How Police Justify Killings at Traffic Stops: ‘The Car Was a Weapon’
A Times investigation into a common defense for shooting motorists found that some officers had put themselves in danger. Others appeared to face no peril at all.,
An investigation into traffic stops across America and the deaths of hundreds of motorists at the hands of police.
Kenny Holston for The New York Times
How Police Justify Killing Drivers: ‘The Car Was a Weapon’
PHENIX CITY, Ala. — On a Sunday in May 2017, a patrol car sat outside the city’s oldest public housing project, 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. He thought Mr. Mifflin intended to run him over, he said later.
“I had never felt the fear that I had at that moment,” Officer Seavers, who is white, told investigators in a statement. He said he thought of what a vehicle can do “to a human body and how I would die if I didn’t react.”
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.
When asked in a deposition whether a man he had fatally shot in 2017 had used a weapon, an officer in Forest Park, Ill., answered, “Other than a moving vehicle, no.”
Minutes after sheriff’s deputies near San Leandro, Calif., killed a shoplifting suspect and injured a passenger in an S.U.V. in early 2019, an officer asked what weapons they had been armed with. “A vehicle,” one deputy replied.
And a lawyer for a sheriff’s deputy who shot a driver in Wichita, Kan., in late 2019 said the motorist had used “a 4,500-pound vehicle as a weapon.”
In about 250 of the cases, 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.
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. A cracked taillight in Georgia, a broken headlight in Colorado, an expired registration tag in Texas. Most motorists were killed while attempting to flee.
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.”
Moving vehicles can be deadly. Nine officers have been fatally run over, pinned or dragged by drivers in vehicles approached for minor or nonviolent offenses in the past five years.
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.
Often, the drivers were trying to get away from officers, edging around them, not toward them, the footage shows, and the officers weren’t in the path of the vehicle when they fired.
“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.”
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.
Officer Seavers faced no charges in the Mifflin case. Phenix City and state officials have declined to release police body- and dashboard-camera videos of the fatal encounter. “All it’ll do is inflame people, and people don’t understand the fine points of the law,” the city’s lawyer, James McKoon, said in an interview. “And this guy was scared to death when he shot.”
Jeremy Bauer, a forensics expert in Seattle who has testified for police departments nationwide and for families of people killed, reviewed the state investigative report, witness testimony, photographs and other materials and concluded that the officer had not been in peril. It would have been impossible, he said, for Mr. Mifflin to have been headed for Officer Seavers when the shots were fired.
“The officer just wouldn’t have been in the path of the vehicle,” Dr. Bauer said.
Enacting a Ban
Once, Phenix City was known as the Sin City of the South, and its major industry was vice: gambling, brothels and bootleg booze. In 1940, the U.S. secretary of war called it the “wickedest city in America.” Politicians and the police were on the take. After a top candidate in the Alabama attorney general’s race in 1954 pledged to clean up the city, he was gunned down.
Now, the town has a new slogan: “Positively Phenix City.” Local officials still boast of its 2007 BusinessWeek designation as one of the country’s most affordable suburbs — just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Ga. — for raising a family.
The city 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.”
The chief, Ray Smith, joined the department 32 years ago and has led it for the past 12. His two predecessors each spent decades with the department. Its use-of-force policy — governing how officers are permitted to subdue people — has not been revised to include reforms that many other departments have adopted. Chief Smith didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview. Neither the police department nor Mr. McKoon responded to detailed questions about The Times’s findings.
Law enforcement killed two unarmed Black men here in 2013: One was shot after he drove through a stop sign, led officers on a chase, fled his car and allegedly refused to come out from under a vehicle; another, naked and mentally ill, died after being stunned with a Taser 19 times and then restrained.
Phenix City’s use-of-force policy mentions that police officers can fire their weapons to “destroy” a threatening animal. It allows for shooting “during range practice or competitive sporting events.” While it prohibits firing from inside a moving vehicle, it doesn’t say anything about shooting at moving vehicles.
That is unusual: Out of nearly 200 departments that had such shootings and provided their policies to The Times, just 13 did not address the issue.
“It’s something that has never come up,” said Chief Darryl Laxton, in Oneida, Tenn. He added: “This is not a very active place. A lot doesn’t go on.”
Most other departments surveyed had policies prohibiting officers from shooting at moving vehicles — but they were ambiguously worded and allowed officers to do so if they felt the need.
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.”
To identify cases where police fired into vehicles, The Times reviewed data collected by The Washington Post and the research groups Mapping Police Violence and Fatal Encounters. Reporters then filed hundreds of public-records requests, analyzed more than 115 video and audio recordings, examined investigative records and interviewed dozens of experts and motorists’ families. In addition to the 250 otherwise unarmed drivers, scores of such shootings involved motorists who held weapons or were being pursued for violent crimes.
The movement to stop shooting into moving vehicles began in New York City in 1972. The police department banned the practice as part of a package of reforms after an officer shot and killed an 11-year-old boy, who had been joyriding with two friends, and wounded the driver and two passers-by.
In 1972, the city’s police officers were involved in 994 shooting incidents of any kind; the next year, 665. By 2019, officers fired their guns only 52 times. And since the ban, not one on-duty officer has been killed by a vehicle fleeing a traffic stop.
The nation’s 25 largest cities have since adopted similar bans. (Some carve out exceptions for terrorists aiming vehicles into crowds.)
No one disputes that cars can be deadly: Scores of officers have been killed working accident scenes or writing tickets. But no officer in any big city that has banned the practice has been fatally run over by a vehicle he or she stopped.
The bans haven’t entirely stopped the police from fatally shooting unarmed motorists in moving vehicles not suspected in violent crimes. Still, only 11 such deaths have occurred in those departments collectively in the last five years.
On April 1, the department tightened its rules, but with a big exception: Officers could shoot if “the vehicle’s movement poses a threat that justifies the use of deadly force.”
Four days later, officers pursued a stolen car suspected in an armed robbery and two purse snatchings. After it stopped, officers fired 15 shots, hitting the 16-year-old driver, Iremamber Sykap, in the back of the head, records show. Two officers said they shot to protect themselves and “members of the public.” One said the teenager had “rammed” his patrol car and “reversed” directly at him.
But body-cam videos show that the patrol car wasn’t rammed, the car didn’t reverse directly at the officer and officers fired when it was moving away.
The three officers were criminally charged, but a judge dismissed the charges. The officers are back on patrol.
A Stop, a Chase and 16 Bullets
Mr. Mifflin’s friends thought he would become a comedian. They called him “Kevin Hart” because he looked and behaved like the comic-actor. Mr. Mifflin pretended to find the nickname tiresome — “Lol here u go,” he’d write on Facebook — but he embraced it.
He sported a tattoo of praying hands on his left forearm; his right was inked with the name of his daughter, Shay, whom he fathered in high school. If friends got annoyed at him, he’d badger them into forgiveness. Only 5-foot-4 and 130 pounds, Mr. Mifflin acted streetwise, posing like a tough guy in photos. But that was a front; he never got into fights, and friends often mocked him for how he spent his Sunday mornings.
“He was the one who stayed in church with his grandma,” said Dontrell Grier, Mr. Mifflin’s stepbrother.
Mr. Mifflin lived in Columbus with his grandparents, a social worker and a retired small-town Georgia police chief who instructed him to always follow police orders. When Mr. Mifflin was 22, he agreed to testify in court after witnessing a mother leave a toddler alone in a car for at least 20 minutes.
He worked stocking shelves at Walmart and Piggly Wiggly. He loved cars, but he allowed more than eight years of traffic tickets for infractions like driving without a seatbelt spiral into a crisis, including a suspended driver’s license, a misdemeanor for not showing up in court, thousands of dollars in fines and potential jail time, according to court records.
Mr. Mifflin stole $265 from the Piggly Wiggly when he was 26, about the same time he lost his job there, records show. And Walmart later terminated him.
On that fateful Sunday in May 2017, he drove from Columbus to Phenix City to pick up a friend at the Frederick Douglass Homes, a public-housing complex with mostly Black residents.
The officers’ decision to pull him over appeared to be a “pretextual” stop, when the police stop drivers — often people of color — for an infraction and then look for a more serious offense, two policing experts said.
The officers seemed to be “looking for a reason to stop him because they felt that he was up to no good — he plays loud music, he doesn’t have a seatbelt,” said Michael Gennaco, a former federal prosecutor who works with police departments to improve accountability and reviewed the case for The Times.
Why did Mr. Mifflin drive off? Maybe because of the suspended license. Maybe because of a story his stepbrother liked to tell: Mr. Grier had been a passenger in a car pulled over after the driver initially didn’t obey commands to stop. The Phenix City officers had aimed their weapons at him and dragged him out of the vehicle and across a parking lot.
Whatever the reason, instead of complying, Mr. Mifflin sped across a busy road. The police chased him. At that point, he was just four minutes from the Georgia line. He only needed to make it to the corner near Ed’s barbecue, take a couple of turns and cross a bridge.
But an S.U.V. blocked his path: Djaron Green, a manager for a financial company, was about to turn into the restaurant for lunch.
So Mr. Mifflin whipped his car into Ed’s parking lot, stalling out, Mr. Green recalled in an interview. Sirens blaring, the cruiser came to a stop, pointing toward Mr. Mifflin’s rear passenger door, according to the report by the Alabama State Bureau of Investigation, which examines any officer-involved death.
Officer Seavers jumped out of the passenger side of the patrol car. Gun drawn, he confronted Mr. Mifflin.
The driver backed his car away from the restaurant — the officer later described the vehicle’s “spinning tires” to investigators, according to the state report, obtained by The Times from Mr. Mifflin’s family. The document included some details from the unreleased body- and dash-cam videos, mentioning that Mr. Mifflin’s “front right tire was turned to the right towards the area of Officer Seavers.”
The patrol car driver, Cpl. Jason Searcy, told investigators that he had begun to reverse the cruiser and didn’t see anything, but “heard several gunshots.”
Officer Seavers did not reply to requests for comment; most of the other officers mentioned in this article declined to comment or could not be reached. Officer Seavers told state investigators that the Mercury had come straight at him. So did an Ed’s employee who was inside the restaurant during the encounter; she did not respond to messages from The Times.
But Mr. Green, the closest witness, said the car never came near Officer Seavers. Instead, he said, it appeared to move around him. And Dr. Bauer, the forensic expert, concluded that Officer Seavers was never in harm’s way.
Dr. Bauer created a video reconstruction for The Times, drawing on the state report and other records. (The Times offered to let state and city officials review the video; they declined.) The officer initially fired twice; both shots entered the passenger side of the front window at a sharp angle, indicating that the car was moving past the officers, Dr. Bauer said. Both hit Mr. Mifflin. Either would have been fatal.
The vehicle kept traveling forward; Officer Seavers turned his body and his gun to follow. Four bullets entered the passenger’s side of the car. As it passed, the patrolman emptied his magazine, striking the back of the car multiple times, the state investigation shows.
“His life was not in danger if the vehicle was leaving,” said Isaac Lawrence, Mr. Mifflin’s grandfather, who added that he had been trained never to fire at moving vehicles. He wanted to ask the officer, “So why did you shoot him?”
Mr. Mifflin’s sedan drifted across a road and finally stopped at a used-car lot. At first, the two officers thought Mr. Mifflin had fled on foot. Instead, he was slumped over, dying from seven bullet wounds.
Creating Their Own Jeopardy
In November 2020, Deputy Jafet Santiago-Miranda of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office searched for a stolen car in Cocoa, Fla. He spotted a similar vehicle, which pulled into a driveway, then backed out. The deputy left his cruiser and stepped in front of the car, then fired 10 times as it moved slowly forward, the dash-cam video shows.
The driver, A.J. Crooms, 16, and a passenger, Sincere Pierce, 18, who had been planning to hang out with a friend, were dead. Officials later said that the vehicle was not the stolen car. (As in several other cases, guns were later found in or near the car, but they played no role in the confrontation.)
This April, Deputy Nolan Davis of the Delta County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado tried to pull over a white Honda with no license plates. The driver fled, eventually running over “stop sticks” placed by another deputy, which flattened the Honda’s tires. As the car attempted to maneuver between Deputy Davis’s patrol truck and a white truck, he stepped out of his car into the path of the Honda, body-cam footage shows. Deputy Davis moved backward as he fired eight times, even after the Honda passed him. Paige Pierce, 26, was dead.
The driver “was about to hit me,” Deputy Davis told his superior. “I had no choice, Sarge.”
Deputy Davis later said that when he stepped from his patrol truck he thought that the driver may have exited the Honda and been “possibly stopping to flee on foot,” according to a review by the district attorney.
Neither deputy lost their job or faced criminal charges.
In dozens of fatal cases over the past five years, officers reacted similarly, jumping in front of vehicles or failing to move out of the way.
Such decisions are dangerous for both motorists and officers. Over the past five years, three officers who leaned inside vehicles during stops were killed when the drivers took off. Six others were run over by vehicles they were facing down, like Amy Caprio, a Baltimore County police officer killed in May 2018 after responding to a call of a suspicious vehicle connected to a burglary.
“I just wanted to get away,” wrote 17-year-old Dawnta Harris to a judge after running over the officer. “From the bottom of my heart, I thought she was going to move.”
Many big cities that ban shooting into moving vehicles also say officers should not step in front of cars. But of the departments that responded to The Times, more than two-thirds — mostly outside big cities — had no such policy.
“If we have to write a policy to tell someone to not step in front of a moving vehicle, then we wouldn’t be hiring very smart people, would we?” said Capt. Mike McCoy of the Fulshear Police Department in Texas, which has no such ban. “Sometimes, common sense must take over.”
Shootings sometimes had unintended consequences. In the cases reviewed by The Times, law enforcement officers did not just hit drivers: They killed eight passengers and injured at least 17 more.
In December 2017, for instance, a part-time deputy in Grundy County, Tenn., named Mike Holmes kept firing after a Mustang he had pursued for reckless driving fled — hitting the side and rear of the car multiple times. One bullet hit the passenger, Shelby Comer, 20, killing her. (In an interview, Mr. Holmes, who is no longer in law enforcement, said the driver had pointed a gun at him; no gun was ever recovered.)
Mr. Holmes was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide, one of three law enforcement officers convicted after vehicle-as-weapon shootings in the past five years. “If I’ve ever had a regret in my life, it’s making that decision to pursue that Mustang that night,” he said at his sentencing hearing. “I should have discontinued the pursuit. I should have stopped.”
He was given three years’ probation.
A Pair of Settlements
The day after Cedric Mifflin was killed, Phenix City’s police chief said the encounter was traumatic not only for the man’s family “but for the entire police department.” He described the death not as a killing but as a “situation.”
“We’re going to try to find out everything that we can about how to avoid it in the future,” Chief Smith pledged at a news conference.
But as of August, Phenix City had not changed its use-of-force policy to even mention shooting at moving vehicles. Officer Seavers was still a patrol officer. The police department did not respond to questions about whether he had faced any discipline.
In his written statement, the officer said he fired at the rear of the vehicle because if Mr. Mifflin had just tried “to kill a police officer, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill a citizen.”
State investigators waited two days to question Officer Seavers and did not record their interview with him, records show. Mr. Gennaco, one of the nation’s top police oversight consultants, described the state’s inquiry as “inconsistent with basic investigative protocols.”
Mr. Davis, the county’s district attorney, brought the case before a grand jury, typical in police shootings. He called a handful of witnesses and played the body- and dash-cam videos. Police found no weapons or drugs in the car. The grand jury opted not to charge him.
“I honestly thought it could go either way,” Mr. Davis recalled.
After the grand jury decision, Mr. Davis suggested to Mr. Mifflin’s mother, Pochya Sanders, that she get a lawyer — advice he says he always gives in cases like this. She hunted for someone willing to sue Phenix City, she said, but most lawyers told her that Alabama juries side with the police.
Two months after the lawyer she eventually found filed a wrongful-death suit, the city offered Ms. Sanders $100,000 to settle. Her lawyer, Kenneth Shinbaum, advised her to take it, even though neither of them had seen the video footage. So she agreed. (The law firm got 50 percent of the settlement, a high rate for such contingency fee arrangements.)
The city then offered to show her the videos, but she decided that she couldn’t watch her son die. Now, Ms. Sanders said in an interview, she wants them to be made public. “I just need the truth,” she said.
Officer Seavers also sued the city — a workers’ compensation claim over an “accident occurring on the job” the day of Mr. Mifflin’s death. The officer said he suffered hearing loss that day, in all likelihood because of gunfire. The city settled for $5,500.
No police or city official reached out to Mr. Mifflin’s family after he was killed, his mother said. She was the one to identify her son’s bullet-ridden body. “I carried him for nine months. I’m the first person he ever talked to, the first person he ever smelled,” she said.
She chose a baby blue coffin. At the Looking Good clothing store in downtown Columbus, she picked out a $50 blue suit for him. Blue was his color.
Reporting was contributed by Donovan J. Thomas, Rick Rojas, Erica Sweeney, Sydney Cromwell and Glenny Brock. Julie Tate, Susan C. Beachy and Kitty Bennett contributed research.