Was shooting at vehicle after police chase in Augusta County justified?

policeA minor controversy has erupted online in response to an article in the News Leader on the police chase that ended on Interstate 81 in Augusta County Wednesday evening.

The well-reported article raised question with the move of Augusta County sheriff’s deputies to shoot at the vehicle being driven by suspect William W. Grim Jr., 60, who had fled apprehension in New Market on an outstanding warrant, leading law enforcement on a chase that ended two counties away.

The incident came to an end near the 224.5 mile marker on I-81 with Grim attempting to ram two county sheriff’s cruisers in an attempt to further elude apprehension.

Deputies shot at the tires of Grim’s vehicle in the attempt to again flee, aiming to disable the vehicle.

The question: what’s the policy dictating action in these kinds of situations? Is the use of deadly force, which one has to presume when a gun and bullets are involved, justified?

Augusta County Sheriff Donald Smith, in a Facebook post, addressed the issue.

“It is not a common practice for the Augusta County Sheriff’s Office to shoot into or at vehicles ‘unless all other reasonable means of defense have been exhausted or are not available.’ My deputies had seconds to make split second decisions and get control of this situation that was created by the suspect, not my agency,” he wrote in the post.

The News Leader piece addressed the issue with other local law-enforcement agencies and the Virginia State Police to get a handle on how others address these situations.

Waynesboro Police Capt. Kelly Walker said “(s)hooting at a motor vehicle with the intent to stop or disable it is prohibited unless you are justified in using deadly force against all occupants of the motor vehicle.” Staunton Police Capt. Leslie Miller reported back that the act of shooting a vehicle isn’t specifically addressed by the department in terms of policy.

The Virginia State Police policy, according to spokesperson Corinne Geller, prohibits shooting at a moving vehicle “unless a person in the vehicle is immediately threatening the officer or another person with deadly force other than the vehicle.”

What’s interesting there: four departments, four different approaches.

The State Police policy is the clearest: basically, no, don’t shoot, unless you’re being shot at; the moving vehicle itself isn’t enough to justify pulling a trigger.

Waynesboro’s seems to follow the same line of reasoning, but there is gray area, because it could be argued that deadly force could be justified as a defense against a moving vehicle.

Augusta County goes further in that direction and actually seems to go on the other side in terms of accepting a moving vehicle itself as being capable of itself being able to deliver deadly force, justifying a lethal response.

And then Staunton has no policy, which is itself interesting.

Editorial comment: this would seem to be an area where we could see some benefit to uniformity in terms of policy approaches by law enforcement agencies. Basically, whatever we decide to do, and what we decide meets constitutional muster, that should be the policy, without deviation.

There has to be a right answer here, in essence, without gray area or room for interpretation.

Back to the incident in Augusta County this week, Smith offered the rationale behind the split-second decision of deputies to engage.

“When the suspect decided to hit a deputy in Shenandoah, drive towards a deputy in Augusta, and then ram two police cars, the suspect put all law enforcement officials involved, as well as, the community in jeopardy. The deputies chose to attempt to disable the vehicle before choosing to use deadly force against the suspect,” Smith wrote.

“As the Sheriff, I have some concerns about this stop and will address them internally with my staff. With regards to the deputies firing their weapons at the tires of the suspect vehicle, it is not a common practice, but the only other option was to fire directly at the suspect or let him go completely putting the citizens of Augusta County in danger.”

Story by Chris Graham

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