Slovak police officers are not specialists in shooting at moving cars, stated Police President Tibor Gašpar when explaining why a police patrol shot and killed one of the passengers in a car chased by police on the night of June 17-18.
The incident took place after the police attempted to stop a car driven by 19-year-old Michal of Zlaté Moravce (Nitra Region), who was known to the police for driving without a license. After the patrol switched on their sirens, the driver accelerated and caused a threat to other road users with a risky manoeuvre.
During a 12-kilometer chase between Nová Baňa and Hronský Beňadik, the police, who were not aware of the other passengers in the car, fired three warning shots. Then one of the police officers who was aiming at the right rear wheel, accidentally hit the back of the car instead. The bullet penetrated the boot of the car and hit one of two passengers on the back seat. The driver eventually stopped and the police found that a 17-year old boy was injured. Despite providing first aid the boy died.
“The crew confirmed that it registered warning shots and asked the driver to stop,” Gašpar told the press. “He refused to do so with added commentary along the lines of - they could stick it!”
He added that this caused the passengers to become hostages of the driver.
The police action was also defended by Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák who attended the session of the parliamentary defence and security committee on June 20.
“They had been threatening the oncoming cars,” Kaliňák said, as quoted by the Sme daily, adding that in some cases a car may be used as a weapon.
The whole incident will be investigated by the police inspectorate, according to the minister.
Lack of practice
While police claim that the driver is responsible for the tragedy, they have failed to answer the question of whether the patrol requested reinforcements which would have been able to cut him off or shoot more accurately. Moreover, Gašpar admitted that the police corps have no driving simulator to train people to shoot at moving vehicles during a chase.
In general, common police officers have poor gun training and only a few rounds per year to practice with, according to firearms instructors approached by Sme.
“The police officers we meet have 16 bullets for training [per year],” one of the firearms instructors, who requested anonymity, told Sme. “What can a person learn with that?”
Life should be the first priority
In such a situation, police intervention is allowable when there are no other options for stopping the vehicle. The police can shoot a fleeing car when it directly threatens other people, legislation says.
“The management of the Police Corps should devote more attention to these issues, however, and re-evaluate such interventions,” security analyst Milan Žitný told Sme, adding that the police should consider changing the policy to put the preservation of human life ahead of stopping a car.
The policy is also flawed by not containing directives that dictate where the shots should be targeted, according to Žitný.
There are some principles which police officers have to follow during actions and one of them is to act when they see wrongdoing. This principle forces police officers to take action. It is up to them whether they shoot sooner or later but ultimately, they would need to stop the driver, according to police Vice-President Ľubomír Ábel.
“Even if he knew that there were other people in the car, that would not change the fact that he had to put maximum effort into stopping him [the driver],” Ábel told the Denník N daily. “If the police officer did not act and then they crashed and everyone in the car was killed, how would the public then evaluate it?”
Police training does not currently involve simulations of shooting from a moving position at a moving target, thus police officers have no experience to draw from when firing during a car chase, according to Gašpar.
“We may even have to construct such a simulator,” Gašpar told the press.
The police failed to answer questions about how many bullets its officers fire per year. Older statistics say that it is 200 rounds per year which is still half the amount that Czech police officers have to train with.
“Training is standard and it runs in the same way as training programs in the surrounding states,” Ábel told the press. “We can only judge the failure of a specific police officer.”
He added that the police are also missing helicopters during chases which would follow drivers until they stop and try to run.
Kaliňák also considers the training standard. When asked whether they plan to change the methodology for using weapons, he said that they are working on a document that currently has 70 pages, Sme reported.
Camera Evidence is missing
Investigation of the police action is currently being carried out by police inspection. However, there is no video recording because the police patrol was in a civilian car with warning sounds and lights.
Inspections will evaluate the situation on the basis of the GPS signal from the police vehicle and the report of the police and crew members.
The driver who initiated the incident is in custody and awaits a decision on his prosecution from a regional judge in Žiar nad Hronom. In addition to his violation of a court order which banned him from driving, he could also face charges of failing to provide first aid.
There have been several similar cases of shootings during car chases in recent years.
For example, police are still investigating a case where police officers shot at and kicked a young female driver while she was lying on the ground after she had been caught for speeding away from the police and refusing to stop in August 2016.
Last year a police patrol also shot at the car of Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Andrej Hrnčiar, though no injuries were reported.
Customs officials shot a female migrant from Syria close to Veľký Meder (Trnava Region) in May 2016 after a driver carrying three refugees refused to stop. She underwent surgery and survived.
Another police shooting incident involved a car filled with four students on the D2 highway in June 2013. The car was mistaken for a stolen vehicle and the officers made the decision using outdated information from the police database.
None of the students were injured and Kaliňák after years of refusing to apologise, eventually paid each of them €3000. One of students refused to take the money.