WSBTV screenshot

After trying to serve 23-year-old Nicholas Thomas with an arrest warrant, police in an Atlanta suburb shot and killed him in his car as he was trying to get away on Tuesday afternoon, according to police.

Police officials of the city of Smyrna say that the man was driving towards officers in his Maserati, causing them to fear for their lives.

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But that official account has immediately been called into question after an eyewitness told a reporter that police were actually behind the car when they opened fire. And even if Thomas was driving toward cops, a recent report from the Department of Justice spells out several reasons why police should not shot at moving vehicles.

Nicholas Thomas, 23, shot by police in Smyrna, Georgia. Family handout photo.

“They were standing behind the car, opening fire. He wasn't driving towards them,” Brittany Eustache, a customer at the Goodyear store where the shooting happened, told Atlanta's WSBTV.

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“The car was not moving when they began to shoot at him. The car had been stopped. He hit a curb. He couldn't go any further,” she said.

“So at no point was he making any aggressive moves?” a WSBTV reporter asked her.

“None, none at all. They immediately opened fire on them,” Eustache said.

Images from the scene show bullets holes in the side of the car.

His car drives sideways!? “@bexology_: He "drove at them" so they shot the passenger side of the car #NicholasThomas pic.twitter.com/zleaZqr7Rl

— Peaches (@MyWay_TK) March 25, 2015

If Thomas' vehicle was moving towards officers, as the initial police report indicated, a recent federal report suggests that officers should have reacted differently.

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In a report released this week about the use of deadly force in the Philadelphia Police Department, the DOJ weighed in one why it considers it prohibited for an officer to fire at a moving vehicle.

“Officers shall not discharge their firearms at a vehicle unless a person in the vehicle is immediately threatening the officer or another person with deadly force by means other than the vehicle. A moving vehicle alone shall not presumptively constitute a threat that justifies an officer’s use of deadly force,” the report stated.

"An officer in the path of an approaching vehicle shall attempt to move to a position of safety rather than discharging a firearm at the vehicle or any of the occupants of the vehicle… The prohibitions regarding the discharge of a firearm at or from a moving vehicle exist for the following reasons:

  • Bullets fired at a moving vehicle are extremely unlikely to disable or stop the vehicle;
  • ƒ Disabling the driving of a moving vehicle creates unpredictable circumstances that may cause the vehicle to crash and injure other officers or innocent bystanders;
  • Moving to cover in order to gain and maintain a superior tactical advantage maximizes officer and public safety while minimizing the need for deadly or potentially deadly force"

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Thomas' family says their son did not deserve to die. They say that Thomas was working at the Goodyear store trying to pay off the fines related to the warrant that the police were attempting to serve, which they say was related to a traffic infraction.

"I just want to understand what happened, because I hear [about these incidents] so often and here it is now." said Huey Thomas, Nicholas Thomas' father, told WSBTV at the scene.

"He was a lovable guy,” mother Felicia Thomas said. “He was just a lovable guy. He would do anything for everybody. He just loved cars. He loved his family. He just had a baby.  His baby is not even 5 months old."

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Smyrna police are still investigating the incident.

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.