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Facing criticism and rise in vehicular shootings, Anchorage police tweak policy

Suzanna Caldwell

Facing criticism from the community over its handling of a series of officer-involved shootings over the last year, the Anchorage Police Department announced changes to its use-of-force policy Tuesday. With the hopes of decreasing the trend of officers shooting at vehicles, APD added a section to its policy that specifically focused on shooting at or from moving vehicles.

“Unless use of deadly force is otherwise justified, an officer shall not shoot at a moving vehicle if the vehicle is being used as the only weapon,” according to a statement from Police Chief Mark Mew summarizing the new policy.

Mew said the new policy could cover an instance when an officer encounters a car whose driver or passengers point a firearm at the officer.

“The vehicle isn't the primary threat there, its the criminals with the firearms,” he said in press conference Tuesday. “An officer could respond in that circumstance without worrying about this policy.”

The goal is addressing the trend in the community, which anecdotally seems to be rising, Mew said. In his statement, Mew said APD researched how other law enforcement agencies across the country have reduced the number of officer involved shootings at moving vehicles. By changing or creating specific policies for shooting at moving vehicles, police departments over the last decade have seen a decrease in the number of shootings.

Mew said the Anchorage policy change came from looking at similar changes made in police departments in San Diego, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Denver, while also consulting with a policy expert.

“It's a trend we thought was unsafe and decided to make some course changes to protect the public and our officers,” he said.

APD is in the process of training its officers on the new policy and providing them with new tactics to complement the added policy. Mew said the department should be fully trained by fall.

This year, there have been three officer-involved shootings of vehicles, one of which proved fatal. Carl Bowie, 27, was killed after leading officers on a high-speed chase through South Anchorage. Officers shot at Bowie when he drove toward two police officers, who only missed being hit after moving out of the way. The two officers involved were cleared by the Alaska Office of Special Prosecution of any criminal wrongdoing.

Law enforcement agencies in Alaska have come under scrutiny over the last year for a series of officer-involved shootings. Last year, Anchorage police had five officer-involved shootings, resulting in two fatalities. Six months into 2013, there has been two.

Moving forward, Mew and other law enforcement leaders have noted they will be working toward trying to mitigate officer-involved shootings. Mew said vehicle policy was just one idea that came out of meetings with Alaska State Troopers and the FBI in February to try to understand the rise in police shootings in Alaska.

Mew said the department is doing “housekeeping” on its current use-of-force policy. He said the department is making “tweaks” to that policy, but that it was too early to say what those changes would be.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com