Back in 1980 when the Street Survival: Tactics for Armed Encounters book was released, the statistics on officers killed revealed that approximately 7 percent of officers killed are killed in ambush situations (unprovoked and premeditated). Back in 1980, that was a startling statistic. Other figures back then were just as troubling: 19 percent died during disturbance calls, 18 percent were killed during robbery arrests, and 7 percent were killed effecting burglary arrests.
A quarter-century later, we ve improved some. In 2004, the percentage of officers killed during disturbance calls went down 3 percent (to 16 percent); cops slain during robbery arrests went down to 14 percent; and officers murdered making burglary arrests declined to 5 percent. Minor improvements for sure, but improvements just the same. The reasons? A lot more officers are tapping into survival-type training, we have better equipment, better communications a lot of reasons, really.
But while those percentages and others went down, cops slain in ambush situations have steadily gone up. In the 15 years since Street Survival, the numbers have risen dramatically. In 1995, 16 officers were slain in ambush attacks, almost 22 percent of the total killed. From 1995 2004, thousands of officers graduated from officer survival and/or awareness-type training, and the other categories showed some improvement, but 105 more cops were killed via ambush. Indeed, during that nine-year period, deaths by ambush accounted for almost 18 percent of all officer murders. The high was 2002, when almost 27 percent of all officer murders resulted from either unprovoked or premeditated ambush. In 2004, the last year that complete and accurate stats are available, 12 cops were slain in ambush (unprovoked and premeditated), or 21 percent. The days of single-digit ambush slayings are over, and have been for some time.
If you read the index of some of the better officer-survival manuals or texts out there, you ll find them replete with all kinds of tactics and techniques for staying alive on today s mean streets. Chapter headings include Tactics for Responding to In-progress Crimes, Responding to Shots-Fired Calls and Techniques for Making Traffic stops (high or unknown risk). I ve published my share of articles on just those same topics. But when it comes to surviving ambushes, the chapter headings are pretty thin. Why? Because most trainers and experts agree, there isn t a whole lot you can do if someone wanted to take you out ambush style.
Re-read the four examples on the opposite page. Is there any way you can prepare for or avoid an ambush? Unless you re the president of Police Paranoids Club, never respond to any prowler now calls without air support or use low-crawl techniques when answering domestic disturbances, it seems impossible. In the Tennessee incident, Jones and his civilian ride-along were just sitting in their car when they were taken out. There is some speculation that they may have been contemplating serving an arrest warrant on one of the two suspects who lived nearby. In the Virginia incident, Armel was exiting the door of the substation when she was taken out, but the 18-year-old suspect was already in the process of shooting two other officers when Armel was shot. The Pomona, Calif., incident is similar only in that the motive appears to be revenge against law enforcement. Oceanside Police Officer Dan Bessant was targeted simply because he wore a badge.
So, what can the average street-wise officer do to prevent an ambush-style assault? Plenty.
According to the FBI statistics, 23 of the 54 officers killed by firearms in 2004 were not wearing body armor when they were slain. Of the 31 who were wearing their vests, most died from either head/neck wounds or were struck in areas not protected by their vests. Three were struck above the vest, for instance, two were hit profile (the vests did not have side panels), two were struck in the arm hole or shoulder area, and two were hit below the vest.
Bottom line: There s no doubt a vest remains the best thing you have going for you in surviving a firearms ambush.
The majority of officers killed from 1995 2004 were killed while working single-officer squads (52 percent), and the vast majority of those (57 percent) were alone when they where killed. The odds against being ambushed improve if you have backup present. In the Tennessee incident, Jones obviously was not alone he had a civilian ride-along with him but that seems to be an anomaly when it comes to ambush motivators. Again, without being paranoid, you can lower the odds of ambush by just not being alone. Think about taking your coffee break with another officer, or when parked to catch up on your paperwork or filling out your time book, share the experience with another officer from a bordering sector. Forget about those citizens who ll instantly think you re screwing off on their dime. Preventative officer-safety issues such as body armor, backup or two-officer meets should not be discussion issues for non-cop types.
Awareness of your surroundings can also help prevent ambushes. We ll never know what Armel saw or didn t see seconds before she pushed open the door leading out to the parking lot of the FCPD substation. From all indications, the nine-year veteran was a gung-ho cop, and chances are if she heard gunfire and saw a fellow officer under assault, she wouldn t have hesitated a second in engaging the suspect. The same is true of FCPD Officer Mike Garbarino. The investigation reveals he managed to get a radio call for help out even after a dozen rounds were pumped into his cruiser. In Tennessee, Jones is known to have fired off several shots at his assailant(s) before he died on that stretch of highway.
But aside from those immediate-response situations, pausing before leaving the stationhouse, walking out the door of a residence or rounding a corner of an alley may allow for one of those pre-attack danger cues to emerge. What some officers call their sixth sense is really a heightened state of awareness honed from years of experience. Use it to your advantage.
Last, make yourself a small target. I was one of the first bosses to deviate from the time-honored tradition of street lieutenants wearing white shirts. It didn t take long after my promotion to feel the estrangement from my brother and sister officers at the scene of nighttime shots fired calls, and to realize that in the ambient-light environment of a city street, a white shirt and shiny shield make for great target acquisition. After that, navy blue shirts became the order of the day for all graveyard officers regardless of rank.
Think about your uniform for a moment. Sure, those merit pins and marksmanship badges look great on your dress blouse, but are they really needed for everyday wear? Your hat might be important when reporting to the brass or for parade detail, but on a dark night when walking to your squad or to the parking lot, is it really necessary?
As these incidents reveal, no officer can achieve total immunity from ambush. The nature of police work includes danger all around you. When you pin on a shield, a star or a badge, you also pin on a target. Like never before, today s streets, roadways, alleys and even parking lots can prove deadly. But with a mindset focused totally on your surroundings, by utilizing backup, by thinking tactically even during lunch or coffee breaks, by always wearing your body armor and by adapting your appearance to minimize your targetability, you can stack the odds in your favor against potential ambush situations.
Oceanside, Calif. Oceanside Police Officer Dan Bessant, age 25, a three-year veteran, was shot and killed by a 17-year-old subject while he stood outside his unit backing up another officer while she was conducting a traffic stop in a high-crime area of their city. The .22 caliber round fired from a scoped rifle struck Bessant under his left arm just above his body armor. The only motive, according to reports, was the desire to murder a cop. (For more on this incident, see Editor s Note, February, p. 10.)
Roane County, Tenn. Roane County Deputy Bill Jones, age 53, and a civilian ride-along, Mike Brown, were shot and killed in an apparent ambush along State Highway 58 in eastern Tennessee. The deputy, hit more than 20 times, and his friend were both fatally shot while seated inside Jones patrol car. Jones had more than 25 years experience as a law enforcement officer. At the time of this writing, two suspects, brothers, are in custody, and authorities are not releasing a motive.
Fairfax County, Va. Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) Detective Vicky Armel, age 40, was shot and killed as she exited a substation intending to respond to a car-jacking call. Apparently she walked into an ambush set up by the original car-jacking suspect, an 18-year-old male who drove to the sub-station in a hijacked van.
At the same time, FCPD officer Michael Garbarino, age 53, was sitting in his cruiser at the same Chantilly substation just finishing his shift when he was struck five times by shots fired from the suspect. Garbarino survived for more than a week in critical condition before he died. A third officer, a 23-year-old patrolman, was also shot during the ambush outside the station house. He survived.
The motive appeared to be revenge; the suspect had been arrested one-month earlier by the FCPD for an earlier car-jacking.
Pomona, Calif. A 35-year-old CHP officer leaving the courthouse in Pomona was ambushed and shot to death while waiting to cross a street leading to the parking lot where his unit was parked. The five-year veteran was wearing his body armor, but the 3 5 shots fired by his assailant struck him in the head and neck. The 16-year-old suspect, a gang member, had stopped his vehicle in front of the officer and fired from roughly 15 feet away. The motive here appears to be revenge against Pomona-area officers.