Three unmarked Nashville police cars surrounded a stolen vehicle last week, hoping to arrest the man inside. Within moments, an officer had shot and injured him.
When gunfire broke out, police were using an uncommon tactic that carries a lot of risk: a “vehicle jam.”
Not to be confused with a traffic jam, a vehicle jam a law enforcement tool used to arrest people who are likely to try to get away, like the man accused of robbing of a restaurant whom an officer shot and wounded last week.
After some pre-planning, police cars encircle a stopped vehicle and try to detain someone inside before it starts moving again. Training director Scott Byrd says just a few units are allowed use this method — and only after they go through several hours of training. Even then, he says, it takes practice to get the hang of it.
“You’ve got units where they are brand new to it, and they get to doing it and it looks one way. And then, when you’ve got a unit that has done it a lot of times, you can tell the difference,” he says. “It’s by some of those little details and things like that they get to coming into effect that shows, yes, they have more experience in dealing with a vehicle jam than other units.”
The police involved in last week’s vehicle jam had recently been assigned to a new team that investigates violent crime. The operation brought together members from two different precinct-based Community Field Intelligence Teams, which had only been created a few weeks earlier.
The CFIT units, which have branches at each regional station across the county, investigate violent crime, nuisance complaints and drug complaints. In this case, they used a tracking device to follow a robbery suspect driving a car that someone else had reportedly stolen from a car dealership.
When Lamon Witherspoon pulled into a gas station parking lot, the officers surrounded him in three unmarked police vehicles, shattered his windows and told him to surrender. Then, at least two officers allegedly saw a gun in Witherspoon’s hand, and one shot him in the head and the hip. Witherspoon was treated at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and has since been booked at the Davidson County jail.
It’s unclear at this point if last week’s vehicle jam followed department protocols. Several layers of review are currently underway, including an internal MNPD investigation and an independent TBI investigation into the shooting.
Byrd couldn’t speak to the specifics of the incident. But he says officers will always debrief with their supervisors after a vehicle jam, to discuss what went well and what could have gone better.
Some of the questions that come up, he says, include: “How did the vehicle jam look? How did it function? Did it function correctly? Did everybody perform their job functions as expected?”
And when he’s training officers to use high-stakes techniques like the vehicle jam, Byrd says the main piece of advice he gives is to find every opportunity to slow down the situation. If officers give a suspect the chance to follow commands, he says, then they can take him or her into custody safely.
“Every operation, despite how well it may have gone, there’s always room for improvement, things we can get to doing in order to make things better and to enhance safety for everybody involved,” Byrd says. “We look to sit down and discuss what happened, from the pre-planning, to the part where we were planning the execution, the execution of the technique and then what got to happening afterwards.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.