In about 250 of the 400 seemingly avoidable deaths, The Times found that police officers had fired into vehicles that they later claimed posed such a threat.
Relative to the population, Black motorists were overrepresented among those killed.
On a Sunday in May 2017, a patrol car sat outside the…oldest public housing project [in Phenix, AL], waiting for anyone acting suspiciously. The two police officers heard Cedric Mifflin before they saw him, blasting music from a silver Mercury Grand Marquis. Then they tried to pull him over: He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
Mr. Mifflin, a 27-year-old Black man, kept driving. What happened next is disputed, but how it ended is certain. Officer Michael Seavers leapt out of the patrol car, drew his gun and fired 16 times at the moving car….Most motorists were killed while attempting to flee.
…The officers’ decision to pull [them] over appeared to be…“pretextual”…, when the police stop drivers ― often people of color ― for an infraction and then look for a more serious offense, two policing experts said.
…Like Mr. Mifflin, the other drivers had been pursued for nonviolent offenses, many of them minor. A seatbelt ticket in Phenix City that would have cost $41.
…The officer’s defense of killing Mr. Mifflin, who wielded neither a gun nor a knife, is one repeated over and over across the country: The vehicle was a weapon. In a New York Times investigation of car stops that left more than 400 similarly unarmed people dead over the last five years, those words were routinely used to explain why police officers had fired at drivers.
…The country’s largest cities, from New York to Los Angeles, have barred officers from shooting at moving vehicles. The U.S. Justice Department has warned against the practice for decades, pressuring police departments to forbid it. Police academies don’t even train recruits how to fire at a car. The risk of injuring innocent people is considered too great; the idea of stopping a car with a bullet is viewed as wishful thinking.
“Bad idea. Bad to do,” said Carmen Best, the former Seattle police chief, in an interview. “If you think the vehicle is coming toward you, get yourself out of the way.”
…But in many instances, local police officers, state troopers and sheriff’s deputies put themselves at risk by jumping in front of moving cars, then aiming their guns at the drivers as if in a Hollywood movie, according to body-camera footage. Or they reached into cars and became entangled with motorists, then opened fire.
…“You see many where bullets are in the back of the car, in the side of the car,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina who has researched high-risk police activities for more than 30 years. “In the high 90 percentile of cases I’ve seen, the person’s just trying to get away.”
[Phenix City, AL] is typical of many communities where fatal police encounters with motorists have occurred over the past five years. It’s in the South. It has fewer than 50 patrol officers. With under 39,000 residents, it’s relatively small. The police department has lower training and qualification requirements than those of big cities. A G.E.D. is enough.
“They’re not Navy SEALs,” said Kenneth Davis, the district attorney in Russell County, home to Phenix City. “These guys are average guys.”
…Some officers who fatally shot motorists didn’t appear to be in any jeopardy at all, The Times review showed. In some cases the vehicle was stationary, even incapable of moving. Yet prosecutors found that the claim that officers feared for their lives or the lives of others was enough to justify all but the rarest of shootings.
…Critics of the practice argue that shooting at a driver is ineffective or even disastrous. “It’s like you’ve created an unguided missile,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy nonprofit. “You’ve basically lost control.”