Sirens blared and emergency lights flashed as two flat tires spun on the road, spewing sparks and emitting the shrill screech of metal on asphalt. An end was near.
But the fleeing SUV trucked on, its driver undeterred by a 10-minute police chase through much of Baton Rouge’s Garden District. Eventually, a police car pulled into the SUV’s path, and the erratic driver headed straight for the unit until the bullets arrived.
One bullet. Two bullets.
The driver, whose actions were captured by dashboard cameras inside a police car, began to turn. A third bullet pierced the windshield, and as the driver passed the police officer, a fourth and a fifth bullet entered the vehicle through the open driver-side window, forensic evidence shows.
One of those two bullets struck Tyris Wilkerson behind his left ear, killing him. The other exited the front passenger window.
A sixth bullet traveled through the rear windows, and, moments later, on that summer night in 2013, the SUV spun off the road and crashed into a gate at Baton Rouge Magnet High School. The chase ceased.
A month ago, a grand jury cleared Officer Joshua Gillich, the shooter, of any criminal wrongdoing in Wilkerson’s death. An internal police review of the incident also found Gillich did not violate department policy when he pulled the trigger on his handgun, finding his shots were justified.
Yet Wilkerson’s death raises difficult questions about the use of deadly force during a police pursuit. When does an officer start shooting? When does an officer stop?
And, perhaps most importantly, is shooting into a vehicle directly traveling toward an officer the right choice?
The police officers involved in the chase, including Gillich, declined through a police spokesman to comment on the matter. However, The Advocate reviewed scores of investigative reports dissecting the incident, including summaries of interviews between detectives and the officers involved in the fatal pursuit. Interviews with experts on police use of force also shed light on what happened and the many challenges faced by officers in life-threatening situations, including those that crop up during police chases.
The experts, in general, described shootings in situations like the one Gillich faced as justified. However, one police officer, a training expert, said many law enforcement officers are now taught to get out of the way in such a situation rather than shoot, while noting that this may not always be possible. And another expert, a criminal justice professor, described the shooting as justified right up until the point that the vehicle was driving past Gillich — the moment when the fatal bullet was fired.
No ride home
In the early morning hours of July 28, 2013, Baton Rouge police Officer Jory Guidry was patrolling Florida Boulevard near Interstate 110 when he pulled up behind a 1997 Mercury Mountaineer. The SUV’s temporary license plate appeared to have expired in May, so Guidry decided to make a traffic stop.
“We were being proactive that night because it was a slow night,” Officer Brandon Blackwell, who also had been patrolling in the area and joined in the pursuit of Wilkerson shortly after the chase began, told internal investigators. “We already had four tickets each between us and we were just being proactive.”
Unbeknownst to them, the driver of the Mercury was Tyris Jala Wilkerson, a 32-year-old man who spent half his life in prison for killing a man when Wilkerson was 14 years old. He was released from prison in 2011 on his 31st birthday after serving out the longest possible sentence for someone convicted of murder at such a young age.
Following the release, Wilkerson moved into his mother’s Laurel Street home just off North Eugene Street. He ended up back in jail for a month in May 2013 after his arrest on a cocaine possession charge. In that case, police officers stopped Wilkerson while he was driving and found a spoon in his mouth and cocaine inside the car, according to a police report.
Wilkerson also was stopped less than a month before his death and cited for some minor traffic violations. Other than those instances, he stayed out of legal trouble.
On the night of the chase, Wilkerson was out taking his girlfriend home. Afterward, he went to a relative’s house, Wilkerson’s mother said recently.
When it came time to leave, he asked the people there for a ride home. No one would do it, so he got into his car for the last time, Sharon Wilkerson, Tyris Wilkerson’s mother, said.
Her son was paranoid about police, she said, and the wariness was usually exaggerated when he used drugs. That night, according to Wilkerson’s autopsy report, he was loaded. Cocaine, marijuana and alcohol were found in his system, the report shows.
Despite the police on his tail, Wilkerson never pulled over. At one point while Guidry was following Wilkerson, the officer saw Wilkerson light what looked like a marijuana cigarette. The pursuit started slow and did not become a high-speed chase until Guidry saw Wilkerson flick what appeared to be the cigarette outside of his window — the same rolled-down window the fatal bullet would pass through a few minutes later.
There is no question that Wilkerson was driving dangerously that night. At least three police cars — lights on, sirens blaring — followed him throughout much of the chase. He ran numerous stop signs and red lights. He reached speeds of 60 to 70 mph on neighborhood streets lined with parked cars. And, near the end, he drove directly at a police unit.
But did his actions warrant the use of lethal force?
In this case, both Gillich and Officer Michael Davila, a recent BRPD academy graduate at the time of the shooting who was being trained by Gillich that night, told internal investigators that they feared for their lives as Wilkerson drove toward them at about 15 mph on South Eugene Street that night.
“Police officers can use lethal force whenever they have probable cause to believe that a person can cause serious injury or death,” said Charles “Joe” Key, a former police officer and current use-of-force expert based in Baltimore. “Because a car can do serious injury or death, the car itself becomes a weapon. And if the officer reasonably believes the person was driving toward him, then the officer is entitled to use lethal force to stop the car.”
Critics of such force in these kinds of circumstances often ask why an officer can’t just shoot the tires or another area of the vehicle that might stop it without the use of deadly force. Wilkerson’s mother begged the same question.
“They could’ve shot the tires out instead of shooting him,” she said.
But when a car is driving toward an officer, as was the case for Gillich, shooting a tire of the vehicle isn’t an option, Key, the lethal force consultant, said.
“By the time it goes flat, you are, too,” he said. “The only way you can ensure that the car at least is going to be affected to some measure is to shoot the driver.”
Thomas J. Aveni, the director of a research and training company called the Police Policy Studies Council, said replicating a situation such as Gillich’s in a training environment is difficult. That’s why many police agencies have adopted policies that forbid shooting at moving vehicles, Aveni said.
“But what that actually does,” Aveni said, “is it denies the fact that quite often when police shoot at a car, the car is being used as a weapon.”
Still, shooting at a moving vehicle, especially if it’s driving directly at the officer, is risky business, said Aveni, a police officer in New Hampshire who for decades has studied officer-involved shootings and police training tactics.
“Even if you disable the driver, the thing is likely to still proceed in the direction it was headed in, which is toward you, and you’ve solved nothing,” Aveni said. “And now you’ve diminished your reaction time to get out of the way. Most agencies now require that you try to get out of the way rather than shoot.”
Gillich never tried to retreat. He told investigators that he never had the opportunity.
The BRPD declined to make its policies regarding vehicle chases available. By other policies, police are instructed not to discharge firearms unless the use of deadly force is justified and such force can be used “only in the defense of their own lives or in defense of the life of another person,” according to the department’s lethal force policy. The policy continues, “It is essential that the employee reasonably believes that he or some other person is in immediate and apparent danger of suffering death or great bodily harm and that the use of deadly force is the only prudent preventative measure available to him.”
Gillich and his trainee joined in the pursuit of Wilkerson after the other cops already had been following him for a few minutes. At some point, after Wilkerson flattened two tires and recklessly spun out in the parking lot of Boudreaux’s, the catering company on Government Street, Wilkerson headed northbound on St. Rose Avenue. When Wilkerson turned eastbound onto Spain Street, Gillich continued on St. Rose to the next street, Louisiana Avenue, where he took a right and headed for South Eugene.
“I was thinking that if I go down St. Rose and I hit Louisiana, I can get to (South) Eugene Street before they do,” Gillich told an investigator, recalling his thought process. “And if I can do that, then when he comes out on to Eugene Street, he will see a unit already up there and not head that way. I guess I was kind of like a decoy.”
Listening to his radio, Gillich heard that Wilkerson and his pursuers were on Eugene. He thought everybody had passed him. When he didn’t see anyone, he turned right onto South Eugene, where blinding headlights greeted him and Davila.
From the time Gillich drove into the middle of the street to when he fired his weapon, only a few seconds passed. He told an internal investigator that he didn’t consider moving out of the way.
“I wasn’t thinking about backing up,” Gillich said. “I was thinking about going north, thinking that they would be ahead of me. When I turned, I just ended up there.”
He then ordered his trainee, Davila, to exit the police car, and they both stepped into the street.?“I guess I froze,” Gillich said, when explaining why he couldn’t retreat. “I got two headlights and they are coming straight at me, and this dude is about to run me over,” Gillich said while explaining his thought process, “and I am not going home.”
He was stuck because he was in the open, Gillich told investigators.
Even if he had backed up, Gillich believed Wilkerson would have continued toward him until impact.
“I did not want to be in the unit when it hit us,” Gillich said.
Davila told investigators he always felt like he could retreat to behind the police car, but he noted that it wouldn’t have helped much if the SUV struck the police car. Davila said he never fired his weapon because he never had a clear shot.
“All I was thinking is that I cannot do anything about this,” Davila told investigators. “Officer Gillich was in front and with all my heart I thought that Officer Gillich was going to get run over and killed.”
But Gillich was spared. Wilkerson was not.
From dash camera video, it appears that Wilkerson only veered away from the officers once Gillich started shooting.
Gillich told internal investigators, “I pulled my weapon out and pointed it roughly where I thought there would be a driver. All I saw was headlights that never moved. They continued coming straight at me and I started shooting.”
He kept firing as the car passed him, stopping once the car was mostly past him — a time when Gillich said he felt the threat had passed.
According to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from last year, police are allowed to keep firing when deadly force is justified even once the vehicle passes if they believe the driver is a threat to the public.
Key, the consultant and former Baltimore police officer, referenced the ruling, saying just because a car passes does not necessarily mean the threat disappears.
But one expert on police shootings, Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska, said based on the forensic evidence, it appeared Gillich fired too many shots.
“If the car is passing him, then there’s no longer a direct threat,” Walker said. “So I can’t, at this point, say that this was a justified shooting.”
Because Wilkerson was struck behind the left ear, he could not possibly have been hit until he was passing Gillich.
When asked whether police officers, in general, should be able to keep shooting in defense of a potential threat to public safety, Walker said shootings should not be justified based on possibilities, only immediate threats.
Prem Burns, an East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney who reviewed the case for grand jury presentation, said she believes Gillich had no choice but to shoot, considering the circumstances. Hillar Moore III, the district attorney, also has said he believes Gillich acted properly when making the split-second life-or-death decision.
Sharon Wilkerson said her son’s death has made her depressed. She said she quit smoking for some time, but Tyris’ death led her back to cigarettes.
“They took him away as a kid, and I went crazy,” she said, referencing his murder conviction. “Now they’ve done it again. For life.”
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter, @_BenWallace.