What police officers should — and shouldn’t — do when a suspect flees from a felony traffic stop

An expert said, “the vast majority of folks who flee are young men making a stupid decision.”

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At the end of June, we asked readers like you to pose your law enforcement questions for us to investigate and answer.

While the facts in the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II in East Pittsburgh are still being determined, we set out to answer broader questions about issues, systems, statistics and solutions when it comes to policing. We received numerous queries, including this one from an anonymous questioner:

“What are cops to do when suspects bolt & run in a felony traffic stop?” 

So we went to experts with a few questions related to this query:

  • What is felony stop protocol?
  • When should an officer give chase?
  • When is an officer allowed to shoot a fleeing suspect?

Of course, the answers vary and depend on circumstances and location.

First, what is a felony stop?

A felony stop is any stop of a vehicle that contains a driver or passenger suspected of having committed a serious crime or who’s wanted on an outstanding felony warrant. In this case, “serious crimes” means those involving violence — armed robbery, assault with a weapon, homicide, etc. These are crimes that could give officers reason to believe the suspects in the stopped vehicle are armed and dangerous.

What is felony stop protocol?

High-risk or felony stop protocol is fairly well-established. An article in Law and Order magazine identifies “two widely used felony stop methodologies — the traditional felony stop and the felony prone method.”

The first involves a suspect being ordered from a stopped vehicle and to his or her knees. The second method involves a suspect being ordered into the prone position, essentially lying face down on the ground, instead. The article, written by Andy Borrello, a retired police captain, said, “It is easier to maintain control of a suspect who is in the prone position than in a kneeling position.” In both methods, occupants of the vehicle are told to exit the vehicle only once backup arrives and multiple units are in position nearby.

Seth W. Stoughton, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police-involved shootings, broke down felony-stop protocol into the following highlights:

  • Officers should not initiate the stop until there is backup with them. “The first officer shouldn’t try to get the subjects proned out. [He or she] should leave them in the car until there are sufficient officers on scene to manage everyone.”
  • Officers should park their vehicles a couple of car lengths away from the suspect vehicle (further away than the normal traffic stop).
  • When the suspect vehicle stops, officers should use their own vehicles for cover or concealment.
  • With some officers providing lethal cover (firearms out and pointed at the suspect vehicle), one officer should give verbal commands that call the occupants out of the suspect vehicle, one at a time.
  • Each occupant is commanded to show that they don’t have any weapons in their waistband (by pulling up their shirt at the collar) and walk backward toward the officers’ position until they are told to kneel or lie down.
  • While some officers cover the vehicle, other officers will move slightly forward to take the subject into custody, do a quick search, and secure them in a police vehicle. Then the next occupant will be called out.
  • Once all occupants have been secured, officers carefully approach and clear the vehicle (to make sure it really is empty).

Stoughton, whose columns on police-involved shootings have appeared in the New York Times, added, “There’s no one source of the high-risk stop protocol; the presentation can be fairly informal in that the procedure may be relayed verbally during training and not written down in a policy. Still, that protocol, or variations of it, is used when officers stop stolen vehicles or vehicles involved in violent felonies. It isn’t used for all felonies, only those situations officers believe have a high risk — officers may not use high-risk stop procedures for a felony fraud suspect, for example.”

What should officers do when a person flees?

Chuck Drago, a police practices expert and former police chief for Oviedo, Fla., told PBS an officer must ask themselves, “Am I creating more of a danger by chasing this person than if I let this person stay at large? Especially in a vehicle pursuit, is it worth risking everyone on the road to catch this guy?”

Drago said in a foot pursuit, “the more reasonable option might be to call for backup, including perhaps with a police dog, so that other officers can set up a perimeter and trap the suspect.”

Stoughton added that “On average, about 300 people are killed during police pursuits every year, and the best estimates are that roughly a third of them are innocent bystanders.”

Some agencies have more permissive pursuit policies than others.

“At agencies with permissive pursuit policies, which allow officers to chase for most or all offenses, most vehicle pursuits are the result of someone failing to stop for a traffic offense like speeding or an inoperable taillight,” Stoughton explained.

“Officers chase because, the thinking is, the person would only run if they did something more serious than what the officer is aware of; this is the ‘body in the trunk’ argument (as in, ‘They might have a body in the trunk.’). Sometimes that may be the case, but it’s extremely unlikely; studies of why people flee from the police suggest that the vast majority of folks who flee are young men making a stupid decision.”

Stoughton said police agencies following best practices have adopted restrictive pursuit policies that allow officers to chase only in the context of violent felonies.

Are officers allowed to shoot at fleeing individuals?  

The answer is “yes” — but with conditions.

Tom Nolan, a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who’s now an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Merrimack College, said, “Certainly it’s not in compliance with standard police training and protocol to shoot at individuals who are fleeing the police. The police are not trained to do that unless there is a threat to an officer or innocent bystander or an imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death. Absent that there’s no justification.”

In the 1970s, officers were “often authorized under state law to shoot a person in the back to keep the suspect from evading arrest even if the individual clearly posed no threat,” according to the Associated Press.

That changed in 1985 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Tennessee v. Garner decision prompted by the fatal police shooting of Edward Garner in Memphis a decade earlier. Garner, who was black, unarmed and just 15 years old, was shot in the back of the head by an officer while trying to scale a fence. Minutes earlier, Garner had reportedly broken a window, entered a house and stolen a wallet containing $10.

In its 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court decided that shooting a fleeing suspect who does not pose an imminent threat violates the suspect’s constitutional rights. So, yes, officers can shoot at a fleeing suspect, but they must have reason to believe that fleeing suspect presents a threat to them — harder to prove when a suspect is running away — other police or members of the public.

The justices also said officers should, if possible, shout out a warning before firing.

Ryan Getty, an assistant professor with Sacramento State’s Division of Criminal Justice and a 34-year law enforcement veteran with stints in Dallas and Georgia, said high court decisions like Tennessee v. Garner have further codified what police are allowed to do in such cases.

“It used to be, when I went through the academy, that when you said stop and a person didn’t stop, even if it was just for jaywalking, you could shoot them, and that changed with Tennessee v. Garner,” he explained. In a followup email, Getty said his jaywalking reference was an exaggeration, but only a slight one. He said officer-involved shootings required little justification beyond “the victim matched a vague suspect description and did not respond to commands.”

There is no federal lethal-force law, but Tennessee v. Garner “helped guide many states in the development of their [deadly force] laws,” per the AP. States still have “tremendous leeway over what types of standards to adopt,” the AP added, “or whether to adopt them at all.”

Legally speaking, what an officer perceives during a felony traffic stop and the moments before a shooting also matters.

If an officer thinks they saw a gun, even if there was no gun present, they have more legal protection following a shooting. But proving — or disproving — what an officer saw or thought they saw can often be difficult for prosecutors. Critics continue to argue that law officers have too much latitude under the law in determining when and where the use of deadly force is appropriate and in justifying uses of deadly force after the fact.

An officer can, however, be justified in shooting at a fleeing suspect to prevent that suspect from harming others.

“My go-to example is a confirmed serial killer armed with a handgun who is running toward an occupied playground,” Stoughton said, adding, “A fleeing subject can present such a threat, but only under fairly rare and rather extreme circumstances.”