The Alexandria Police officer who accidentally killed a teenager last year will receive “major disciplinary action,” according to a statement released this week by Police Chief David Baker. After concluding an internal administrative investigation into the Feb. 25 shooting that resulted in the death of 18-year-old Springfield Aaron Brown, Baker announced that the department will modify its procedures for handling similar incidents.
“This is one of the most tragic cases I have encountered in my 36 years of law enforcement experience, and I offer my heartfelt condolences to the Browns,” said Chief Baker, who was named as head of the department in September. “As chief, my responsibility is to ensure that with proper training, sound policies and awareness of this case, no other family will have to experience what the Brown family has suffered.”
Police officials refused to release the report or even say exactly what the punishment will be, although a spokesman for the department said that Officer Carl Stowe will receive anywhere from 3 to 30 days of suspension without pay. Through their lawyer, the family of the victim discussed Baker's action.
“Aaron Brown would not have died if Officer Stowe had followed his police department’s rules,” the statement said. “He should not have put himself in front of a moving vehicle and should not have fired into a vehicle which he knew contained innocent passengers. Now we feel somewhat vindicated that the discipline of Officer Stowe announced today by Chief Baker recognizes what we have said all along. Police officers as trained professionals are supposed to avoid creating lethal confrontations.”
THE SHOOTING happened on a February morning in the Alexandria’s west end. Brown and a group of five friends were leaving the International House of Pancakes in the 6200 block of Duke Street in, where Stowe was working as an off-duty officer providing security for the restaurant. After an employee of the restaurant told the officer that the group left without paying for their food, Stowe went outside to confront the group.
By this time, they were already in a 1995 Jeep Cherokee on their way out of the parking lot. Stowe directed the driver — Stephen John Smith, who was 19 at the time — to stop. Smith apparently ignored the order and began to flee. Stowe place himself in the path of the oncoming vehicle and fired several shots into the jeep, one of which killed Brown at the scene.
Charles Samarra, who was then chief of police, appeared at a City Council meeting shortly after the shooting to tell elected officials that he would investigate the shooting as if the victim had been his own son. He also took the opportunity to address the growing concerns about the behavior of one of his officers.
“One of the things that has been very hurtful to us is the suggestion that someone would get shot for not paying a bill,” Samarra said. “Nothing I have seen any indication that is the case.”
In June, Commonwealth’s Attorney S. Randolph Sengel released a 52-page report exonerating Stowe from any criminal charges. According to the report, Stowe fired six shots — the third one ripping through Brown’s heart, killing him almost instantly. The fatal shot was fired at an angle that was perpendicular to the vehicle, indicating that the officer was no longer in danger of being hit by the vehicle when he fired the round that killed Brown.
“While Stowe was not in the path of the jeep at the instant he fired the shot which killed Brown, the forensic evidence of the case and scientific studies of human reaction time established that Stowe could not reasonably have been expected to have reacted differently and stopped firing before he fired the fatal shot,” Sengel concluded. “He was place in a position of reasonable apprehension of death or serious injury by the subsequent actions of the driver of the jeep, and he was entitled to defend himself.”
ALTHOUGH SENGEL’S report was narrowly focused on whether or not the officer had violated the Virginia criminal code, the Police Department’s internal investigation examined the city’s policies. Chief Baker concluded that Stowe acted within department policy in his decision to use lethal force in self-defense. But the internal investigation also concluded that Stowe “unreasonably placed himself in a position that allowed the situation to elevate to a level of high risk as he attempted to stop the fleeing vehicle.”
As a result of the internal investigation, Baker decided to revise police department policy and training for handling similar changes. From now on, Baker said, the department will have a more restrictive policy that “prohibits officers from moving into, standing in front of or remaining in the path of a moving vehicle for any reason, except when conducting routine traffic control and direction.” The policy governing shooting at moving vehicles has been amended, prohibiting officers from doing so “except as a last resort in the most extreme and exceptional circumstances when necessary to avoid the immediate and clearly foreseeable danger of death or serious injury to police officers or other individuals.
“We are also pleased that Chief Baker has announced a new policy that strengthens the policy against police officers creating confrontations with moving vehicles containing innocent passengers,” the Brown family said in their statement. “We hope this prevents other deaths.”