In a dark parking lot frequented by pot smokers and underage drinkers, an Omaha police officer spotted the flash of a lighter through his night vision goggles.
The officer, Aarion Nielsen, and his partner, Officer John Dlouhy, trained their cruiser's spotlight on a silver Hyundai Accent. Inside were three 17-year-old girls. Nielsen estimated the cruiser was 80 to 100 feet away.
The driver later said she panicked, unaware of who was approaching, despite the spotlight and Nielsen's account of repeated warnings: "Police, stop."
Laura M. Kramer, the driver, backed up the car and began driving out of the parking lot. Nielsen said to avoid being hit by the Hyundai, he was forced to jump on the hood.
Nielsen and Dlouhy, armed with Glock .45 semiautomatic pistols, fired a total of 25 rounds toward the fleeing Hyundai. Police said they later found marijuana and other drugs that had been pitched out of the car.
None of the girls, all seniors at Omaha Marian High, was hurt. Nielsen was treated for a hand and wrist injury.
They were lucky. An examination of dozens of pages of court records and Omaha police reports shows that the split-second decision to flee from officers could have had tragic consequences.
Police Department policy and the law say officers can and should shoot at someone who poses an immediate threat. Experts disagree on whether all the shots fired in this case were necessary.
The Dec. 20 incident unfolded quickly, as Nielsen and Dlouhy were checking the parking lot, as they often did, at Standing Bear Lake near 138th and Fort Streets. It was about 6:30 p.m.
According to the officers' account to police investigators:
After they trained the spotlight on the Hyundai, the driver backed up the car. Nielsen walked toward the vehicle and Dlouhy ran toward the back of the cruiser to cover his partner.
The Hyundai headed toward Nielsen too fast for him to move aside, he said, so he jumped on the hood.
"Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!," he yelled to Dlouhy.
"Get the (expletive) off the car and I will," Dlouhy replied.
Nielsen rolled off after a few seconds. Dlouhy aimed at the driver and fired. The bullet struck the hood between the windshield wipers. Nielsen, crouched, also shot at the car. Dlouhy estimated the vehicle was going 25 to 30 mph at this point.
As the car drove away, Dlouhy said, he tried to shoot out the tires.
The Hyundai was hit at least six times, including the hood and a passenger door, according to Douglas County Court documents. Police found three bullet fragments in the parking lot and three in the car.
Police chased the car for two miles at speeds up to 50 mph. The pursuit ended in a residential neighborhood southwest of the lake near 150th Street and Butler Avenue.
The officers said they saw items tossed out of the car. According to a report, investigators found lighters, cigarettes, marijuana, a glass pipe with residue and four hydrocodone pills, a narcotic used as a cough suppressant and to treat pain.
Kramer told police that she stopped the car shortly after seeing a cruiser with its lights on behind her. The girls were taken into custody at gunpoint. All three were questioned by police, but only Kramer was charged.
Nielsen fired 11 rounds that night and Dlouhy 14, according to a police report.
An expert in the use of deadly force by police said the Standing Bear Lake incident was not uncommon or excessive.
"Once the decision is made to use deadly force, officers are trained to fire until the threat is removed," said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina.
He said if the threatening person is driving a car and posing a danger, officers would shoot to hit the driver.
"It's all about the threat, even if it's a young girl," Alpert said.
Sam Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the officers' shots were justified only until the car started driving away from them. Then, he said, the threat was over and they should have stopped firing.
"Those bullets are a risk to the community," he said. "You don't know where they're going to land."
Lt. Darci Tierney, a police spokeswoman, declined to comment on the case or the status of the officers.
She said department policy allows for use of deadly force "any time for defense of life for themselves or others."
Nielsen and Dlouhy told investigators they fired because they feared for their lives and the threat to public safety.
Sgt. John Wells, president of the Omaha police union, said vehicle stops are one of the most dangerous activities for police officers.
"A couple of tons come hurtling at you, there's not much you can do," he said.
Wells said he couldn't comment on the specific case.
He did say officers have no way of knowing who is in a vehicle, so they have to assume the occupants are armed. This is especially true if the vehicle is heading toward an officer, or the driver is otherwise acting unsafely.
"You don't know their intent," Wells said.
Police Chief Alex Hayes said investigators have submitted information about the incident to the Douglas County Attorney's Office for review — standard procedure when officers discharge their weapons. An internal police investigation is continuing, but results will not be made public because of union contract provisions.
Kramer was charged with operating a vehicle to avoid arrest, possession of a controlled substance, tampering with physical evidence and failure to stop and render aid. All are felonies.
The last charge was filed Jan. 17, nearly a month after the incident. Kramer has requested that a judge move her case to Juvenile Court.
Kramer told police afterward that she was scared and didn't know what to do.
"She's a really good kid, and she just panicked," said her lawyer, Joe Howard. "She had never been in a situation like that before."
Howard said Kramer made a mistake, but she didn't mean to hurt anyone.
"Maybe (police) were excessive in shooting that many times, but I think Laura's focus right now is just being thankful that she's alive," he said.
Kramer has a 3.4 grade point average, no suspensions, no skipped school days and a good relationship with her parents, according to court records. Her father told the court she usually meets her 11:30 p.m. curfew.
She was released on her own recognizance.
Kramer's passengers are not facing criminal charges, and their families declined to comment.
Said Howard: "You hope that something good can come out of this and kids can take a lesson from this — if you are approached by authority, comply."
Contact the writer: