Pulled over for a defective taillight in the area of a suspected drug house, the driver of the Mercedes Benz showed a Clark County sheriff’s deputy his Washington ID card but had no proof of registration or insurance, investigators said.
Once the driver told deputies that his license was suspended, the traffic infraction turned into an alleged misdemeanor, giving officers the authority to get him out of the car and arrest him.
When he apparently refused, two deputies put their hands on him to pull him from the four-door sedan — one of the most dangerous and unpredictable maneuvers for everybody involved, policing experts say.
It’s also a tactic that officers usually don’t get a lot of detailed instruction on how to do effectively, police trainers said.
“It’s like a pursuit in a sense, there’s no good way to do it,” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina who studies police use of force.
“I don’t think I’ve seen good training on how to extract someone from a car,” Alpert said. “It’s a very rare event when someone doesn’t want to get out. Most people comply.”
While much remains unknown about what exactly transpired Feb. 4 on a residential road in Hazel Dell, the basic outlines provided by investigators describe a chaotic scene that escalated quickly with an unarmed Black man.
Once the driver refused to exit the car, police experts and trainers said the responding county deputies could have backed off, blocked in his car, waited him out or even let him go in what appeared to be a low-level case.
Instead, two of the deputies tried to force 30-year-old Jenoah Donald out of his car shortly after 7:30 p.m. that day in Hazel Dell, an unincorporated community north of Vancouver.
Donald grabbed onto Deputy Sean Boyle’s outer ballistic vest and pulled him into the Mercedes, started the car and revved the engine, according to a Vancouver police detective’s synopsis of what happened. The police department is leading the investigation.
Boyle felt the car move forward and feared for his life, the police report said. The deputy had one hand on the car’s floorboard but was unable to free himself, unholstered his gun with his left hand and shot Donald, according to police. Donald died Friday, his family’s lawyer said.
It appears from what police have released so far that the deputy made a tactical error, Alpert said.
“The question is how in the world did he get in the position where a guy could grab his vest and get him in the car?” Alpert said.
While the deputy may be justified in firing once he felt his life was in jeopardy, Alpert said investigators must ask: “How did he get in that position?”
The law enforcement community also must ask after a shooting like this: “What could have the police done differently?” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. The independent Washington, D.C.-based organization provides management and education services to police agencies.
“Reaching into the car is a high-risk maneuver, and you really want to think, ‘Were there other choices?'” Wexler said.
When a driver doesn’t follow commands to get out of a car, “You have to ask yourself, ‘What do I really have here? What was the threat? What was the compelling reason to make an arrest?”
Beyond the suspended license, the deputies appeared to have no other justification for Donald’s arrest at the time they tried to remove him from his car, according to the initial police report.
“Clearly this had the ending that no one would be happy with, including the police,” Wexler said. “Once you ratchet it up, the situation inevitably gets worse.”
CONSIDER JUSTIFICATION FOR A STOP
Police typically are trained not to enter a car or reach in to grab keys.
They’re also taught to try to immobilize and secure a car — by asking the driver to hand them the keys, place them on the dash or car roof — before officers even open a door to get a driver out, police trainers said.
If the driver refuses, officers should slow down, make a plan with other officers who are at the scene or call for backup officers, Alpert, Wexler and other observers said.
Some police agencies train officers to fire a Taser, stunning the driver to give officers a chance to remove someone without a struggle.
Others, including the state training academy in Washington and the Portland Police Bureau, train officers to use control holds to remove a driver.
But when all that fails, officers should consider backing off and rethinking their response, policing experts said.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office declined to describe the specific training its deputies receive on traffic stops or how to remove a resistant motorist from a car. The agency didn’t respond to a public records request for its training manuals.
But Sean Hendrickson, a program manager for the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission, discussed training as well as gaps in instruction. The commission provides 19 weeks of basic training for all law enforcement recruits in Washington — except for the Washington State Patrol, which runs its own academy.
New officers are taught to consider the legal justification for taking someone from a car during a traffic stop and then instructed on tactics, including gaining leverage and using “pain compliance,” Hendrickson said.
The phrase references a range of techniques from finger and wrist locks to hyperextending a person’s elbow, he said. That forces people to move as officers want them to, he said.
But if an officer opens the car door, grabs a driver and the person starts to resist, “We actually don’t spend that much time on that part of it,” Hendrickson said.
“From a skills standpoint, we do not practice enough of that scenario to have answers as quickly as they’re going to need them,” he said.
The training instead focuses in on having officers ask: “Can we slow this down? Can we get more officers there?”
‘IT CAN BE DIFFICULT AND DANGEROUS’
The Washington training commission last year began providing a required additional 40 hours of officer training every three years, with 24 hours of that devoted to de-escalation, Hendrickson said.
Oregon’s 16-week basic training for new officers doesn’t cover the removal of uncooperative drivers from cars during traffic stops, said Linsay Hale, the state Department of Public Safety Standards & Training’s interim training director.
Individual police agencies, such as the Portland Police Bureau, can provide their own training in subsequent advanced academies.
Portland police adopted a directive prohibiting officers from entering an occupied car that is “readily capable of being driven (i.e. engine running or keys in the ignition) without substantial justification.”
That followed the fatal shootings by police of 21-year-old Kendra James in 2003 and 28-year-old James Jahar Perez in 2004, both killed during stops as officers unsuccessfully tried to remove them from cars. Both were unarmed but uncooperative with police.
After those shootings, Portland police revamped training to focus on “distraction techniques” and control holds designed to get the driver out of a car. They’re never supposed to reach into a car and are encouraged to call for at least one more officer if they decide to try a removal.
“Because extracting uncooperative persons from vehicles is so potentially problematic, such situations demand planning and effective, thought-out tactics,” investigators from the Police Assessment Resource Center, hired by the city, concluded in a 2005 report.
Portland police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Allen said officers are taught to weigh risks and circumstances.
“It can be difficult and dangerous,” he said, so police look at the size and strength of the driver as well as the size, strength and number of officers at the scene.
Police look for potential weapons in the car and determine whether the car is capable of moving, the size and height of the car, its door opening and whether the person is wearing a seat belt, he said.
OFFICERS CAN BACK AWAY
The Hazel Dell stop occurred after a 9-1-1 caller reported suspicious cars circling the area of a suspected drug house.
Early in the traffic stop, one less-experienced deputy reported seeing a “ball-handled” object with a sharpened stake on the end near the center console inside the car from her vantage point standing outside the passenger side of the Mercedes.
She said she also saw the driver pull a cellphone and a pair of metal pliers from behind him in the driver’s seat.
The police search warrant return filed in court, though, identifies only a cordless Kobalt drill found on the front passenger seat and no reference to an object with a stake or pliers in the car.
After Boyle opened the driver’s door and Donald refused his directions to step out of the car, Boyle and another deputy attempted to grab onto Donald and pull him out. When he started to struggle with the deputies, fellow deputy Holly Troupe placed “finger pressure” under Donald’s jaw but the move had no effect, according to a police affidavit. Boyle struck Donald in the nose with his closed fist, again having little effect, the affidavit said.
Then the driver grabbed onto Boyle’s vest and pulled him into the car, the affidavit said.
Merrick Bobb, founder of the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center, said deputies in this case could have considered other options before they went hands-on, especially because they described the driver as uncooperative,
refusing to keep his hands visible or stepping out of the car as requested.
“Don’t put yourself in a position where they can either pull you into a car or in a position where the car could take off and you’re hanging on for your dear life,” Bobb said.
Other options include firing a Taser, deflating the car’s tires or putting down spike strips or a block in front of the car’s wheel to prevent it from moving, he said. Bobb’s organization provides independent examinations or advice on policing.
Some training instructors urge officers to balance the need for an arrest with the potential dangers by considering these questions:
What is the reason for the stop? What’s the severity of the alleged crime? Can I wait and call for more backup? Can the car move? Is the engine running or is it in gear? Can I get stuck or caught in the car if it suddenly moves?
In the Hazel Dell case, because the deputies had the driver’s name and information, letting him drive off might have been an option. Police could have shown up the next day at his door with a warrant.
“So you have someone who’s noncompliant for a very minor offense,” said Alpert, the criminology professor. “You’ve got to ask, ‘Why bother?’ It doesn’t seem like it’s worth all the time and effort on such a minor offense.”
Or the deputies also could have been creative, Alpert suggested: Take the ID from the driver and tell him he can get it back when he comes to pick it up at the Sheriff’s Office. Or just wait him out until he has to use the bathroom and gets out on his own.
Brian Higgins, a retired New Jersey police chief who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said officers need to know they can back away.
“Once you enter the vehicle, you’re now at a disadvantage as an officer,” he said. That’s not consistent with most training.”
“Being drawn into the thinking that once we start a situation that it has to come to a conclusion is getting cops in a lot of trouble and getting them hurt,” Higgins said.
“Especially now, you really have to balance what the purpose is of the stop and how far you want to go,” he said.
Higgins called the fatal shooting of Donald, stopped for a traffic violation and driving with a suspended license, “a tragedy no matter how you look at this.”