I might have to shoot through my patrol car’s windshield, and I should be prepared for that.
I encourage you to read this educated opinion of the incident from an experienced retired cop and OpsLens contributor.
How did I initially assess the pursuit and shooting? First, I learned the officer was pursuing armed homicide suspects. Check. Second, the suspects showed a total disregard for the extreme risk to the public resulting from their gunshots and reckless driving. Check. Third, the armed homicide suspects were shooting at pursuing officers. Checkmate!
That’s my visceral reaction as a cop who doesn’t care much for murderers, especially those trying to murder me. Then, I continue the analysis. I don my field training officer cap and sit back and mentally debrief the incident based on my observations and from news reports. This entails balancing elements of the call: the risk-reward to the public of capturing the bad guys versus letting them escape.
Is it worth it to risk a stray bullet hitting granny, rocking on the porch down the block or a round striking little Sally while her mother walks the toddler in her stroller? What about the kids inside Howard Hollingsworth Elementary School the suspects crashed into? What about “innocent” passengers that may be in the car?
These are legitimate public safety concerns, but they are two-pronged and evoke overarching implications for society: Are the rewards worth the risks?
Is it more beneficial for society to let criminals get away because an innocent person might get hurt or killed when officers try to apprehend them? Many times, yes. Obviously, it depends on the nature and severity of the violent crime. But what if letting the bad guys go means they are likely to hurt or kill an innocent person while committing a future crime?
Do we ask, which hypothetical victim is more valuable—prevent a victim now in exchange for future victims? Shouldn’t we consider what police actions are more likely to prevent criminals from running from the cops in the first place? Shouldn’t this issue be a part of the discussion? And what about the courts: charging, prosecution, and sentencing? Can anyone take actions in the criminal justice arena to reduce the chances future criminals will run from the cops?
If you were a bad guy, which would prevent you from attempting to elude the police? If you knew the cops won’t chase you, or if you know for sure they’ll chase you and hold you accountable for every felony and misdemeanor crime, traffic violation, and parking infraction you commit during your attempted escape, and that you’ll receive a mandatory extra five-year enhancement on your sentence?
Things to consider when deciding to pursue are things like the possibility of the fleeing suspect being known to officers (if you know who he or she is, it’s easier to locate them later), the time of day, weather conditions, traffic congestion, road condition, terrain, etc.
Regardless of these considerations, the trend, especially in politically leftist-run cities, seems to be to let the bad guys get away.
This discussion is about balancing the risk-reward to society: capture vs. escape. What was the crime? If violent, does the escape put the public at imminent risk of harm? For example, if the bad guy just shot a cop, what wouldn’t that person do to avoid capture? And keep in mind, the mere act of eluding the police is a felony, and driving recklessly is a violent act.
Is it worth the risk to the next person—man, woman, or child—who may cross the bad guy’s path? If you’re a police officer, what if the next person is another cop, maybe from your department, maybe in your squad, maybe your partner?
Now, I’m of the school that it’s on the criminal if there are damages or injuries that happen while in pursuit of a dangerous felon who ran from the cops. And the punishment should be such that few would even contemplate putting the public at such risk by running from the police.
But, they ain’t asking my opinion (not that that stops me from giving it). I mean, what would a cop know about police work, anyway?
So, there was quite a risk of innocents being hurt in the Vegas OIS. But I suppose those future victims who are still uninjured or alive because those bad guys didn’t escape, so they couldn’t hurt or kill them, are good with it—even if they’ll never know it.
Thinking about the issue and doing research, I perused various department policies and training recommendations. One that interested me also made my mind pucker when I thought it through.
Many departments are adopting policies where agencies do not allow an officer to use deadly force against a suspect where the vehicle is the only weapon. In fact, some policies direct officers to move out of the way rather than fire on the guy who would have run them down if they hadn’t moved. This brings up some interesting considerations, eh?
So, if a bad guy is in front of me pointing a gun at me, I can shoot him. If a bad guy is in front of me with a knife, within a certain distance, I can shoot him. The same goes for a bad guy with a rock, a club, or a bowling ball. Try to come at me with those things, and I could fire away.
But, according to the policy, if a bad guy is in front of me, revving the engine of his two-thousand-pound car, and he guns it and heads toward me, I cannot shoot him. Does that seem right? I’m not certain I’m getting the logic here. We’re talking about a bad guy willing to kill a police officer with his car.
Now, obviously, jumping out of the way should also be a part of the officer’s total strategy. But it sure seems like a surefire loophole for bad guys to make it to their cars before they try to kill the cop. Kind of like home-base in a game of tag. You can’t get me! Perhaps, mayors and city councils can call it the sanctuary vehicle policy.
Call me old school, but what is wrong with making the bad guys pay a higher price for their violent acts? You have bad guys running from the cops, shooting bystanders or killing or injuring them with cars, and the criminal justice system is changing its rules to make the cops liable for the violent acts of criminals.
It’s similar to the gun-grabbers. The bad guys commit gun crimes, but the courts don’t impose the full force of the law against them, never mind adding sentencing enhancements. Instead, you have states and cities trying to enact all kinds of laws that put more responsibility on the law-abiding gun owners rather than criminals.
A bad guy steals your gun because you had to leave it in your car because the school you’re going into for a meeting with your kid’s teacher is a gun-free-zone. Later, the bad guy gets arrested for robbery—with the gun he stole from you, pleads down to felony theft, and gets a suspended sentence. But you spend six months in jail and get fined $10,000 for failure to secure your weapon “properly.”
Back to vehicle pursuits, does this system seem backward? A law enforcement officer chases and catches a bad guy for an armed robbery. The bad guy has already decided he doesn’t care about who he might hurt while trying to get away. He hits several vehicles, injuring two people, one seriously. The cops arrest the bad guy. Bad guy pleads down to a felony theft and reckless driving. The court sentences him to 14 months in lockup.
Meanwhile, the civilian review board investigates the officer’s actions and recommends termination. Then the chief, appointed by a liberal mayor, fires the officer for policy violations. The families of the victims sue the officer civilly, and he loses his house to pay for his lawyers. Then, criminally charged with reckless endangerment or vehicular assault for those innocents injured during the pursuit, the court sentences him to 14 months in lockup.
Now, these previous scenarios aren’t based on specific cases. Still, I’ve heard about eerily similar accounts, and even if mine might be a bit exaggerated, they sure don’t seem out of the realm of possibility in these anti-cop days. Leftist law and policy makers are shifting responsibility for some crimes from criminals to law-abiding people and law-enforcing cops.
How about we try something radical? What if we make the bad guys responsible for their own actions? How about making the penalties for committing gun crimes and running from the police so severe, the bad guys rarely think of violating them?
How about a 3-year mandatory enhancement to the sentence of anyone convicted of stealing a gun, a 5-year addition for a person convicted of possessing a gun during a crime, and add 10 years for anyone who uses a gun to commit a crime?
In a similar vein, how about a 5-year addition to the sentence of anyone convicted of using a motor vehicle to elude police? Add 10 years where an innocent person is injured during a police chase? And how about a 20-year enhancement where someone is killed as a result of the bad guy running from the police? These additions would be on top of any conventional judge or jury sentence. The numbers can be debated, but you get my point.
On a side but tangential note, some bad guys are actually committing crimes in one city and then racing to neighboring cities that don’t allow their police to pursue criminals who flee in vehicles.
I’ve told this story before, even wrote about it in my new book, but it bears repeating. A buddy and academy-mate of mine, who’s still on the department, told me a story just after our department changed its pursuit policy. He’d located an occupied stolen vehicle. As he and his partner were about to arrest the car thief, the thief leaned out his window, flipped him off, and said, “You can’t catch me!”
The thief then drove away at a high rate of speed. My buddy updated the call on radio with the dispatcher and on his computer. You know, to let other officers know the thief ran from him, so when they spot the stolen vehicle, the thief can run from them too. How is allowing bad guys to get away—by policy, when a good guy who does stop for police gets a ticket—not appeasing society’s bullies?
If there were such policies in place, maybe those bad guys in Vegas would have run from police anyway. But with such heavy sentence enhancements would they have risked it? Maybe, maybe not. Still, it seems these policies would likely keep many if not most criminals from routinely running from the cops as they do now.