Oftentimes, when we think of ambushes, we think of IEDs exploding against vehicles in a military convoy or terrorists open firing with their AK-47s from concealed positions on troops on foot, like our valiant soldiers and Marines must endure in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the police context, we may think of a lone sniper or gunman hidden on a rooftop or in the shadows opening fire, as we walk toward the front door of an address where we’ve received a call. All of these are certainly ambushes, but is the military example above likely to occur with domestic law enforcement? More likely, it’s the lone gunman situation that presents the greatest threat and the one that we must prepare for. We must also expand our notion of what an ambush is.
What’s An Ambush?
In the law enforcement field, we need to expand the traditional military model of what an ambush is (attack from a force secreted prior) to include secreted intent. For instance, in the movie Ronin, starring Robert DeNiro, a poser pretending to be a former British 22nd Special Air Service Regiment operator is ambushed by DeNiro’s character with a cup of coffee. The subject of the ambush was maneuvered to the corner of a desk whereupon he backed into the table where the coffee had been strategically placed. By expanding our notion of ambush we include suspects who hide their assaultive intent. For instance, a suspect with malice toward police, a plan and deadly intent waits until the officer conducting a vehicle stop is inattentive or is exercising poor tactics, then he attacks.
By expanding what our concept of an ambush is, we acknowledge that most officers who are killed while alone are murdered by suspects hiding their intent and waiting to spring their assault when opportunity presents itself.
How Would You Do It?
As a police officer, you’re assigned to go after a dangerous suspect. Rather than attempt the arrest in the environment where he’s most dangerous, has superior knowledge of the terrain and has possible access to his weapons, you elect to set him up or ambush him elsewhere. Items to consider in your plan:
- Gather as much information as you can. Know your target;
- Learn his routine. Use it against him;
- Isolate him. Get him by himself and away from his stronghold and vehicle if possible;
- Take the offensive, don't be reactive;
- Attack at a chokepoint where his options are limited to surrender or being the recipient of overwhelming force;
- Maneuver him into your kill zone, for lack of a better term;
- Have the high ground advantage;
- Use cover;
- Use distraction;
- Use coordinated overwhelming force; and
- Knock him on his heels (stun or disorient him).
Counter Ambush Tactics
With the above tactics in mind, counter-ambush tactics must limit a suspect’s use of these methods against you. The following are all solid counter-ambush tactics:
- Avoid routine (i.e., eating at the same place at the same time during each shift);
- Use contact-and-cover tactics to work in sync with other officers and assigning a cover officer to protect police against yet unknown threats;
- Limit choke points in your techniques (tactics or techniques that lack suspect control), as well as times you and other officers are channeled into what could be a kill zone;
- Avoid a police-target-rich environment where “one grenade” would get you all;
- Use cover on the street whenever possible prior to confronting potentially violent suspects; and
- Scan your environment and what threat it presents to you, listening to your gut instincts about the potential for violence.
Another area of hasty ambush is the foot chase. Several times during the past few years, officers have been ambushed by suspects who had been escaping on foot, got some lead on officers and hid, waiting for officers to round a corner. Counter-ambush tactics for suspects on foot must include utilizing cover as you move, not following in the same path as the suspect, tactical use of light at night (avoid being backlit; employ sound flashlight tactics), staying back from corners as you roll-out (with pistol up based on your perception of the risk), “slicing-the-pie” on corners, and the use of K-9s.
Once the trap is initiated, assaulting into the ambush is a standard military doctrine. To be effective in your response requires that your skills are second nature. Example: Stimulus (perception of the attack) leads to response (movement while drawing your pistol and getting accurate fire on target). Have you trained the presentation of your pistol (draw) from its holster to the point you can do it without conscious thought? An effective response to ambush requires it.
They Call, We Come
The toughest part of the whole ambush paradigm is that the suspect can call us into the kill zone. Without us knowing a threat exists, a suspect can set up and make the call–“I need the police”–summoning his intended target. A hasty ambush can happen when someone else, the initial victim of the suspect’s violence (e.g., the husband in a domestic assault), calls for police help. The suspect hearing the call grabs his gun and sets up to snipe the officer. An officer I know was shot by a suspect in ambush armed with a .308 scoped rifle on a family domestic. Based on his and another officer’s quick aggressive response, he survived. The suspect didn’t.
Dispatch can aid dramatically in these events by ascertaining from the caller that a firearm is present. Responding officers shouldn’t rationalize this to mean that there’s a gun in the house versus an armed suspect lying in wait. So too, verbalized threats received by dispatch should be taken seriously and deployment strategies maximizing cover should be implemented.
Upon arrival at the residence of a person with gun call, assault, domestic or the like, don’t enter unless it’s tactically sound to do so. Don’t enter based on a “come on in” response. If the caller meets you at the door, prior to entering, ask where the suspect is and whether or not he’s armed. If your gut says this is bad ju-ju, lock it down, retreat to cover and treat it like a barricade ordering the suspect(s) out to you.
According to the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted report for the 10-year period from 1998 to 2008 (2008 is the latest year for complete stats), out of the 530 officers feloniously killed, 106 or 20% were killed in ambush. Ambush situations also were the highest category in which rifles were used to kill officers (38 incidents or 36%). Clearly the ambushing of members of service by violent criminal suspects needs to be addressed with common sense tactics and counter-ambush doctrines taught and applied.
Eliminating your choke points (routines that work against you), expanding your awareness of threats from uninvolved suspects or the environment, heavily working contact and cover, cleaning up your technique to remove opportunity, paying particular attention to danger signs and cues, and employing sound decision-making skills are all sound counter-ambush, risk-reducing techniques. These should all be reinforced with training scenarios that include attacks or surprise appearances from secreted or seemingly uninvolved suspects to increase officer awareness.
Ambush isn’t just a military vehicle or ground troop problem. It’s a real concern for members of the thin blue line on the mean streets of America. Train, plan, prepare for it and remain ever vigilant for an ambush against you.
The author wishes to thank John Converse and other members of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Forum for fomenting the idea for this article.