Cops are again using the “vehicle as a weapon” defense to justify killing an unarmed woman after a car chase last week. When Dearborn woman Janet Wilson was killed by officers who fired on her car January 27th, there was no weapon in her vehicle. Michigan State Police First Lt. Michael Shaw claims despite not having a gun, she was still behind the wheel of a three ton weapon.
“Armed or unarmed, what does that mean exactly?” Shaw said. “I think everyone wants it to be clear-cut, but more police officers are killed during the year with a vehicle than guns. … So was she armed? Absolutely.”
Last year a similar defense did clear officers in Denver of wrongdoing; however, shortly afterward the Denver Police Department changed their use-of-force policy to state explicitly that officers may not fire on a moving vehicle unless there is a person inside shooting at them.
In other jurisdictions, this “armed with a three ton vehicle” defense has long been inadmissible. The NYPD has stated that for 15 years they have not allowed officers to fire on a moving vehicle if the occupants are not firing upon anyone.
More recently, in 2013, a Police Executive Research Forum study commissioned by U.S. Customs and Border Protection recommended that CBP officers and agents “should be prohibited from shooting at vehicles unless vehicle occupants are attempting to use deadly force — other than the vehicle — against the agent.”
The officer who shot Janet Wilson has been put on leave and her death ruled a homicide by a medical examiner. She was found with two lethal shots to the torso. Family and friends are demanding justice for her death, calling it a murder.
Shortly before the death of Janet Wilson, Kevin Matthews, another African-American resident of Detroit was killed by Dearborn police on December 23, 2015. Civil rights groups held rallies on behalf of Matthews and called police practices, particularly racially-motivated killings, into question.