Use of Force: Do Critics of Miriam Carey Police Shooting Have a Case?

She was unarmed, they say. And she suffered from postpartum depression -- and she had a baby in the car. She didn’t hurt anyone. So why did the police have to shoot her? Why didn’t they just shoot out the tires, or use rubber bullets, or do any of a thousand other things other than what they did? Why, why, why?

Today we know that Miriam Carey, the woman shot and killed by police in Washington, D.C., last Thursday, was neither a terrorist nor a hardened criminal. And we know she was not armed, at least not in the sense the term is usually employed. But in effect she was a criminal, and she did indeed have a weapon: a 3,600-pound car that she used to ram a security post near the White House, where the incident began.

In evaluating what any individual officer did or should have done in the succeeding eight minutes, it’s important to place oneself in the position of that officer. In light of what any of those officers knew about Carey when the incident began and through those eight minutes -- which is nothing at all -- was it unreasonable for them to suspect that she may have been a terrorist, or that she was otherwise motivated to harm the president or others at the White House? When she fled from that initial encounter, rather than drive into a random neighborhood in Northwest Washington, she drove straight to the Capitol. There, with several police cars in pursuit, she drove onto a sidewalk and right up to another barricade before suddenly backing into a police car and nearly striking several officers.

Would any reasonable police officer not be even more inclined to believe an attack on the government was taking place?

Even then, after being fired upon as she drove away (about which, more later), Carey did not continue north on First Street NW and away from the Capitol and the surrounding government buildings as she could have. She instead turned east on Constitution Avenue, skirting the Capitol grounds and bringing her past the Senate office buildings and within a block of the Supreme Court. This behavior fit the profile of one who had made a list of specific targets and would press her attack until she either succeeded or was stopped.

If a police officer is not at this point thinking something truly dangerous is afoot and that he must take every reasonable step to prevent it from continuing, he is in the wrong line of work.

Yes, it is lamentable that Miriam Carey was killed, and all the more so that she chose to bring her young daughter along for her Road Trip to Doom. But one must ask of those who, now apprised of what we’ve since learned about Carey, insist that the officers should not have shot her: What would you have had them do?

Any use of force by a police officer must be judged based on facts reasonably known to the officer at the time. Or, as the Supreme Court put it in Graham v. Connor, “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” (And note that Graham v. Connor arose from an incident in which police officers erroneously -- but reasonably, according to the court -- believed they had stopped a robbery suspect.)

Suppose for a moment a set of facts different from those that unfolded on Thursday, though one so similar as to present identical options to the involved officers:

A female driver with a young child as passenger rams a sports car into a barricade near the White House, then leads officers on a chase to the Capitol, where she drives onto the sidewalk and right up to a barricade, the only obstacle between her and the Capitol steps. Unable to proceed forward, she then backs into a police car and swerves along the sidewalk, in so doing nearly striking some of the many police officers present, some of whom fire at her. She then drives along the outskirts of the Capitol grounds. But police commanders, fearing a public relations backlash, order restraint and forbid the officers from using any more deadly force to stop her. She then crashes through the barricades lining the sidewalk at Constitution and Delaware, coming to rest at the steps of the Russell Senate Office Building. She then detonates the 500 lbs. of explosives she carries in the car, killing dozens, including some senators.