Preparing for Ambush

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.

Another option is to make a hard turn into a driveway to get behind the protection of nearby structures. This tactic probably won’t be anticipated in the suspect’s ambush plan. If such an option is used, avoid striking obstacles with the front bumper. Such an impact could activate the airbags, which in turn might incapacitate the officer for at least a few moments. This unexpected turn tactic can buy some extra time to put together a hasty plan. But staying with the unit might not be the next-best choice. Getting out of the car and seeking better ballistic cover—even to the point of forced entry into a building—might be a survival option.

Kinetic Energy Works

We all know that a patrol unit is potentially a deadly weapon. Although resorting to a firearm may be the standard response, if the circumstances justify it and there’s a clear path to the suspect, I’m OK with using the vehicle (an improvised kinetic weapon) to run the shooter down. Sure, that’s pretty drastic. But let’s plug in some street reality. The person shooting is already doing something that’s significantly more drastic—trying to kill a police officer. Their actions are truly a deadly threat, and the use of a lethal weapon—any lethal weapon—is a reasonable tactical objective in stopping the behavior.

Again, this is true regardless of what form of deadly force tool is used. In my mind, that means that there’s no difference between a .45-caliber round hitting the suspect at 850 fps and a front bumper impact at 40 mph. The latter may be the safest, quickest and most effective tool. Bottom line: It’s easier to aim a 1.5-ton vehicle already under your control than it is to take the time to try to get accurate rounds down range. Your officers will have to make this decision quickly under intense pressure. Addressing it in advance is just good training.

Altering the Fight & Aftermath

If the suspect dives or runs out of the way, then the officer has still altered the fight in their favor. Driving out of the area and broadcasting what’s happened will then presumably trigger a strong, if not massive, law enforcement response. Because of the predictably huge adrenaline dump that will have taken place, two considerations come to mind for the officer driving.

First, the officer should try to be as calm as possible while putting out the information over the radio. From my experience, this is difficult at best. If the siren’s on, turning it off will help. But if our fellow officers can’t understand what has happened and where the cop is at, screaming into a radio microphone like a pre-pubescent school girl doesn’t do much good. Breathe and think before transmitting.

Second, the officer should evaluate their condition. That threat-induced adrenaline can mask the pain of a wound that requires immediate care. If smart, the street cop already has some type of basic combat first-aid kit—including blood stoppers and a tourniquet—next to them in their patrol bag.

One option then is to self-treat the wound and wait for cops and medics at a safe location. However, a severely wounded detective in Southern California made another decision. In a North Hollywood déjà vu moment, a bank robbery suspect wearing a ski mask and ballistic vest spotted the officer’s car and opened fire with an AK-47. In considerable pain and losing blood, the officer chose to immediately drive out of the ambush and speed directly to a nearby emergency room. Severely wounded in the leg, this officer’s decision saved his life.

Spectacular Conclusion
As always, lack of proper focus and officer safety awareness is a final aspect to consider. Anticipating possible problems and taking proactive steps to avoid them are part of what a good street cop trains for. We’re talking about the infrequent high stress moment when speed of response is important to survival. As we close, I’ll share a story in a more humorous context to illustrate this.

More than once during my patrol days with the Huntington Beach (Calif.) PD,  I was lucky I didn’t cause an accident while driving along the fabled Pacific Coast Highway and its adjoining beaches. Especially on hot July days, this environment came with some unique distractions such as young ladies in miniscule bathing suits. (And to borrow a phrase from a Seinfield episode, yes, they were spectacular.)

When I brought my eyes—which had telescoped about two feet from my skull—back to the road, a “holy-crap” moment demanded an instantaneous response—a drastic application of the brakes so that I wouldn’t rear end some unsuspecting citizen’s vehicle. I was fortunate that I never caused a crash, but a few officers who fell victim to the same distractions weren’t so lucky. The point: Whether it’s a beautiful beach or a hard core gang area, officers have got to stay attentive to the possible dangers and focus on their safety while patrolling the streets.

I trust that you’re now thinking about other scenarios and techniques that could help better prepare the cops you train. So I’ll put this article in “park” and let you move on. Next month, I’ll share training suggestions to help develop better awareness and response should our officers drive into a surprise attack on the streets.

Until then, train safe. God bless America.


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