WASHINGTON - After a car chase through the heart of the nation's capital ended with police shooting to death a 34-year-old Connecticut woman, security experts are wondering whether that was their only option.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said the first shots were fired Thursday after the woman rammed a Secret Service vehicle near the Capitol building. The second, fatal round of shots was fired several blocks away when the woman crashed near a barrier to the Capitol complex.
Michael Lyman, a former criminal investigator who has studied use-of-force guidelines for police, said the woman's inability to penetrate barriers around the White House downgraded the situation from a national security concern to an "old-fashioned pursuit." From that point on, he said, officers should have tried to use other means to stop the car.
"Shooting at a moving vehicle is against all nationally recognized protocols," said Lyman, a criminal justice professor at Columbia College of Missouri.
Lyman said the possibility of accidentally striking innocent bystanders is just too high when trying to shoot at a moving car.
"Cops get rattled," he said. "And when they get rattled, police don't always shoot straight."
Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, said that Washington's unfortunate history as a target of terrorist attacks cannot lower the threshold for officers deciding to open fire in a crowded area.
"Does it increase the level of risk? Yes. But it's still the same standard as any other use of force," Alpert said. "The officers need to explain why each one pulled the trigger and each bullet expended."
Even if police were trying to shoot out the tires of the car in an effort to disable it - something people see in movies and TV shows all the time - experts say that's an incredibly difficult feat to actually pull off. Dan Kennedy, a forensic criminologist, said police are instructed not to attempt that, because bullets end up ricocheting off the pavement or the vehicle and potentially striking bystanders.
"There's been a real disconnect between reality and expectations on the part of civilians based largely on what they've seen on TV and in the movies," Kennedy said. "It's generally a bad idea to fire at a moving vehicle and most police departments don't allow it."
But this wasn't just a car chase down a desolated highway. The woman struck and injured an officer with her car when the chase began near the White House, she rammed a police car while evading police by the Capitol building, and the car was careening through an area filled with embassies, federal buildings and throngs of tourists.
"The officers felt their lives were in ... jeopardy, or other citizens' lives could've been in fear as well," Ed Clarke, a security expert, told WUSA-9. "It's very quick how they have to make a critical decision. In a matter of milliseconds."
Lanier said Thursday that the officers who reacted to the pursuit acted "heroically" under intense pressure. Given the route of the pursuit - from the White House to streets all around the Capitol building - officers did not know the intentions of the driver and had to respond assuming the worst.
"There were multiple vehicles that were rammed," Lanier said. "There were officers that were struck. And two security perimeters that were attempted to be breached, so it does not appear in any way this was an accident."
Lyman said officers could have tried to place tire-deflation devices on the road ahead of the driver. They could have used more cars to try and box her in.
Most important, Lyman said, Thursday's shooting should prompt D.C. law enforcement agencies to consider installing more pop-up vehicle barriers throughout the area. There are several such barriers - metal gates that can be raised up from the road - next to many federal buildings. But Lyman said Thursday's chase shows how they could be used along other streets in the capital region.
"These would not only stop a vehicle, they would give law enforcement officers the opportunity to apprehend without resorting to deadly force," he said. "That should be a conversation that law enforcement should have in D.C."
Alpert said the shooting should also prompt D.C. law enforcement to consider bolstering approaches to the White House, Capitol and other critical buildings.
After the driver rammed into the White House barriers, she was able to evade police and escape, starting the high-speed chase. Alpert said law enforcement should at least consider military-style entrances that include a wall that can be erected behind an approaching car to prevent it from getting a away.
"You drive up into a guard post. Once you get into that area, you're talking to the guard and if you're suspicious at all, they put up a huge barricade behind you," Alpert said. "You're absolutely blocked in and have nowhere to go."