Editor's note: Below is an in-depth analysis of the Lakewood shootings. It's advised that you read Brian McKenna's Officer Down: Legacy of Lakewood before you continue.
Although we'll never know all the details of this tragedy, we do know that the officers were the victims of an ambush.7 The grim statistics from the 2009 Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted report also tell us that 21.5 percent of the officers murdered in the United States over the past decade were killed in ambushes8, which is by far the highest fatality rate of any category of felonious police killings. So why isn’t training in how to detect and respond to ambushes part of every police officer’s academy and in-service training? Perhaps it's because of the false perception that there is little that can be done to defend against them. While it's true that ambushes are very dangerous, the simple fact is with increased awareness, preparation and proper tactics, there's a lot that can be done to effectively counter many ambushes—or in some cases even detect them early enough to avoid them.
Dangers during Downtime
When in a restaurant, coffee shop, etc., officers can increase their awareness (see part 1), and then further enhance their safety in various other ways. The choice of seating is the first step. Sit at a location that affords you a good visual on as many entrances and routes to your table as possible, and that puts you at a safe distance from the doors. Avoid booths, corners and other locations that restrict your mobility, and thus your ability to respond to an attack; plan an escape route; and practice cover awareness. Alert officers are aware of points of cover and escape routes at all times on the street, and it should be no different during downtime.
Also remove all unnecessary distractions, like laptops, police reports, other reading material, etc. It’s hard enough to divide your attention among eating, table conversation and everything going on around you without adding other distractions that take your eyes off your surroundings.
Consider designating one officer as a cover officer. It's his responsibility to stay out of the conversation, and focus instead on watching for trouble, suspicious activity or even anyone approaching the table. If anything goes wrong, he's responsible for warning the others and initiating appropriate action. Also consider working out subtle signals to use in the event that coordinated action is needed, or at least a code word to warn of danger when there isn’t time for discussion.
Finally, the contact officer is designated to casually get up and intercept anyone who approaches the group, even if the person appears to be harmless citizen with an innocent question to ask. This action will help shield the remaining officers from danger, and may cause enough of a disruption of an ambusher’s attack plan to buy them time to initiate a counterattack.
This is only practical there are at least three officers, however, because two officers will find it very difficult to split their attention between conversing with one another and watching their surroundings. Therefore, it's safer to sit at a table alone than with just one other officer, or preferably, to get carryout. Socializing can wait until after work.
It's also crucial to have a realistic plan. In an ambush—where milliseconds can make all the difference—there won’t be time to make a plan or to hesitate before deciding to act. You must know what to do ahead of time, stay aware of your surroundings at all times, and then prepare mentally to respond instantly if the threat actually materializes. On the other hand, we also have a responsibility not to take any overt defensive action anytime someone approaches our table. In other words, we must have a plan that we can execute in an instant, yet maintain a low profile until it is needed.
One of the simplest, most effective ways to do this is to be ready to distract your assailant by throwing something like a plate or cup of coffee into his face. This won’t distract him for long, but it should buy you enough time to move, draw and fire, or take evasive action. If it isn’t practical to use a distraction, plan to move as soon as you see trouble—preferably in an unexpected direction, often by charging directly into your attacker—duck behind cover, head for an exit, etc.
Keep in mind that an ambush isn't the only concern during downtime. A violent disturbance, armed robbery or even an active shooter incident can happen anywhere and at any time, so plan how to respond to a variety of scenarios, position yourself tactically, maintain a proper level of awareness and use a cover officer when in a group of three or more.9
It's also important to consider that the Lakewood shooting wasn't a typical ambush. Ambushes can occur in a variety of other ways, all of which put the officers into a very dangerous, but not necessarily hopeless, situation. While it's beyond the scope of this analysis to address every aspect of ambushes in detail, we need to understand that there are several generic things to can be done to help avoid and/or defeat many of them.
As with any other hazard, the first step in avoidance is awareness. Be especially cautious when responding to any incident that makes you vulnerable to a possible ambush. These include active shooters, bombings, and any other mass casualty incident that may involve terrorism. Remember: Terrorists and other mass killers want to inflict as many casualties as possible, and one way to increase casualties is to use snipers, explosive devices, etc. to ambush first responders as they arrive on the scene. Also be wary of any calls to remote locations (it’s easier to set up an ambush without being detected when no one is around), calls that appear to be bogus, or anything else that raises your suspicions.
When responding, slow down as much as the circumstances will allow and scan for anything that seems out of the ordinary or hazardous. In rapidly developing emergencies like active shooters you will need to get there quickly, but even then it's important to drive at a reasonable enough speed to avoid causing an accident, and to scan for possible secondary threats as you approach.
After you arrive, focus first on the most likely places where an ambusher may hide, like roof tops, the sides of buildings, walls, ridges in the terrain, and other places that allow attackers an easy avenue of escape. After checking these areas, scan inward to check windows, vehicles, trees and other smaller places of cover and concealment. Also pay special attention to dark recesses and shady areas, and look for glints of metal, muzzle flashes, smoke, and hints of movement. Since our peripheral vision is especially good at detecting movement, check out anything that you notice out of the corner of your eye.
Also watch for anything that looks like it may be a “stopper.” A stopper is something that is intentionally left in a place that will cause you to stop in a vulnerable location so the ambushers can more easily ambush you. If you suspect one, don’t stop. Avoid it, become even more suspicious of an ambush, and continue scanning even more intently.
Another danger is the tendency to focus on injured victims. Since police officers have a deep concern for others, especially fellow officers or children (as would be the case in a school shooting), this is only natural, but it can be very dangerous to everyone involved. Besides the obvious risk of being wounded, things will be made worse if the wound is an incapacitating one, because the other responding officers and medical personnel will then have to be concerned about two victims instead of one. In addition, it is very difficult to pull off a rescue under fire, and it may further endanger the downed officer by drawing fire on the rescuers as they go to his aid. Unless the ambusher’s location cannot be pinpointed and/or he is in a solid defensive position where it will take too much time to neutralize him, it is best to deal with the ambusher before rescuing any victims.
On the other hand, not all ambushes occur when responding to emergencies. In some cases, the officer is lured to a remote, deserted, or other vulnerable location with a seemingly routine call. When responding to non-emergency calls that give any hint of a possible ambush, you can often approach from a different direction than normal and/or stop at a safe location for a closer look before you proceed further. Consider using binoculars if you have them, and take time to listen as well.
Another precaution is to drive past the suspicious location first to see if you can spot anything that looks suspicious, and then cautiously re-approach it, preferably from a different angle. Besides allowing you to assess the danger, this will also allow you to scan for cover that you can use if you are attacked when you return.
If you're ambushed, immediately exit the hot zone, or if immediate escape isn't an option, go to cover. Cover will protect you from incoming fire while also buying you time to locate your attacker and then decide what to do next. Depending upon the circumstances, you can plan and then execute an escape, stay where you are while awaiting backup, or counterattack. Often an aggressive counterattack will catch the ambusher off guard, and enable you to either neutralize him or break through to escape.
Also remember that suppressive fire can be vital to escaping an ambush safely. In wartime ambushes, the military can lay down a high volume of suppressive fire, but police officers have neither the firepower nor the moral right to spray an area with indiscriminant gunfire. Nevertheless, controlled suppressive fire can keep your assailant’s head down without compromising your moral obligation to avoid endangering others. After locating your attacker, fire a round at him just often enough to keep him pinned down. Focus on keeping your shots to a minimum and putting them where nobody but the ambusher is at risk. And keep scanning for movement or any other indications that another assailant may be attempting to advance, flank your position, etc.
The above list is by no means all inclusive. In fact, considering the extreme danger posed by ambushes, and the current shortage of training or countermeasures for dealing with them, it's hoped that this article will serve as a starting point for an honest dialogue about the problem. Police officers are remarkably innovative thinkers with a solid grounding in street smarts and common sense. We can come up with answers to this challenge. All we need is the commitment to do so. If we pause to fully contemplate the depth of the sacrifice made by the Lakewood officers, no further motivation will be needed.