Dana Russell was driving up Roosevelt Boulevard on a freezing February afternoon in 2011 when he realized the car he just passed was his stolen Chevy Impala.
Ten days before, two men had hijacked the burgundy sedan from his wife.
“They all got guns on them, I know that for sure,” Russell told the police dispatcher as he turned around and tailed his stolen car into North Philadelphia.
The officer asked how he knew.
“’Cause my wife was robbed at gunpoint.”
At the wheel of the 2000 Impala sat Frederick Bell, 41, an ex-con with a long rap sheet. Next to him was Jamil Moses, 24, who two days before had escaped from a halfway house where he was serving the end of a four- to eight-year prison sentence for armed robbery.
An epic chase was on — a pursuit that would last 10 minutes and reach high speeds through narrow, crowded streets, drawing officers from three districts and two task forces.
It ended at 23d and Susquehanna, between the Anna B. Pratt Elementary School and the Raymond Rosen housing project, where the stolen Impala slammed into a squad car. Police cruisers surrounded the Chevy.
There, six police officers fired 56 bullets into the car, leaving one man dead — and the other man wealthy.
Neither suspect turned out to have a gun. It was what police call a bad shooting.
The city would pay $2 million to the family of the slain passenger, Moses, who had three bullet wounds in the back of his head and neck, and $500,000 to the driver, Bell, who was gravely injured.
That $2.5 million formed the biggest settlement involving a vehicle shooting in the city’s history.
Not only is shooting at a moving car almost always against Philadelphia police regulations — even a car coming toward officers, which is what several of them testified was happening that day.
It’s also extremely dangerous, experts say. And it rarely works.
But since 2002, Philadelphia police officers have shot 43 people in vehicles, killing eight of them, an Inquirer review of confidential police investigations has found. That has cost the city $5.8 million.
Eight out of 10 times that police shot into vehicles, officers were found to have violated department policy. The most common punishment for those found guilty of violating the rules, records show, was a reprimand.
The Inquirer’s analysis of vehicle shootings is based on Internal Affairs documents gathered from civil litigation and interviews with attorneys, police, and community members.
Philadelphia police have repeatedly narrowed the circumstances in which officers can fire their weapons since 2001, but the problem persists.
Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey tightened the rules on firing at moving vehicles a year ago after two undercover officers shot and critically wounded a pizza deliveryman, an incident still under investigation by the district attorney. Ramsey prohibited officers from firing at a vehicle unless they themselves were under fire. But since then, police have shot people inside moving vehicles at least four times, wounding three.
The latest incident involved Rudolph Keitt, who police said crashed his car into a wall in North Philadelphia on May 12, then struck three officers as he tried to make his escape.
Officers said Keitt, 47 and unemployed, appeared incoherent when officers tried to pull him from the car after the crash. His lawyer said Keitt had suffered a seizure — a bad reaction from medication he took for schizophrenia.
A commander called off the chase, according to a police dispatch recording that surfaced last week. He told officers to stay clear of the driver. At a red light, more officers approached Keitt, who hit a patrolman with his car before he was shot in the chest and seriously injured.
The commissioner acknowledges that his department needs better tactics and training when it comes to suspects fleeing in cars. (Previous coverage: Police had called off the pursuit before Keitt was shot | Related NBC10 video.)
In March, the Department of Justice made 91 recommendations to reduce all types of police shootings in Philadelphia. Ramsey had requested the federal review in 2012 after officers’ use of lethal force surged.
In an interview, he pledged to move as quickly as possible on the Justice Department proposals.
Officers must understand the consequences of their split-second decisions, he said. “By the time you pull the trigger, the car has moved and now your target is somebody else,” he said. “There could be other occupants in the car, even children.”
The real tactical question, he said, is “Why are you in front of the car?”
Pointing to a portrait gallery of fallen officers hanging in his conference room, Ramsey added: “But at the same time, I don’t want any more pictures on my wall. I also don’t want officers to be so hesitant that in a case when they should use deadly force, they don’t. And that’s the balance.”
The Moses case, while not mentioned in the federal report, illustrates many of the failings flagged by the task force — weaknesses gathering evidence and finding witnesses, and months-long delays interviewing officers who fired their weapons.
As a result of the police investigation, two officers were disciplined: a one-day suspension for an officer who fired 13 shots and a reprimand for an officer who fired twice.
Police found that four others who discharged their weapons into the car did not violate police rules. The officers said they shot because either they believed they were under fire from the car’s occupants or thought the driver was reaching for a gun.
Photographs of the shooting showed the Impala’s front wheel locked in the wreckage of a squad car. That raised questions about some officers’ accounts that the stolen vehicle was moving toward them when they shot, attorneys on both sides of the case said.
University of Pennsylvania law school professor David Rudovsky reviewed the police investigation of the shooting for The Inquirer and found it to be seriously flawed.
“This is a classic example of an Internal Affairs investigator not asking the critical question and uncritically accepting the officers’ version of events when that information contradicts the physical evidence,” he said.
“Over the years, I’ve reviewed hundreds of Internal Affairs investigations,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen a similar pattern of neglecting evidence.”
The settlement paid to the Moses family will care for the three children left fatherless by the shooting.
Carolyn Moses did not know about the results of the Police Department inquiry into the death of her son until she recently spoke with Inquirer reporters.
Tears began to flow.
“I never got a phone call from the Police Department,” she said. “I watched it on TV. It was hushed up from the beginning, because they know they did wrong.”
The first radio call came shortly after 3 p.m. that Tuesday in 2011 as Dana Russell recognized his Impala heading south at Rhawn and the Boulevard.
Officers from the Narcotics Strike Force, the Northwest Task Force, the Highway Patrol, and at least three police districts joined in pursuit as dispatchers began broadcasting alerts of the stolen car’s location.
Twice, the 911 dispatcher characterized the incident as involving a “car taken at gunpoint,” according to a recording of the radio calls. An officer asked when the Chevy was carjacked. A week earlier, the dispatcher replied after pulling up information on the case.
911 call from the scene at the shooting of Jamil Moses and Frederick Bell at 23rd and Susquehanna
The dispatcher returned to broadcasting that the car was taken “at gunpoint,” without mentioning when.
As Bell rammed into the front end of a 35th District patrol car, three more police cars converged almost immediately to box in the Impala from all sides.
What happened next is difficult to discern from the investigators’ reports; officers gave different accounts of the chaos.
Four officers said the Chevy pulled away from the mangled patrol car, backed into another cruiser, then drove directly at police officers.
According to another officer’s account, police pulled open the driver’s door and tried to yank Bell from the vehicle. Bell broke the officers’ grip, grabbed the gear shift, and tried to dislodge the Impala from the mangled cruiser, this account went.
The Police Department said none of the officers involved in that day’s shooting would talk about the incident with The Inquirer.
Bell never spoke publicly about what happened that day. In May, he was shot to death outside his mother’s home after an argument. A 24-year-old man faces murder charges.
The first officer to open fire was John McCarron of the strike force. He shot twice when the Chevy jumped forward, he told investigators.
“The vehicle lurched forward towards the two officers who were immediately to the right of me,” he said, according to Internal Affairs transcripts. “That’s when I discharged my weapon. … When I discharged, all the other officers discharged.”
Officer Mark Oliveras, of the 22d District, fired 13 shots at the windshield.
“The vehicle looked as though it was freeing itself and began coming forward at me,” he told investigators.
Oliveras said he held his position in front of the Chevy throughout the shooting because “there was nowhere for me to go.”
“I was standing in the same spot,” he said. “I was basically still covering.”
One officer said that when he saw glass fly and bullet holes in the Impala’s windshield, he assumed the people inside were armed and shooting at police.
He fired his .40-caliber Glock seven times through the Impala’s back window.
The two officers who said they were hit as the vehicle backed up and then drove at them fired a total of 28 rounds into the Chevy. They were treated and released from Albert Einstein Hospital that day — George Fox with a bruised leg, Joseph Burke with bruises on his back, knee, and arm.
Moses, who was also hit in the chest by a bullet, likely died within a minute of the shooting, the medical examiner found.
“The tactics displayed by the officers were not sound,” Lt. David Van, an Internal Affairs investigator, wrote. He was referring to the way police had put one another in danger.
“Miraculously, no officers were struck by friendly fire.”
It wasn’t just officers who were in danger. After the police cars screeched to a halt, a distraught mother called 911 to warn about children nearby.
“There are kids getting out of school,” she told the dispatcher. “My child is outside. They shouldn’t be doing that.”
Shooting at moving vehicles works a lot better on the big screen than in real life.
Thomas Streed, a behavioral scientist and former San Diego homicide detective, put it this way:
“You fire a bullet, and it will not stop the car. And if you hit the driver, now you’ve got a worse problem.”
Another worry, he said, is contagion — “the first shot is an invitation for the others to open fire.”
He ventured that police shoot at moving cars out of a mixture of nerves, self-preservation, and reflex.
“No. 1, they’re panicky. No. 2, they want to go home at night. And if they have their hand on their own weapon, there’s a tendency to fire back without clarity.”
Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminologist and national expert on the use of force, said officers must be trained to get out of the way of a moving vehicle first and shoot only as a last resort.
“If they hit the driver, they now have an unguided missile,” he said. “It risks everyone, all the civilians, and everyone around. This is why most departments have banned it.”
In 2001, then-Commissioner John F. Timoney ordered police not to shoot fleeing people if they didn’t present a threat of imminent death or serious injury to officers or others.
Before the change, police regulations allowed shooting fleeing suspects who were wanted for murder, rape, or other violent crimes.
Timoney also tightened rules on shooting at cars so officers could not open fire unless occupants were threatening their lives with some deadly force other than the vehicle.
That meant officers could no longer consider a car moving toward them as cause for firing in self-defense.
Still, the vehicle shootings continued.
A study by the city’s Integrity and Accountability Office found that 53 of the 72 police shootings between 1998 and 2003 in which a suspect was unarmed also involved moving vehicles.
Since that study, there has been a reduction in the number of shootings at cars.
Commissioner Ramsey introduced new rules in May 2014 that further narrow police responses to moving vehicles:
“Police officers shall not discharge their firearms at a vehicle unless officers are being fired upon by the occupants of the vehicle.”
Ramsey introduced the change a month after two undercover officers shot Philippe Holland, 21, who was nearing the end of his evening shift delivering pizzas in West Philadelphia.
Fearing the plainclothes officers who approached him were robbers, Holland tried to drive away.
In a lawsuit filed in February, Holland alleges the officers didn’t identify themselves as police before they shot him.
A spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office said prosecutors were investigating the shooting to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.
After the Moses shooting, police investigators interviewed 27 officers, but no residents of the crowded neighborhood where the cars collided.
Lt. Van, of Internal Affairs, wrote that efforts to locate witnesses were “conducted with negative results.”
News outlets quickly found bystanders, as did lawyers for the Moses family.
Ramsey acknowledged that the department sometimes has difficulty getting residents to help in investigations of police shootings.
“There are still some communities where we’ve not made real strong inroads in terms of being able to build relationships and get cooperation,” he said. “That’s not new.”
Numerous apartments of the adjacent Raymond Rosen housing development had clear views of the scene.
April Talley, 44, who lives just across from the crash, talked with reporters immediately after the shooting.
She still lives in the apartment and said recently that she was shocked by what she saw as she was standing outside her home that day in 2011.
“The cops told the boys to get the … out of the car,” Talley said. “It looked like the driver was reaching to open the door. A cop said, ‘He’s got a gun.’ Then they started shooting.”
Talley said no officers ever asked to speak with her about what happened. Had police gone to Talley’s home, they also could have talked with her daughter, Shanae, 22, another witness.
After the Impala crashed into the 35th District car, she said, it didn’t drive toward other officers.
“That car was right there all the time,” Shanae Talley said.
Ramsey replied that residents often will talk to reporters before they will cooperate with police:
“A TV camera shows up and you’ll have people wanting to talk to you who didn’t see a damn thing.”
Paul Hetznecker, a civil rights lawyer who represented Bell and the Moses family, called the police investigation in his case a whitewash.
“Traditionally,” said Hetznecker, who has handled scores of civil cases against police, “investigations into police-involved shootings conducted by the Philadelphia police have served a single purpose — to shield the officers from accusations of wrongdoing.”
The Moses investigation took police 357 days to complete. Interviews with the officers who fired did not begin until November, nine months after the incident.
The District Attorney’s Office determined that it would not file criminal charges against any officer in the shootings 170 days after the incident.
“That’s not appropriate for either the city or the officers,” said Alpert, the criminologist. “The timing is horrible. Best practice, and Ramsey would know this, is that there should be parallel investigations.”
In 2013, the Justice Department report found, Philadelphia police took more than 250 days to complete the average shooting investigation.
In other cities, the task force found, investigations close far more quickly.
The waiting period to interview all police involved in a shooting should be no more than 72 hours, the Justice Department reported. They noted that the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends that officers be given a waiting time “from a few hours to several days.”
Police should try to complete the shooting investigations in 30 days, the Justice Department advised.
That’s a tall order for Philadelphia, where the police union has veto power over most major changes that affect officers’ exposure to prosecution.
Union president John McNesby says that although change is needed, the rights of officers must be protected.
Ramsey said his department was working with prosecutors to develop a program that would allow investigators to interview officers sooner.
But any change is “going to require more resources” in Internal Affairs, the commissioner said. He declined to speculate when those reforms might be implemented.
Ramsey acknowledged his new policy requiring police to hold fire unless they themselves are under fire from someone in a vehicle will take time to sink in.
“I’ve been around a long time,” he said. “I don’t expect anything to stop on a dime.”