Twenty law enforcement officers have lost their lives in ambush attacks in the US so far in 2016. Some of these ambushes have been utterly unprovoked and others have been somewhat more predictable as suspects have violently lashed out in a last ditch effort to stay out of prison.
The media would lead you to believe that this is a new occurrence; that ambushes against us are somehow a “new” phenomenon. According to data from the International Chiefs of Police, from 1990-2000 about 12% of the officers killed in that time period were killed in ambush attacks. From 2001-2012 police deaths classified as ambushes rose to 21%. This year the rate is tracking at 33%, a stark increase but a trend that continues to be on the rise over the past 30 years.
This increasing rate would lead those outside of law enforcement to believe that we would be training heavily to counter the threat posed by ambushes. The unfortunate reality is that counter-ambush training is few and far between for law enforcement.
The fact of the matter is that outside of quick and effective firearms techniques that make an officer move from position to position, and/or scenario-based Simunition training, there’s not a lot of physical training needed for most officers. It is our thought processes and habits that need to change.
Larger agencies with enough available manpower to do so have begun implementing two-officer cars in the theory that having a contact and cover officer at the ready on every call would increase the officers’ safety. Most law enforcement agencies do not have plentiful manpower at their disposal and many agencies may only have a single officer on duty at a time. Double-officer cars are not an option for the vast majority.
At my own agency the only counter-ambush training that has been made available has come from me during roll call training with my officers. I’ve done what I can to share some insights with other shifts and I’ll share a little with you today.
While this is in no way intended to slight the officers who have fallen to ambush attacks, we must learn from those incidents and evolve to prevent them in the future.
Counter-ambush tactics at the most basic level simply boil down to maintaining constant situational awareness and being decisive when faced with stimuli that would prompt action.
Situational awareness is one of the first things that we try to instill in our new officers during field training. There is not an appropriate time for an on-duty officer to let situational awareness slip into complacency. Officers banging away at the keys of the MDT keyboard are especially vulnerable. I’ve yet to encounter a case report, traffic ticket, or e-mail that was so vital that it was worth my life, but I’ve been guilty of being too involved in what I was doing that I didn’t see the citizen walking up to my car on multiple occasions during my career.
I’ve since countered my own tendencies by doing all the paperwork I can inside the police department rather than trying to do it inside my car. In those situations where I cannot do the paperwork behind closed doors, I’ll summons one of the other officers to sit next to me and serve as an over-watch when available.
During calls for service, it is absolutely important to maintain a level of vigilance regardless of the call at hand. Finding and keeping a position of advantage that provides unrestricted views with an appropriate stand-off distance between the officer and involved parties gives the officer the ability to be in-tune with the surroundings while answering the WIN (what’s important now/what’s important next) questions.
The same is true during the approach to calls for service, be it at an intersection, residence, or business. Personal security is an ever-evolving thing, and dedicated attention must be paid to it to maintain situational awareness. If a potential threat arises, it is much easier to combat it if the officer was already tuned in mentally and physically.
We all have to understand that we are potential targets for violence simply because of the uniform we wear. Failing to pay attention to our surroundings can have irreversible consequences.
While the occupants of a vehicle stopped for speeding warrant attention from the officer who initiates a traffic stop, the officer’s attention must be divided between the car, the citations, and the entire environment in the area. The WIN questions must be asked and answered before the situation presents itself. What would you do if someone approaches your vehicle on foot while you are on the traffic stop? How do you react if shots begin to be fired outside of your line of sight while you are on the traffic stop? Where is the closet position of cover, and how will you fight your way to it?
Answering these questions and many more in advance allows the officer to expedite the decision-making process to enter the action phase. Simply remaining in place until the situation is fully involved may be the last decision you make otherwise.
Expect the unexpected and mentally prepare responses in advance. Recent history illustrates that there is no safe haven for police officers. Officers have been killed while pumping fuel, drinking coffee, eating lunch, maintaining security at protests, and other innocuous activities where gunfire would not have been anticipated. Mental preparation, measured caution, and situational awareness are vital to survival. Unprovoked ambushes can arise any time and any place. Adhering to basic officer safety practices at all times helps keep complacency at bay.
An officer who sets out on patrol in a crisp, professional appearing uniform with a mind prepared to overcome any obstacle and counter any threat is headed in the right direction. We are not afforded any “off” days while at work. Tune in and be ready to roll, because this trend toward ambushes is not stopping any time soon. Make yourself a hard target that is prepared to meet lethal force with effective lethal force should the situation present itself.
If you would like access to an hour long counter-ambush training in PowerPoint format, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org from a law enforcement e-mail address. Due to the sensitive nature of the material, it will not be made available to those with private e-mail addresses without additional verification.
It’s time to go patrol the Donut…