This photo released by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Aug. 14, 2006, shows an LAPD cruiser riddled with bullet holes after a gunman opened fire with an AK-47 on the officers riding in the car. Shooting suspect Jose Perez allegedly opened fire on two LAPD officers, nearly severing the hand of rookie officer James Tuck, as veteran officer John Porras returned fire. Both officers survived the attack. AP Photo/Los Angeles Police Department, HO
FEATURED IN TRAINING
At some point every month, my thoughts turn to you. I start processing what I can share that might benefit you and the cops you train. Often, I’ll look to current events as well as my own experience to lock onto a topic. This month, I was prompted in part by a recent incident where a police officer fired from his patrol unit as a suspect approached who was reported to have a gun.
An ambush on the streets is about as dangerous a situation as your officers may ever find themselves in. Recognition of such a danger is usually hardwired into us, but what we do in response might not be. The ability to quickly assess what’s happening and, as appropriate, to act in a decisive manner should be imbedded in your officers’ brains.
Vehicle ambushes, whether moving or—worse yet—stationary, require what the military calls an “immediate action drill.” To execute this properly, there are some absolutes, one of which is a warrior mindset to fight through this challenge. This is true not just for a vehicle ambush scenario, but it can also be spot on for many critical moments in police work.
I realize we’re talking about a pretty extreme and relatively unusual occurrence. But it does happen and must be recognized as a real possibility. Here, we’ll address this in theory and, with next month’s installment, provide some training suggestions.
As a young officer in Los Angeles County during the 1970s, I matured in the shadow of some truly great veteran street cops. One lesson they passed on was to be prepared for the seemingly innocuous occurrence that could rapidly and unexpectedly turn into a deadly moment—especially when confined inside a police car. On occasion, I’d pick up on someone walking toward my unit as I sat there. Depending upon how this person looked, my responses would include staying put, immediately exiting to make contact or pulling away before the person got too close. Other times, if those weren’t good options or I didn’t think the potential was that bad, my handgun would still be out of the holster but out of view and oriented toward that person’s approach.
Most of the time they never knew it was ready to be used although I do remember one night that was different. What turned out to be a well-intentioned citizen walked up to the driver’s side and glanced down as he asked his question. His eyes locked on the Colt 1911 pointed in his direction and then, wide-eyed, returned to meet mine. Moments later he was quickly on his way. The look on his face was a clue to his altered awareness. I guess I could have been better at concealing the gun from view, but my main concern was to have a prepared weapon and mindset. The point: Instructional focus should reinforce not only the technical aspects of a student’s response, but also their commitment to that warrior’s outlook.
Common Sense Tactics
Getting into the driver’s seat, let’s consider that worst-case scenario. An officer is cruising a gang area or has found a crime in progress when suddenly the unit starts taking rounds. It’s instantly clear that this is a deadly ambush. What lessons and tactics can we pass on to officers for such a dangerous scenario?
First, the officer must be aware of the defensive tools and techniques available and know how to use them. An option is to immediately drive out of the kill zone. In one case that I know of, an officer ducked down in his seat after being wounded. Looking up at the overhead phone and power lines, his street cop awareness kicked in. This led to that realization that by keeping the cables at a certain position up through his windshield, he could remain hidden while guiding the vehicle down the street until he was out of the ambush.
“Flooring it” out of the area is a good basic survival choice. But part of this response might include doing something unexpected. First, identifying the suspect’s location relative to the police unit is important in deciding what to do next. A suspect shooting at officers might anticipate them driving forward. (It’s even possible that the suspect has military training on ambush tactics or is self-taught through the Internet and/or computer games.) Based on this expectation, the suspect might have already prepared a plan to continue the ambush with his own tactics or even expand it with other shooters as the officer drives forward. This would certainly be a concern in a gang stronghold. That being said, if the officer is trained to quickly evaluate—yes, I know this is going to be tough—and opt for another course of action, it may be a life saver.
One unexpected option to an ambush is to throw it in reverse. But driving like this can be a challenge under normal conditions. Shots impacting the patrol car will make it even more difficult. Added to this is the fact that it gives the suspect more time to target the driver while the officer to one degree or another has to “give up eyes on the suspect.” This technique can be doubly dangerous because of the hostile fire and trying to steer the car while backing up. An alternative may be to reverse into a nearby driveway or even a front lawn, and then change direction with a three-point turn. This could be better than trying to continue in reverse for a greater distance.
Drive, He Said
The decision to keep the car in drive does offer more aggressive options. As a distraction technique, it might even help to immediately activate lights and siren. Such a move could provide additional tactical benefits, including a decrease in the suspect’s sight picture due to the bright lights. Additionally, it will help responding units locate the fight.