The photos accompanying this article, as well as the cover, were captured by photojournalist Mike Kirby on a freeway outside of Auburn, Calif. They depict CHP Officer Larry Olveda fighting with a suspect who s hell bent on taking Olveda s gun and ending his life. Olveda and other personnel on the scene fought with the suspect for several minutes before control was gained. Although this month s Tactics column was inspired by a disarming that occurred outside of the U.S., disarming is a very real threat domestically and all officers should remain cognizant of this. Training and appropriate equipment (safety holster) can make the difference between life and death.
Once again, a case I consulted on and eventually testified in is the genesis for this month's Tactics column. It involves a disarming at an agency outside the U.S.
A few years ago, I was asked to review the circumstances surrounding the shooting of a municipal police officer who was disarmed of his weapon, severely beaten and fatally shot. Some of his equipment and personal effects were scattered around the area, suggesting a fairly drawn out ground fight. The 37-year-old officer left behind a wife and a small son.
What started out as a traffic stop of an apparent drunken driver eventually ended with the lone officer disarmed and murdered; the officer s body being found by his father, who was also an officer with the same agency; and the suspect committing suicide with the officer s sidearm. The basis of my review focused on whether the weapon retention training of the 7,000+ officer agency needed any modifications. My preliminary opinion was that it did. However, when the material sent for review was found lacking in some details, I asked for more information from the agency. Among other things, I wanted to know what manufacturer and security level holster the officer was using. What I eventually discovered was disturbing.
The holster the dead officer was using had been found some two years earlier to be deficient and highly susceptible to a disarming, so much so that it wasn t recommended by the agency s firearms training staff. In fact, more than a half-dozen cases had been brought to the attention of the agency s brass in which the thumb snap had failed, causing the weapon to come loose (and in two cases fallen out of the holster while the officers were seated in their cruisers). Despite being made aware of these deficiencies, the agency kept the holsters in use and even contracted out for hundreds of additional units from the same manufacturer for their plainclothes officers.
Notwithstanding the holster issues, I suggested that both the weapon retention and ground fighting training programs undergo a thorough review and laid out a plan that increased not only the amount of time devoted to both areas, but a complete revamping of the skills the officers were taught. All the training, from basic recruit up through in-service, consisted of half-speed drills by unpadded students and all featured static techniques that focused on fine motor skills. The one 60-minute class included two-officer teams, alternating as officer and suspect, which in essence amounted to less than 30 minutes of actual physical skill work when coupled with the five- and 10-minute warm-up.
As you might imagine, my analysis didn't reflect very favorably on the agency brass. Quite frankly, I was surprised when a written report was requested because there was no litigation pending; the suspect took his own life with the murdered officer s gun. Of course, I assumed my report was going to be maintained as an internal document and hopefully become the basis for more realistic weapon retention and ground fighting training programs.
Needless to say, I was shocked when I got a telephone call one afternoon late last year from an attorney representing the dead officer's widow. It seems that an investigative reporter from the local newspaper seized the tragic incident and began an independent investigation of his own on the defective holster purchases. It also appears that a lot of background information concerning the field failures of the holsters, the memos from the firearms staff to the brass documenting those failures, the subsequent contract for the additional plainclothes holsters and my report were in the hands of the slain officer s wife and her attorney. The five hours I was on the stand testifying in essence as a plaintiff s expert (against the agency brass) were extremely uncomfortable for me. I ve been able to reconcile the matter in my own mind. The trial was required to force the department to begin replacing the defective holsters, which were in use as I was testifying, and undertake a more realistic weapon retention and ground fighting regimen.
Here in the U.S., the latest statistics from the FBI and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) indicate that police deaths from disarmings continue to decline. It s not so in the country where the trial I ve described took place. However, even 5% is far too many. You d be hard pressed to find an agency that doesn t issue at least Level 2 security holsters to their officers; most are issuing (or requiring) Level 3 rigs. But just issuing security holsters isn t enough.
The second part of the solution is training. The evidence found by the dead cop's father (and eventually collected at the scene of his son s murder) suggests a fight to the death between the officer and his assailant. When someone puts their hands on your gun during a contact, that's exactly what you must be prepared for. I testified to the fact that a suspect who touches your gun during a street contact has already demonstrated his intent. Weapon retention and ground fighting tactics do not include a measure of politeness. You must consider any disarming attempt a life-or-death situation. If you honestly feel your weapon retention and/or ground fighting training adequately prepares you for such an encounter, great. But if you have any doubts about your skills or abilities to maintain control of your duty weapon during an attempted disarming, resolve them before you next hit the street.
First, get in the mindset that all bets are off during this kind of confrontation. You must be the last person standing when the fight is over. Any lingering doubts about your physical skills training in the area of weapon retention/control and/or ground fighting techniques require that you get with your training officers and improve these skills soon. Maybe it can be worked into the next DT refresher.
Call for backup. Officer X was alone when he was disarmed and killed. He didn t call out with his DUI stop even though department policies required it. Two sets of eyes are better than one, and so are four hands and feet. One thing the stats can t measure is how many potential disarmings were prevented because backup was present. If you need a refresher on contact and cover, dig out Steve Albrecht s article in the October 2009 issue of Law Officer or get his book Contact & Cover: Two-Officer Suspect Control and brush up on the tactics as soon as you can.
I hope the facts of this case serve as motivation for you and your agency s trainers to take a long hard look at these skills to see what, if any, improvements must be made. Until next month, stay safe.