Charles William Collins was a career drug dealer and petty thief. Miami-Dade police knew as much when two undercover cops followed him into a bright-yellow pawnshop on NW Seventh Avenue in Liberty City on August 14. They pulled out their badges and asked him for ID. Collins said he left it in his car. But when he stepped inside the stolen Volkswagen hatchback, he threw the vehicle in reverse and hit the gas. An officer opened fire, killing Collins on the spot.
Collins didn't have a gun, but an MDPD spokeswoman said the shooting was justified because he had turned his car into a deadly weapon.
That excuse is beginning to wear a bit thin. Nearly a quarter of the shootings by MDPD this year have involved officers opening fire on someone armed with only a car, including a case three months earlier when cops shot and killed suspected jewelry thief Orestes Fernandez after he, too, allegedly tried to run over an officer.
Of the 17 MDPD-involved shootings so far in 2012, four of them involved cops allegedly protecting themselves from vehicular assault. (Because all four cases remain open, the department declined to provide incident reports, and a spokesman declined to comment.)
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The frequency of such shootings raises questions about whether cops are breaking protocol by putting themselves in harm's way. "Their policy prohibits using deadly force to stop fleeing felons," says one officer from another local police force, who asked that his name not be used. "These are just people trying to get away, but they end up paying a much heavier price for it."
"It's a training issue," he says, suggesting that MDPD officers are being taught to step in front of cars to give them a reason to fire. "It makes me afraid to get in the car, honestly, for fear of what they'll do to me at a traffic stop."
But Dade County Police Benevolent Association president John Rivera insists his officers are acting in self-defense. "At the end of the day, we are all spectators," he told Channel 10 after the Collins shooting. "Those police officers are in the middle of the arena. If they feel in danger... they have to take action."