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No clarity on whether Capitol Hill shooting was justified

No clarity on whether Capitol Hill shooting was justified
CNN
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Saturday, October 5, 2013 - 10:37am

The 34-year-old dental hygienist from Stamford, Connecticut, had just rammed her black luxury car through barricades and into police cruisers near the U.S. Capitol, one of Washington's securest areas.

In the car with Miriam Carey was her 1-year-old daughter.

Police say Carey then sped down Pennsylvania Avenue before crashing. Two law enforcement officers were injured during the incident, and officers fatally shot her.

But was the shooting of the unarmed woman justified?

Had Carey been shot a few moments earlier, such as when police had surrounded her car and she drove into them or as she sped off, it would have been justified because she had used her car as a deadly weapon, pointing it at the officers, said Mark O'Mara, a CNN legal analyst.

But if the shooting occurred after the car stopped and if Carey had gotten out, as some accounts unconfirmed by CNN have suggested, that changes things, he said.

"If she did not turn on them like she was going for a gun, something to at that point say the threat is ongoing and immediate and imminent, then maybe the police should have taken a breath, waited," O'Mara said.

They would have quickly determined that she posed no threat, he said.

What if police fear a terrorist bomber?

But Maki Haberfeld, chairwoman of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said police would have had no way of knowing whether Carey posed a threat as she got out of the car, and therefore the shooting was justified.

"We live in times of heightened alert as far as terrorist activities are concerned," she said. "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.

"It's a matter of a split-second decision that the police officer needs to take before someone explodes himself. It's all about the larger context. They just push the button, or it could be activated from a remote location."

CNN law enforcement analyst Mike Brooks said the police had no choice but to shoot.

"You don't know if she has a bomb," he said. "You don't know if it's a terrorist attack. The officers just don't know."

Brooks dismissed suggestions that police could have defused the situation simply by shooting out the car's tires. "If you are using deadly force, you are there to try to incapacitate the driver of that car -- of that weapon," he said. "If they did shoot the tires out, the car can keep moving."

And the handguns used by Capitol Police might not have done the job, according to CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes.

"These tires are synthetically wrapped, like Kevlar, like a bulletproof vest," he said.

He noted that law enforcement officers were acutely aware that the incident was occurring near some of the nation's most sensitive sites. "We're not talking about some cornfield in Nebraska," he said. "We're talking about downtown Washington, D.C."

Fuentes said officers had to consider whether the woman had explosives in her car: "Is she just looking for a large gathering of people that she can drive up close to them and explode a bomb?"

Carey's family is questioning whether shooting Miriam Carey was the only way to end the chase.

"We want to know if protocols were followed," family attorney Eric Sanders said on CNN's AC360. "... We are going to conduct our investigation, and we are not going to go with just what the government said."

Rules have changed since 9/11

After the September 11 attacks, police chiefs reconsidered whether the usual rules of using lethal force were sufficient to deal with people who might detonate a bomb when confronted by police.

The U.S. Capitol Police adopted a suicide bomber policy in 2004. Then-chief Terrance W. Gainer told The Washington Post in 2005 that Capitol officers were trained to shoot a suspected bomber who refused to stop and be searched.

The Capitol Police public affairs office could not be reached Friday night to confirm whether that policy remains in place.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police issued guidelines for coping with suicide bombers in 2005, including a recommendation that officers need not wait until the threat is imminent before using deadly force.

Within weeks of that report, London police officers using a similar policy shot and killed a man they had wrestled to the floor of a train because they incorrectly suspected he had a bomb.

Anti-terrorism policies often allow officers to fire without warning a suspect to surrender because a warning might simply alert the bomber to detonate.

Sheri H. Mecklenburg, an assistant U.S. attorney, wrote in the magazine of the international police chiefs group in 2007 that Americans are accustomed to debates about whether a suspect made an overt threat to harm someone.

"In the context of suicide bombers, however, this debate is irrelevant. Suicide bombers always pose an imminent threat of death and serious injury, whether they are moving toward or fleeing from their target, for at any time they may detonate," Mecklenburg wrote.

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