The woman who was shot to death after a high-speed car chase through the streets between the White House and Capitol Hill was still in her car, snagged on the curb of a grass-covered median, when the police fired at her, a Senate official said Friday.
Terrance W. Gainer, the Senate sergeant-at-arms, who was briefed on aspects of the episode, said the woman, Miriam Carey, was trying to make a U-turn between a U.S. Capitol Police security booth and some planters in the middle of the street on Constitution Avenue when Capitol Police officers and uniformed Secret Service officers shot at the car with standard-issue semi-automatic pistols.
Carey, 34, was a dental hygienist who lived in Stamford, Conn. Law enforcement officials said Friday that investigators found antipsychotic medications in her apartment, potential clues to her actions. Friends and relatives, while portraying her as harmless, also recounted some bizarre behavior.
After collecting items from the Stamford apartment and interviewing friends and relatives, law enforcement authorities were still trying to understand what prompted her to drive to Washington and what she hoped to accomplish when she tried to force her way onto the White House grounds.
Questions were also being raised about whether she posed enough of a threat during the fast-moving sequence of events that the police needed to shoot her.
Initially, law enforcement officials said Carey had gotten out of the car when she was shot Thursday afternoon. Early accounts of such events are often inaccurate, however, and on Friday, new details emerged about the shooting and the woman who was killed.
Most police departments discourage or prohibit opening fire on vehicles. With responsibility for safeguarding two of the county’s most significant landmarks, however, the Capitol Police and the Secret Service are particularly attuned to potential terrorist threats.
Car bombs are one concern, as evidenced by the restrictions on vehicles around the Capitol complex, and officials said that by remaining in the car, Carey might have heightened fears that the car was an explosive threat. No firearms or explosives were found on her or in her car.
Investigators were looking into reports from her boyfriend that she had been delusional and believed she was a prophet and under electronic surveillance by President Barack Obama.
Another man who knew her, Majestic Steele, who is a neighbor of Carey’s mother, Idella Carey, said that a few years ago he saw Carey poised outside her mother’s Brooklyn apartment, clutching a Bible and wailing at the sky. “She was saying, ‘Help me,’ and ‘I need you,’ and she was quoting Scripture,” Steele said. “The way she was speaking it sounded like she was in trouble.”
In an interview broadcast Friday night on Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN, Amy Carey, one of her sisters, said, “I just know that my sister did experience postpartum depression with psychosis.” But she said her sister had received “treatment and medication and counseling,” and she added, “she didn’t appear to be unstable.”
As depicted by law enforcement officials, witnesses and video of the chase, the final sequence played out as follows:
Driving a black Infiniti with a young child believed to be her daughter in the backseat, Carey tried to barrel through a checkpoint outside the White House at 2:12 p.m. She hit an officer who tried to stop her and who rolled over the hood of her car.
She then raced down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol at speeds approaching 80 miles per hour, ignoring red lights and efforts by Secret Service officers to have her pull over. When she seemed boxed in on the western side of the Capitol, officers converged on her with guns drawn. She put her car in reverse and sped off.
In video of the episode, gunshots can be heard as Carey raced away. She hit a police car, then hurtled up Constitution Avenue. There, upon nearing the security booth she tried to make the U-turn.
Officers then opened fire. Authorities would not estimate how many rounds were discharged. Gainer, the sergeant-at-arms, said he believed that five to seven officers had fired.
One officer sustained injuries, which were not life-threatening. The child, who is 1, was not hurt and is in protective custody.
Law enforcement experts outside of Washington said the shooting raised significant issues about the use of deadly force to stop Carey’s car as it traveled along one of the nation’s best-known routes, Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol.
The investigation into the shooting, which is being led by Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, may focus on what threat the officers perceived Carey posed to them, the public and government facilities. The episode occurred just weeks after a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard and in the midst of a partial government shutdown.
Many police departments, including Washington’s, prohibit officers from firing at moving cars, even when the car is being used in a threatening manner. The Metropolitan Police rules say that no officer shall discharge a firearm “at or from a moving vehicle unless deadly force is being used against the officer or another person,” and it notes, “for purposes of this order, a moving vehicle is not considered deadly force.” It is not clear whether the Secret Service or the U.S. Capitol police have a similar policy.
“The question should be, what was the threat that justified deadly force?” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina. “Was there a way to keep her from getting involved in this incredibly dangerous chase?”
He added: “She had to be stopped. The question is, were there better ways to stop her? I don’t know what the answers are.”
Others who study law enforcement said the rules might legitimately be different for officials in Washington.
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which recommends that police departments prohibit shooting at cars, said that constraint might not apply to the episode this week.
“The White House and the U.S. Capitol are both considered high risk targets,” Wexler said. ‘‘The people who protect the White House and the people who protect the Capitol are not thinking about your everyday criminal. They are thinking about a terrorist.’’
Gainer, a former chief of the Capitol police, pointed out that Carey tried to breach a barricade at the White House and fled at a high rate of speed despite being ordered to stop, which would raise the possibility of a car bomb. “They did the right thing,” he said of the officers. “It’s not our typical car chase that starts out with some traffic stop.”
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., defended the officers in a speech on the Senate floor Friday. He said the decision to shoot Carey was “understandable” because the Capitol and the White House were often targets of attacks. “Car bombs are so common in some parts of the world, and we’re wary of vehicles that may be used to harm innocent visitors or people who work in the U.S. Capitol building,” he said.
Carey was one of five daughters who grew up in Brooklyn, where her mother and other relatives still live. Her sister, Franchette, who lives with her mother, said that she had seen Carey during the week and noticed nothing unusual about her behavior.
Michael Brown, 33, a longtime friend, said he saw her Tuesday evening. Her mother had been baby-sitting her daughter, and she went to pick the child up. He said she was in her work uniform and was smiling.
He depicted her as generally friendly but not overly sociable. It was not clear where she had been working recently. Dr. Barry J. Weiss employed her at his periodontics practice in Hamden, Conn., for 15 months, before firing her in August 2012. He said she had not been getting along with fellow employees.
“When we confronted her about certain situations within the office, she had a temper,” Weiss said.
Carey did not appear to have any previous criminal history.