Legacy of Lakewood: Analysis & Discussion, Part 2 - Training - LawOfficer.com

Legacy of Lakewood: Analysis & Discussion, Part 2

Lesson 2: Ambushes & surprise attacks

Brian McKenna | Monday, November 28, 2011

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.

Ambushes/Surprise Attacks
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

Other Ambushes
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.


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Brian McKennaBrian McKenna, a 32-year police veteran, is a retired lieutenant from the Hazelwood (Mo.) Police Department and Law Officer's Officer Down columnist.


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