Photo courtesy California Highway Patrol
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Editor’s note: Some police tragedies are so big and so instructive that their age doesn’t reduce the importance of the lesson. The Newhall incident is one of those whose message is timeless. It happened in 1970 and was a watershed event in officer survival training. I recall active discussions on Newhall throughout the 1980s and 1990s. We must continue to honor the dead by training the living. Special thanks to author Eric Dickinson for reminding us of Newhall.
On April 5, 1970, a motorist reported to the California Highway Patrol (CHP) that he’d been threatened with a gun by another driver in a red Pontiac. CHP Officers Walt Frago and Roger Gore located the Pontiac and began to follow it as they coordinated with CHP Officers George Alleyn and James Pence in deciding when and where to initiate a traffic stop. They didn’t know that the Pontiac contained two heavily armed parolees, Bobby Davis and James Twinning.
Davis and Twinning realized they were being followed by a patrol car and exited the freeway prior to the exit where Alleyn and Pence were waiting to assist. Frago and Gore went ahead and initiated the traffic stop as Davis and Twinning turned into the parking lot of a coffee shop. Alleyn and Pence drove toward the stop location as both Frago and Gore approached the Pontiac. The driver, Davis, was asked to step out at which time Gore began a pat down. Twinning stepped out of the passenger door and shot Frago immediately in the torso killing him. Gore let go of Davis and attempted to draw and engage Twinning. Davis then drew a concealed revolver and shot Gore twice in the chest, killing him.
Alleyn and Pence arrived seconds later and were immediately fired upon before they were even out of their patrol car. Alleyn ran to a position behind Frago and Gore’s patrol car where he engaged Davis and Twinning with his shotgun and revolver before being shot in the face by Davis. Pence was shot in the leg and was squatting behind his patrol car reloading his revolver when Twinning advanced and shot Pence in the head at point-blank range, killing him. CHP Officers Ed Holmes and Richard Robinson arrived on scene and were fired upon as Davis and Twinning collected guns from the fallen officers and escaped in the Pontiac. Meanwhile, Officer Alleyn, who had been shot in the face, died during transport to the hospital. In a short period of time, four CHP officers had been murdered and two more fired upon by two parolees who managed to escape without injury.
The escape of Davis and Twinning was short lived. After abandoning the Pontiac a short distance away, they separated and Davis assaulted a man and stole his truck before being stopped at a roadblock and taken into custody. Twinning took hostages in a house and eventually committed suicide as sheriff’s deputies made entry to take him into custody.
In the aftermath, many questions were asked regarding the CHP’s policies, tactics and training related to shootings and felony arrest procedures. The four dead officers each had less than two years of service leading some to question whether assigning veteran officers with inexperienced officers would have made any difference in this incident. The case is often regarded as one of the most significant in establishing the officer survival training movement and spurring the issuance of body armor, revolver speed loaders and eventually semi-auto pistols.
Slow down: Wait for backup if available. Resist temptation to charge ahead when it might be better to plan or get more help and additional equipment first. There may be times, particularly in rural areas or during active shooter situations, when you can’t wait for backup. You can still proceed with caution and use time, distance and cover to your advantage. In this incident, having the occupants come back to the CHP unit one at a time would have provided a greater tactical advantage to the officers. It’s imperative that officers control contacts and suspect movements as much as possible.
Wear body armor: Body armor wasn’t available in 1970 in the patrol-style forms we see today. Yet too many officers, including uniformed patrol, still refuse to wear it, often citing physical discomfort as the deciding factor. Both Frago and Gore died of wounds that would have likely been survivable had body armor been available. Thousands of officers have been saved since the issuance of body armor. Its usefulness isn’t disputable. Wearing your body armor can sometimes make you hot, but it’s better than being dead.
Contact and cover: Accounts vary as to whether or not both Davis and Twinning were asked to step out or if Twinning unexpectedly exited the Pontiac on his own, forcing the initial confrontation with Frago. Regardless, using triangulated contact and cover tactics enables officers to maintain control and be better prepared to respond to resistance.
Training relevance: There’s an unconfirmed legend surrounding this incident that Pence was found with empty brass in his pocket. This suggests he’d taken time to pick up his brass during reloading in accordance with the CHP’s alleged firearms range procedures at the time. Regardless if it’s true or not, this case still proves that officer survival and firearms training must be relevant to the street. Range procedures and department policies should be reviewed to determine if they may be causing training scars. Firearms training should include emphasis on shooting around cover instead of over it, back-up guns, long-gun transitions, rapid reloading, multiple targets and shooting into, out of and around vehicles.
Anderson, John. The Newhall Incident: America’s Worst Uniformed Cop Massacre. Quill Driver Books: Fresno, Calif., 1999.
McKenna, Brian: Officer Down! Lessons from the Streets. Bookstand Publishing: Gilroy, Calif., 2008.