Media reports of innocent civilians being shot by police have become all too familiar, but the news out of Hugo, Oklahoma regarding a police-involved shooting stands out from the rest. Three children (the oldest being only 5 years of age) were shot when police attempted to apprehend a 21-year-old man in the vehicle with the children. The man, who was also shot by police, was suspected of robbing a local restaurant a couple of weeks earlier.
According to media coverage of public protests of the shootings, it appears as though some people have already concluded that the detectives from the Hugo Police Department were at fault for firing into the vehicle. As any criminal defense attorney knows from defending individuals falsely accused of committing crimes, basing an opinion on what is reported in the media without analyzing actual evidence frequently leads to false assumptions.
What the Public Knows or Think They Know About the Shooting
The facts about the April 26, 2019, shooting vary from one news report to another, but one constant is that detectives from the Hugo Police Department believed the man in the vehicle – which was also occupied by a woman and her four children -- was the suspect they were looking for in connection with an armed robbery. Shots fired by the police struck the man and three of the four children in the vehicle.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation issued a statement immediately after the incident relaying the notion that detectives fired into the vehicle after its driver, the robbery suspect, attempted to run them over. The woman in the vehicle is quoted by her attorney as being unaware that the people approaching the vehicle were police, because they were not in uniform.
The OSBI investigation into the shooting presents several questions that need to be answered:
Did the actions of the driver of the vehicle justify the use of deadly force by police?
Were police aware of the presence of other occupants of the vehicle before they fired on it?
Was the woman occupant (identified in news reports as the mother of the children) aware that the driver was wanted by police?
The investigation should provide evidence which reveals a more accurate and complete picture of what took place as opposed to the bits and pieces of information that are currently available.
Use of force by the police
The United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of use of force by police making an arrest in its 1989 decision Graham vs. Connor. Rather than creating a specific rule to apply in all situations when evaluating an officer’s use of force, the Court chose instead to use what it characterized as “objective reasonableness” to satisfy the reasonableness standard for arrests under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
The Court ruled that the use of force by police should be evaluated from the perspective of the police officer. Factors to be taken into account, according to the Court, should include the following:
- severity of the crime,
- threat posed by the suspect, and
- attempts, if any, by the suspect to evade or resist the arrest.
Depending upon the evidence revealed by the OSBI investigation, the shooting by police could turn out to be justified when applying the objective reasonableness standard of the Graham case, but the wisdom of firing into a moving vehicle might still be called into question.
Limitations on Firing Into a Moving Vehicle
Law enforcement agencies around the country limit the authority of police officers to fire at or into a moving vehicle in part because of the findings of a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Justice concerning the use of excessive force. The report included a recommendation that police should not fire at a moving vehicle when the deadly force to which they are responding involves the use of the vehicle itself.
The Hugo detectives, according to preliminary reports, fired at the vehicle because its driver was attempting to use it to against them. According to the DOJ report in 2013, the risk of injury to other people, including other occupants of a moving vehicle, did not justify shooting at it. The lack of justification is even more pronounced if the OSBI investigation reveals the officers could have avoided being struck by the vehicle without firing their weapons.
OSBI Investigation Must be Transparent
OSBI owes it to the victims of the shooting, to law enforcement, and to the citizens of Oklahoma to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation of the Hugo incident. Public officials must review the facts of the shooting and formulate policies and procedures to protect innocent bystanders from harm while allowing law enforcement officers to carry out their sworn duties.