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Fatal police shooting of Temple student highlights deadly force debate

Cariann Hithon, a 22-year-old Temple University student, was shot by police in Miami Beach, Fla. after the car she was driving struck an officer. The police department recently changed its policy regarding shooting at moving vehicles.

Cariann Hithon, a 22-year-old Temple University student, was fatally shot by police Sunday in Miami Beach, Florida.
Cariann Hithon, a 22-year-old Temple University student, was fatally shot by police Sunday in Miami Beach, Florida.Read moreYoutube

A rowdy crowd swarmed the vehicle, many with cellphones raised and recording.

"Y'all all get out the way so in case she drives off," a woman is heard warning on one of the recordings.

"She's drunk," came another voice from the crowded Miami Beach, Fla., street.

Temple University student Cariann Hithon, in the driver's seat of the black BMW, the front bumper smashed in, held the wheel and glanced at the passenger beside her.

Then she took off.

What happened in the next frantic seconds Sunday evening — the car rammed into an officer, shots were fired, the car veered into a parked vehicle — ended the life of the 22-year-old woman and put a spotlight on an evolving debate on deadly force: When should police be allowed to shoot at moving vehicles?

For decades, many major police departments have said: Almost never. But some are reconsidering, prompted by terrorist attacks in Europe in which drivers have rammed large vehicles into unsuspecting crowds. The Miami Beach Police Department just five months ago updated its policy to allow officers to shoot when a vehicle is moving into a group of people, according to the Miami Herald.

"Police chiefs and other policy makers are saying, we cannot stand by and let someone drive a semitrailer down Fifth Avenue and kill a bunch of New Yorkers," said David A. Klinger, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri St. Louis and a former police officer. "We can't let someone drive down the sidewalk in Miami when there are a bunch of revelers out."

Police departments over several decades moved toward restricting when police can shoot from or at moving vehicles, citing concerns that innocent people could be harmed by the gunfire or by the vehicle if the driver is shot and loses control. New York City adopted its ban in 1972 after a 10-year-old boy was killed in the crossfire of such a shooting.

Philadelphia updated its directive in 2015, banning officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless the driver is "immediately threatening the officer or another person by means other than the vehicle," such as firing out the window.

But the policies have not meant an end to the incidents, in Philadelphia or nationwide.

A Washington Post review found that between January 2015 and May, police had killed at least 193 people who were inside vehicles at the time they were shot. A 2015 Inquirer investigation found that Philadelphia police had shot 43 people in vehicles since 2002, killing eight. In many cases, the Inquirer found, the drivers were unarmed.

In May 2016, Philadelphia Police Officer Shannon Coolbaugh fatally shot 52-year-old Richard Ferretti while Ferretti was searching for a parking spot in Overbrook. Ferretti's family has since sued the city. Coolbaugh has remained on desk duty pending an investigation by the District Attorney's Office.

A Philadelphia police spokesman said the department's policies are subject to "perpetual review" but did not say whether the department was actively considering changing its rules around firing at moving vehicles.

New York City did that in February, giving officers the discretion to shoot at moving vehicles to prevent a "mass ramming incident," like the Bastille Day 2016 attack in Nice, France, in which a man intentionally drove a semitruck into a crowd, killing 86.

Klinger said other police departments have done the same, and he expects more will follow. He equated it to how, after the Columbine High School massacre, police departments across the country rewrote their policies to allow officers to enter active shooting situations before SWAT teams arrive.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor of political science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said she has long found strict bans on shooting at vehicles to be impractical.

"Police officers find themselves in an impossible situation," she said. "And to make that assessment whether someone behind a wheel is just intoxicated or has malicious, premeditated intent is not something they can do, no matter how much training you have."

Miami-Dade Police have opened an investigation into Hithon's shooting. In a statement, the head of Miami Beach's police union defended the officer who fired on the car, saying the union "cannot dismiss the fact that an officer was hit with deadly force by a vehicle that was driving recklessly and fleeing from the scene of an accident."

After reviewing news reports on the shooting, Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major City Chiefs Association, agreed.

"It's clear the young woman had no intention of stopping. She'd already injured someone, injured the officer," he said. "And so they fired to try to stop that from continuing to take place."

Philadelphia civil rights attorney Paul Messing, who also teaches at Temple, said while it is true that Hithon was a "fleeing felon," it might not have been necessary to use deadly force. Having a vehicle involved, he said, changes the equation.

"It's very hard to watch something like this," he said after seeing videos from the scene. "This was obviously a young person with great promise, and we don't know everything that happened out there, but it looks like she panicked. And a situation quickly devolved into a terrible tragedy. And one that could have been avoided."

Hithon's father told the Associated Press that she was in Florida celebrating her 22nd birthday. He said Hithon, who is from Maryland, had transferred from Hampton University in Virginia to Temple recently and planned to graduate in the spring and go on to law school.

"Being an attorney to help the underserved is something she wanted to do," Cary Hithon, a retired Navy captain, said Tuesday. "She would have been a good one."

According to the AP, Cariann Hithon had been charged with several crimes while at Hampton, including misdemeanor assault and battery, and marijuana possession. She had several motor vehicle violations and had her license restricted last year for six months in connection to a marijuana possession charge.

It is unclear why Hithon was trying to flee the scene Sunday. According to the Herald, investigators believe she and her friend had been drinking.

Police say moments before the shooting, she had smashed her vehicle into two cars, then ran a red light, and hit a car driven by a retired county homicide detective, the newspaper reported.

That is when officers arrived and bystanders started to circle the car. Videos show the car screeching forward and hitting an officer a few yards away. Another officer fired three shots, and Hithon's car immediately veered to the left, hitting a parked car.

The final frame of one video showed an officer kneeling in front of Hithon performing CPR.

Staff writer Chris Palmer contributed to this article.