Four died in a shootout with police after a UPS truck was hijacked. Could it have been avoided?
By REIS THEBAULT AND MARISA IATI | The Washington Post | Published: December 7, 2019
The violent scene unfolded on live television. Dozens of police officers, guns drawn, swarmed a hijacked UPS truck hemmed in by rush-hour traffic at a busy intersection. Inside the vehicle, two men suspected of armed robbery had taken the driver hostage. Outside, the officers took shots with innocent bystanders trapped in the cars in between.
It was, experts later said, a nightmare scenario.
The Thursday shootout in South Florida left four dead - the two hijackers, the 27-year-old abducted UPS driver and a 70-year-old man who happened to be idling at the light on his way home from work. It also left a mountain of unanswered questions.
As video of the violence circulated on national news and social media, some, including the UPS driver's family, criticized police tactics, saying it was irresponsible for officers to exchange fire on a crowded street. Others saw that the first responders had no other option, that they had no choice but to confront a deadly threat.
In the weeks to come, investigators will have to address some thorny and complex issues about police use of force, researchers and law enforcement officials said. Who fired the shots that killed UPS driver Frank Ordonez and motorist Richard Cutshaw? How many bullets were fired and from where? Did the officers' actions put innocent lives in danger?
"Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong," said David Klinger, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. The incident "was really, really bad."
But as chaotic and calamitous as the episode was, it was also "a perfect example" of why police are allowed to use deadly force against dangerous criminals, Klinger said. Authorities said Lamar Alexander and Ronnie Jerome Hill had left a trail of violence behind them that evening. Stopping them by any means - even with bullets - was "absolutely the right thing to do," Klinger said.
"In a situation like this, the police are reactive," Klinger added. "This is not a situation they want to be in. Their hand was forced."
The dramatic exchange of gunfire followed a high-speed chase through two counties that thwarted residents' commutes at rush hour. The men had allegedly tried to rob Regent Jewelers in Coral Gables, triggering a silent alarm about 4:15 p.m., police said.
They said a female employee of the store was injured as the robbers and the store owner shot at each other. The gunmen fled north in a truck, then commandeered a UPS truck while the driver was making a delivery, police said. Several police cars pursued the UPS truck, with the UPS driver trapped inside, until the vehicle was boxed in by traffic in Miramar and officers surrounded it.
When Heather Taylor, a homicide sergeant in St. Louis, watched the footage, she saw police who refused to retreat and who put innocent lives in jeopardy because of it. Instead of opening fire in the crowded intersection, she said, officers could have engaged the robbers when they had a clearer shot.
"We don't always have to be the warrior," said Taylor, who is also president of the Ethical Society of Police in St. Louis. "Sometimes we have to understand that retreating is OK. You don't always have to get the bad guy."
She acknowledged that the officers were in a difficult situation but said the video was "one of the most tragic" she has seen.
"Yes, the suspects are responsible, absolutely, but we are also responsible for every single round that went toward innocent bystanders," Taylor said. "Each one of them had the potential to kill someone."
On a GoFundMe page that had raised more than $100,000 by Friday evening, Roy Ordonez wrote that his brother, the UPS driver, had been gunned "down like a criminal by the Florida police." He asked people to share the fundraising page to "make people aware of trigger-happy police officers."
"They could have killed many more people, could have been one of your loved ones," Roy Ordonez wrote. "Please don't let my brother's death be for nothing. Police need to be held accountable."
Joe Merino, who told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he was Frank Ordonez's stepfather, said his stepson "was murdered."
"The police are here to serve and protect," Merino said, "but where was the protection for my son?"
Autopsies may determine who fired the shots that killed Ordonez and Cutshaw. Tania Rues, a spokesperson for the Miramar Police Department, referred a question about the timeline for the autopsies to the Broward County medical examiner's office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the shootout, Rues said.
"The armed suspects engaged law enforcement in open fire," said FBI agent George Piro on Thursday. He said the first shot was fired during the chase but declined to provide more details. Piro said it would be "completely inappropriate" to discuss whether the UPS driver or the bystander may have been hit by officers' gunfire.
David Harris, a policing expert and a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said the police officers' actions should be judged against their departments' policies about pursuits and deadly force.
Most professional police associations urge officers to engage only in a chase in very serious situations so as not to unnecessarily endanger officers, the criminals or bystanders, Harris said. He said most police forces, however, would allow officers to chase the vehicle of people connected to a violent felony, like the firing of shots during a jewelry store robbery.
"A situation like this with a hijacked truck, a kidnapping and maybe hundreds of civilians in danger is very unusual," Harris said. "And you won't find but a handful of police officers in the United States who've had an experience like this."
Geoff Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, said that other than having a SWAT truck with heavily armed tactical police officers, he did not know of alternative ways that police could have safely ended the pursuit. The gunmen had proved that they were willing to resort to violence to escape and could have endangered other people in the area, such as by hijacking other cars, Alpert said.
"This is why the police are trained to do what they do," he said.
Every shot that police fired has to be accounted for, Alpert added. He said investigators need to ask each officer on the scene, while their memories are fresh, why they shot and what their target was.
"Every one of them could be justified," Alpert said, "or there may be some that aren't."