Utilize extra caution and a heightened state of awareness after any threat or implied threat. Photo Dale Stockton
You can avoid many potential revenge threats simply by not making a bad guy lose face. Photo Dale Stockton
FEATURED IN TACTICS AND WEAPONS
This column first appeared on PoliceOne.com.
Like most cops, Bob Willis considered his home a safe haven—until gang members tried to crash through his front door on Christmas Eve, and he ended up barefoot in the snow in a gunfight in his back yard.
That startling ordeal, which terrorized not only his family but a houseful of holiday guests as well, remains unsolved. But Willis, then a patrol officer in New Berlin, Wis., has no doubt it was a strike of revenge, and an ominous warning: Stop interfering with a roving band of armed robbers and opportunity predators his department was pursuing, or cops will pay.
The lessons from that violent assault—and from surprise attacks on officers elsewhere—are worth attention now in light of retaliatory threats around the country. Within the last year:
• The ATF announced a “credible threat” that the Aryan Brotherhood (AB) has ordered hits on five law enforcement officers in California and “possibly the Western states” for every AB member convicted of crimes in Los Angeles.
• Officers in two Maryland counties were cautioned that MS-13, a vicious Salvadoran street gang, is plotting to ambush and kill them.
• Officers in two California jurisdictions have reportedly been placed on the hit lists of two street gangs, one a Crips affiliate, because of members shot dead in police confrontations.
Revenge threats are nothing new in law enforcement. Most are meaningless—offenders blowing off steam because you’ve disrupted their lives or trying to leverage some influence for themselves through fear and intimidation.
But a deadly minority of threats prove all too real: the New York officer whose face was blown away in a shotgun ambush by a motorist incensed over a traffic ticket; the Canadian officer stabbed multiple times on courthouse steps by the vengeful brother of an offender he’d killed; the Hawaiian detective fatally shot through the window of his home in retaliation for a gang drug bust; and the East Coast officer warned to back off of a local drug gang by members who burst into his home and put a shotgun to his mother’s head illustrate just a few legacies of vengeance on record.
“Any threat should be taken seriously,” says Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association and a former sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, “Once you start dismissing your adversaries, underestimating them, you can get yourself in trouble real quick.”
So, what can you do to protect yourself, particularly off-duty when potential retaliators may consider you and your family most vulnerable? And how can you balance a warranted heightened concern for protection with a normal lifestyle?
Here are some professional observations and recommendations from prominent law enforcement trainers, some of whom have survived personal life-threatening retaliation threats.
Threat Assessment & Avoidance
Despite whatever angry machismo they may hurl at you, most offenders accept arrest and prison as part of the cops-and-criminals cotillion. To “make” those who may have genuine revenge potential, stay aware of just whom you are dealing with.
“Most perps you contact don’t have the energy, the mental stability, the future-focused orientation or the planning skills to hunt you down,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, a psychologist specializing in law enforcement issues and executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. “But if you’re threatened by someone who has gone after and gotten other people who’ve crossed them, that’s a red flag for extra caution. The best predictor of future behavior is always past behavior.”
Lewinski himself reportedly has been the subject of a murder contract issued after he testified on behalf of an officer who killed a drug gang member in Kansas.
“Offenders who are likely to attack—even criminal gangs—for the most part tend to act impulsively in reaction to what is going on immediately in their life,” he explains. “The closer you are in time to a crisis that they might retaliate for, the greater your jeopardy.” Even a coldly calculated contract hit is unlikely to occur past a 3–9 month timeframe, he believes.
“Just setting up obstacles that make it tougher to get to you and surprise you will defeat most people,” he says. “If they can’t get you when they are most distressed and vengeful, other crises are likely to come along in their turbulent lives to distract them.”
The best way to defeat a threat is to avoid it in the first place. “A little respect for the people you deal with on the street goes a long way,” explains Lou Savelli, a former NYPD gang commander and author of The Pocket Guide to Gangs Across America and Their Symbols. “You can do the job aggressively and efficiently and still be respectful. Bad guys don’t like to lose face,” he says, especially gang bangers who often have little but their pride and wear it on their sleeve.