Editor’s note—There are some incidents, regardless of age, that are so critical to officer safety they should never be forgotten. Lessons from the Decades will periodically feature these tragic events that should be ingrained in the mind of every officer. Study and share these stories—they were paid for in blood by officers just like you.
On March 9, 1963, at about 2200 hrs, Los Angeles Police Department officers Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger were conducting plainclothes patrol when they initiated a traffic stop on a maroon Ford coupe for an inoperative license plate light. The occupants, Gregory Powell and Jimmy Smith, were armed and looking for an easy target to rob. As Powell exited the Ford at Campbell’s request, Powell drew a gun, surprising Campbell and using him as a shield so that Hettinger could not shoot without hitting Campbell. At Campbell’s repeated request, Hettinger handed his revolver to Smith. With both officers disarmed, they were ordered to squeeze into the two-door Ford coupe with Smith and Powell and were driven to an onion field near Bakersfield, Calif. Ordered out of the coupe, Campbell was shot and killed. Hettinger successfully escaped into the darkness, eventually finding a farmhouse, where the residents called for help at about 0100 hrs.
Powell was captured within an hour of the call, driving a car he’d stolen in the area. Smith was captured less than 24 hours later. By 0500 hrs, Hettinger was being interviewed by LAPD detectives. He wouldn’t be able to crawl into his bed to sleep until late that afternoon. He returned to his regular shift the following night, less than 48 hours after the hostage ordeal began.
Hettinger hoped he could tell the story of the incident once at roll call and “get it over with.” He knew that other officers
were already quietly questioning whether he could have done something to prevent Campbell’s death. A sergeant in the roll call asked Hettinger to explain “how you guys fouled up” and “the things each of you did wrong, or what you didn’t do and should’ve done.” Supervisory officers then decided to have Hettinger tell the story at numerous roll calls.
Hettinger faced harsh criticism from outside and within the department for not doing more to prevent Campbell’s death. He received letters to his home address calling him a “coward.” He was provided no psychological support or counseling from the department. One observer at Campbell’s funeral observed that the police department spends a lot of money and takes very good care of its dead—but how well do they do with their living?
Over the course of the next several years, Hettinger testified approximately six to eight times about the incident during trials, retrials and appeals. Hettinger resigned from the LAPD in 1966 after he was caught shoplifting. His petty theft was later determined to be a result of psychological issues stemming from the Onion Field incident. The three-hour ordeal dramatically affected him for the rest of his life.
Lessons Learned & Ignored
Traffic Stop Procedures: Procedures common today were rarely considered in 1963: Radio your location and the suspect vehicle plate and vehicle description. Maintain a position behind either the driver’s or passenger’s door. Visually clear the interior of the vehicle, watch the occupants’ hands and keep them contained in their vehicle until you absolutely have to remove them. Sadly, some officers still refuse to follow these common safety procedures.
Traffic enforcement is never “routine” and the smallest infractions or clues can lead to the most dangerous contacts. Powell and Smith were originally stopped for an inoperative plate light after officers felt they were acting suspiciously. Powell was later apprehended due in part to an officer’s
observation that the license plate of his stolen vehicle was clean while the car itself was dirty.
Hostage Officer Survival: At least three officer/hostage takings had occurred in LA in the six weeks prior to this incident and all the officers had been released unharmed. Survival training for officers taken hostage was not previously a consideration. Even today, few officers are provided with instruction in this topic.
In the aftermath of Onion Field, LAPD issued a training memo advising officers that “surrender is no guarantee of an officer’s safety.” The memo suggested tactics to distract the offender or attack using weapons of opportunity and the
reminder that “if shot, all wounds are not fatal.” Some
officers plan code words with coworkers indicating an officer/hostage situation. Look for opportunities to escape or overpower the hostage taker.
Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM): CISM programs were non-existent in 1963. Today, agencies may enlist the help of a CISM-trained peer, clergy or mental health professional to conduct a “diffusing” after a critical incident, preferably one-on-one and within hours of the actual event. The goal of a diffusing is to immediately reduce any psychological symptoms, accelerate the recovery process, identify personnel who may need
additional assistance, explain the possible effects of stress on the officer and provide
reassurance that their reactions are normal. A diffusing is not a replacement for formal, large-group debriefings but is often more effective at lessening the psychological impact of a critical incident.
Physical Fitness: During the Onion Field incident, Hettinger was under great physical and emotional stress for approximately three hours. After witnessing his partner’s murder, Hettinger ran five miles through dark farm fields until he found help. Can your heart withstand the stress of an incident like this? Physical fitness is vital to officer survival, whether fighting a suspect, running or fighting through injury—yet few agencies have mandatory physical fitness programs.
Wambaugh J. The Onion Field. Delacorte Press: New York, 1973.