Today, policing has become more demanding, difficult, and dangerous. Although peace officers learn how to be resilient, the disrespect, distrust, and hostility toward law enforcement is at an all-time high. More people are refusing to comply with lawful commands or requests and willing to be brazen, confrontational, defiant, and resistant.
This article provides an analysis of California peace officers murdered in 2020 and 2021. It is offered to law enforcement agencies and personnel to identify lessons learned with a life-saving goal of preventing future peace officer killings. Continuous research is necessary to enhance public and officer safety.
Lacking thorough evaluations of critical policing incidents, peace officers will repeat previous mistakes. It is through this information sharing that we strive to improve police operations and responses. As the authors have voiced over decades of research, publications, and training, “From where I have gone, I cannot return… Learn from my passing!”
In 2020 and 2021 eight California law enforcement officers died from felonious assaults . The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) Program defines “feloniously killed” as: “Incident type in which an officer, while engaged in or on account of the performance of their official duties, was fatally injured as a direct result of a willful and intentional act by an offender” . The peace officer deaths reviewed do not include accidents – aircraft or automobile, duty related illnesses, fires, heart attacks, or other physical causes.
This article has two parts, with the first section providing a brief account of each attack. The second portion presents views regarding leadership, officer safety and welfare, tactical considerations, and training.
2020 In the Line of Duty Summaries
Nationwide in 2020, 46 victim peace officers (VPOs) were feloniously killed. This was a decrease of two VPOs from the 48 killed in 2019 ibid . In 2020, two California Peace Officers died from a felonious assault. This was a decrease from the six California Peace Officers killed in 2019 ibid .
On Thursday, April 23, 2020, San Diego Police Officer Daniel Walters, died of complications from a gunshot wound that occurred on Wednesday, November 12, 2003. Officer Walters and his partner had backed another officer on a car parked in a travel lane. Upon their arrival, the parked vehicle’s driver was standing nearby on the sidewalk. When the officers approached, the assailant shot Officer Walters once in the neck at zero to five feet. Officer Walters was 36 years old and had been a police officer for five years. After being shot the VPO fell into a traffic lane and a passing vehicle struck him. The attacker had been previously involved in a domestic incident and was shot and killed by the VPO’s partner.
On Saturday, June 6, 2020, around 1:30 PM, Santa Cruz Sheriff’s deputies responded to a service call of a suspicious vehicle (van) parked off-road in the Santa Cruz mountains. The person reporting said he saw bomb making materials and firearms in the van. The van’s driver left the area, was later observed and followed to a driveway in the Ben Lomond area. Shortly thereafter, deputies and a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer were assaulted with gunfire and an improvised explosive device (IED). Santa Cruz Sheriff Sergeant Damon Gutzwiller, age 38 years, with 14 years at the Sheriff’s Office was struck by gunfire and killed. Two other peace officers were also injured. After the assault and murder, the assailant, Steven Carrillo, age 32 years, an off-duty Air Force Sergeant who was assigned to an elite Air Force security team, fled on foot, and carjacked a vehicle. When located, he was shot and captured in a subsequent encounter with officers.
Ironically, Carrillo was the rifle shooter from the same van in the drive-by killing of a uniformed Federal Security officer in Oakland, on Friday, May 29, 2020, at a Black Lives Matter rally. Carrillo was affiliated with the extremist movement “Boogaloo.” According to experts, the followers believe in a concept embraced by a loose network of anti-government, firearm, and militia-style extremists .
2021 In the Line of Duty Summaries
Compared to 2020 when 46 VPOS were killed, the intentional killing of law enforcement officers spiked by an alarming 59% in 2021 according to the FBI when 73 VPOs were killed ibid . This was the most nationwide peace officer deaths since 1995. In 2021, six California Peace Officers died from felonious assaults. This was an increase of four VPOs from 2020 when two California Peace Officers were killed ibid .
On Tuesday, January 19, 2021, around 10:00 PM, Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputies attempted a traffic stop that escalated into a vehicle pursuit ending in a crash at the CAL Expo and State Fair grounds. Despite verbal police commands, the driver refused to exit his vehicle and his rear window was broken out with non-lethal force. A K-9 dog, “Riley,” was sent into the vehicle, resulting in the canine being shot to death. Additional shots were fired and a second K- 9 handler, Deputy Adam Gibson, age 31 years, with six years law enforcement experience, was killed. The assailant, a 40-year-old man with a record of crime, drug abuse, and mental illness was shot and killed at the scene.
On Monday, May 10, 2021, at 5:20 PM, a regional Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT) in San Luis Obispo County was serving a stolen property search warrant at a second story, corner residential apartment. After various verbal attempts directing the occupant to open the locked door, a forced entry was made. The first SWAT team member into the apartment, San Luis Obispo Police Department Detective Luca Benedetti, age 37 years, with 12 years of law enforcement experience, was shot fatally at close range with a round of birdshot in the head. The assailant, a 37-year-old man with a record of mental illness, retrieved the fallen detective’s shoulder firearm and continued firing at team members. He subsequently took his own life with the fallen officer’s weapon.
On Tuesday, May 11, 2021, at 10:07 AM, a Stockton Police Officer, Jimmy Inn, age 30 years, with six years of law enforcement experience, responded to a domestic violence service call at a private residence. As he approached the front door the assailant exited and killed the officer with a handgun. Subsequent shots were fired by responding officers with the assailant, age 30 years, being shot and killed while attempting to strangle his eight-year-old son in the front yard.
On Monday, May 31, 2021, Memorial Day, at 12:40 PM, a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Motorcycle Patrol Sergeant, Domenic Vaca, age 43 years, with 17 years of law enforcement experience, attempted a traffic stop. The vehicle involved was a street motorcycle being operated without a license plate, riding off-street in the desert near Yucca Valley. Following a vehicle pursuit, the driver stopped, waited for the deputies, and fatally shot the Sergeant. The 29-year-old assailant was shot and killed by other deputies in an exchange of gunfire. He was a parolee with a felony criminal record.
On Sunday, July 25, 2021, at 3:00 PM, a Kern County Sheriff’s SWAT team member, Deputy Phillip Campas, age 35 years, with 10 years of law enforcement experience, was shot and killed while deployed at the scene of a Wasco residential house, shots-fired incident. Three hours later, the assailant exited onto the roof and was shot to death by other team members. The 41-year-old assailant had a criminal record of domestic violence, was under a current court restraining order, and earlier had killed his wife and two sons inside the private residence.
On Tuesday, October 12, 2021, a Fresno County Sheriff’s Deputy, Toamalama Scanlan, age 46 years, with 18 years of law enforcement experience, succumbed to complications from a gunshot wound to the head suffered on Tuesday, September 4, 2016, while assigned to jail duties. Deputy Scanlan and another deputy were armed with only tasers. The deputies were shot in the jail lobby by a male assailant, Thong Vang, age 37 years, who was attempting to jump the visitation line. The assailant, high on methadone, was a convicted child molester on parole. He was sentenced in 2018 to 112 years in prison for the deadly assault. The other deputy eventually recovered.
Tactical and Training Considerations
Leadership, mentorship, supervision, and contemporary training are key essentials to the safety and welfare of peace officers. Absent consistent and continuous efforts from the peer level to the agency’s chief or director, complacency will occur, and the lessons learned in these tragic critical incidents will be repeated.
The peace officers murdered in 2020 and 2021 engaged in various law enforcement activities. Unfortunately, these incidents escalated into armed responses and refusals to cooperate culminating in shots fired. Based on the circumstances described, peace officers, training officers, supervisors, and trainers should consider their current tactical option and response practices to the following dangerous confrontations:
- Barricaded person inside a vehicle
- Building entry and search
- Domestic violence
- Operations at a law enforcement facility
- Shots fired
- Vehicle pullovers and pursuits
Law Enforcement Facilities
Over the years in California, there was little that was unusual in these peace officer attacks that has not repeatedly confronted law enforcement officers before. An exception is the shooting death and wounding of the Fresno County Sheriff Deputies inside a law enforcement facility.
This incident is reminiscent of the murder of San Francisco Police Sergeant John Young, on Tuesday, August 29, 1971, at the Ingleside Police Station. Young’s murder involved multiple attackers and was connected to the Black Liberation Army (BLA), not just a single drug addict as was the case of the Fresno County Deputy’s killing. According to a Justice Department report on the BLA, the BLA was a revolutionary Black power organization involved in over 70 violent incidents between 1970 through 1976 . The national Fraternal Order of Police has attributed 13 peace officer murders throughout the United States to the BLA .
Over the years police station security procedures, restricted access areas, and site-hardening construction has vastly been improved. Despite these precautions, this continues to be a notable high-risk activity for facilities and personnel due to the countrywide unrest involving policing actions, controversial use of force incidents, and defunding law enforcement budgets.
It is also important to note that nationwide, various police facilities, unoccupied marked and unmarked police vehicles, and officers in and around their police stations have been recently attacked with explosives, firebombs, and gunfire. This trend has been accompanied by anti-policing demonstrations at and near police buildings where destruction, injuries, vandalism, and violence occurred. These incidents deserve further study to determine the lessons learned and steps to improve facility, public, and officer safety. Policing agencies should assess operational plans, policies, and procedures involving law enforcement station security.
Complacency, Criminal Behaviors, and Mental Attitude
Complacency is a law enforcement officer and agency’s deadliest enemy. If not seriously addressed it can lead to civil litigation, community unrest, serious bodily injury, and death. This can occur in both the experienced and inexperienced officers despite their ages. Field training officers and front-line supervisors, especially at the sergeant rank, must be consistently charged with monitoring complacency and duty performance, including their own.
The average policing experience of the California VPOs in 2020 and 2021 was 12 service years with a range from six to 18 years. As to age, the VPOs’ average age was 37 years, ranging from 30 to 46 years. The assailants’ average age was 35 years, varying from 29 to 41 years. Despite the VPOs’ ages and tenure, continuous training and dedication to tactical details are necessary ibid .
Over 60 years ago in the police academy, the authors were referred to as “rookies” and introduced to the term “routine.” This was frequently used to describe policing activities, including patrol activities, service calls, and traffic stops. Additionally, the danger of minimizing repetitive service calls hinders the recognition of the threat for potential violence. With no exceptions the term “routine,” should never be a part of law enforcement’s tactical vocabulary today. The unknown factors of danger and violence can occur anytime and anywhere, and complacency is only reinforced by minimizing these risks in police work. It is extremely important that peace officers remain balanced in their personal and professional lives as they read the scene for criminal and unusual behaviors and differentiate between community members and criminals.
It is highly recommended that the four-page FBI report, The Assailant Study – Mindsets and Behaviors be reviewed. These findings are worthwhile for training, especially when detaining or stopping people. The assailants’ commonalities in 53 incidents where 64 VPOs lost their lives include key facts regarding the assailants’ desire to kill for political or social reasons and to remain free from jail or prison. Additionally, the killers of peace officers in this study had the following common characteristics .
- Prior criminal histories – 86%
- History of drug abuse – 60%
- Known to local police or sheriff departments – 56%
- History of domestic violence – 44%
- Mental health identified as a contributing factor – 40%
- Under the influence – 32%
- On probation or parole – 32%
- Presence of warrants – 26%
- Known gang affiliations – 24%
- Diagnosed mental health issues – 18%
Vehicle Pullovers and Foot/Vehicle Pursuits
Due to the vehicle pursuits preceding the actual vehicle stops, the danger signs, red flags, and risk signals were heightened in the Sacramento and San Bernardino incidents. The question arises as to why the driver/occupant(s) is fleeing? Is there a criminal motive that exceeds the initial observation? Could there be contraband, drugs, a stolen vehicle, a vehicle carjacking, or a parolee with a concealed or disguised weapon, i.e. blunt object, edged weapon, explosive device, firearm, and or a personal weapon, who does not want to return to prison? The risk factors have clearly escalated and a high-risk vehicle pullover should be initiated.
In these car stops with potential flight, the utmost caution must be adhered to when dealing with people inside the car when the traffic, investigative, or high-risk vehicle stop is initiated. Officers should always plan physical and verbal tactical options prior to starting an approach, exercise caution due to concealed hands, and consider hidden occupant(s) or vehicle areas not visible, such as a tinted window hatchback door, or trunk.
Building Entries and Searches
Two felonious assaults involving County Sheriff’s deputies occurred despite the advance knowledge of a firearm, and the potential for deadly force being involved. Both law enforcement VPOs were SWAT team members with advanced tactical training who were exposed during deadly gunfire. The team debriefing and supervisor review process are best and essential critique practices in enforcing safe and effective tactics.
A third county regional SWAT team member was shot while executing a stolen property search warrant during an announced forced entry. The use of tactical analysis or a risk assessment matrix in such incidents, including arrest and search warrant service and eviction operations is essential to creating an applicable and safe operational plan, including a location history and neighborhood review, i.e., drugs, gangs, recent controversial policing action, etc.
This is particularly true when assessing the person of interest’s background, i.e. criminal, or mental health history potential for associates, friends, or relatives being present or nearby, and prior police contacts. When time permits, consider the use of a surveillance camera for recording a person’s ingress and egress. The possibility of contact outside a structure rather than an entry into an unknown environment provides tactical advantages. Also, the use of electronic detection and entry devices should be reviewed and explored in arrest/warrant entry situations.
Technology has provided powerful detection and entry tools to law enforcement for implementation in such situations that may preclude law enforcement personnel placing themselves unnecessarily into a hazardous position. Among these instruments are infrared heat signature seeking devices and cameras mounted on armored mobile robotics. These technological devices are already used in large law enforcement agencies. Additionally, financial costs can be lowered by sharing the resources on a county or regional basis.
It is recommended that two reports, “The Eviction Murders” and “The Minkler Incident” at leoka.org be reviewed. The reports’ findings and recommendations provide building entry and search information for consideration .
Initiated Activities and Service Calls
One deadly assault occurred in response to a domestic disturbance, not an uncommon service call. The possibility of physical violence, and the potential for the use of weapons is always present when responding to a private residence, especially where alcohol or drug abuse, arguments, and child custody disputes are present.
Except for what a dispatcher can glean from the initial call and the location’s incident history, the responding field officer will have limited information when approaching an unknown environment. When the circumstances permit in these potentially explosive incidents, a single officer should wait for backup to arrive, use cover ideally away from the police vehicle, and gather intelligence at a safe distance from available sources prior to making entry or physical contact with the person(s) involved.
Unless there is an imminent need to save lives, the time-honored practices of slowing it down and not rushing in should be followed. Communications personnel must receive training on gathering additional information to provide field personnel with tactical intelligence. Such details may dictate greater caution, and the implementation of additional/different field tactics or resources. This training must include checking any available local, state, or federal data bases or records systems.
Whenever there is a service call involving a subject with a background of mental illness, the responding officers must recognize that there is an increased risk of violent behavior and the potential to escalate use of force options. In these known cases mental health or social services specialists are invaluable. The United States Department of Health and Human Services have conducted assorted studies and published articles on law enforcement response when dealing with individuals with mental health challenges.
In these times of economic turmoil and demands for cultural changes, and challenges to defund the police, it is law enforcement’s incumbent necessity to be efficient with training activities. One avenue has been an ever-increasing reliance on virtual training, the use of videos, and desk-top simulations of potentially dangerous and violent service calls. These are valuable and economical training tools, but trainers should continue using reality-based training scenarios with noisemaking or paint marking cartridges with safety modified firearms. Comments from officers involved in actual incidents where public and police lives were saved have frequently acknowledged that their scenario training was like what they survived.
Annual reviews and updates of the field and safety manuals and materials related to tactical/technological advances, and the reviews of violent encounters must be conducted. Certainly, changes or additions should be addressed in training sessions.
Training costs of on-site field exercises and reenactments can be lowered by offering on a regional basis with integrated multi-agency training sessions, particularly for smaller law enforcement departments, at fairgrounds, parks, or in less densely populated industrial areas. In California, the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), through their regional training centers, may be useful in coordinating such events. The feasibility of federal or state training grants for such training should be explored.
Law enforcement administrators and elected officials may cringe at the costs of doing such reenactments and field exercise training as not being cost-effective. However, what is the cost to a law enforcement agency that loses an officer to a felonious assault that may have been prevented by those training means? The cost is in the millions of dollars to duplicate the application process, physically train, and replace that valuable person, plus make up the future years of service that the victim would have provided. The VPO’s agency may be understaffed for months until a replacement can be trained and put in the field, often incurring expensive overtime costs. Consider the additional cost to the law enforcement agency, the community, and the family of the VPO, not only in dollars, but emotionally and psychologically. Cutting corners should have no place in personnel staffing or law enforcement officer safety and field tactics training.
Ambushes, Assaults, and Attacks
Due to the increase in ambushes, assaults, and attacks, nationwide, agencies must assess training practices. The simple ambush response of exiting the kill zone must be supplemented with contemporary information and realistic firearm and scenario exercises. The following are areas for consideration:
- Pros and cons of driving through or toward, engaging with lethal force, or exiting the police vehicle.
- Use of a police vehicle against an immediate and lethal threat.
- Best police vehicle locations to use as cover.
- Result of a ricochet on bullet behavior.
- Gunfire outcome when fired through a police vehicle’s glass – back, front, or side.
- Firearm draw and exhibit from a seated position inside the vehicle.
- Firearm techniques when shooting from inside a police vehicle.
- Wrap around eye protection.
- Movement that might cause less body armor protection.
When conducting firearm training from inside a police vehicle, loaded firearms and live fire present significant safety challenges. This training can be replaced with noise or paint marking cartridges from firearms that do not fire live ammunition.
Since 1970, the assaults and killings of hundreds of California law enforcement personnel has reinforced that field and safety tactics must be regularly addressed with all law enforcement personnel. Basic cardinal concepts include:
- Criminal behavior distraction techniques and control of the hands, fists, and feet.
- Positions of advantage and disadvantage, remember cover plus distance equals a position of advantage.
- Benefits of cover versus concealment.
- Communication both verbal and non-verbal.
- Utilization of backup, air, K-9, supervisor, or specialized resources (Special Weapons and Tactics).
- Reading the scene – taking the time to assess and analyze the situation, especially the behavior of people in and around the area.
- Directing the criminal(s) to a position of disadvantage, reducing the officers’ approach
There is no substitute for using common sense and reacting to an officer’s intuitive knowledge. Following a critical incident, countless officers have cited the recognition of something that was unusual or not ordinary, causing them to react quickly and saving life.
Readers of this article are urged to examine current policing actions and determine what personal or agency practices need change, improvement, or training. The greatest loss to our community and profession is a severe injury or death among those who protect and serve in the highest traditions of law enforcement.
Richard Wemmer and Charles Moorman have accumulated over 95 years of California law enforcement experience. Starting in 1970, they pioneered research and studies of peace officers feloniously killed in California, beginning with the killings of four young California Highway Patrol Officers in Newhall, California on April 6, 1970. They have continued these studies for the purposes of extrapolating lessons learned to improve decision-making skills, field tactics, officer safety, and training. Their research has covered over 400 murders of California peace officers, dating back to 1960, and resulted in dozens of studies published in law enforcement journals.
To further review the authors’ law enforcement backgrounds refer to the Peace Officer Safety Institute, LEOKA, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, at www.leoka.org.
 California Peace Officer Memorial Foundation, https://camemorial.org
 FBI Crime Data https://crime-data-explorer.app.cloud.gov/pages/le/leoka
 Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BoogalloMovement, References 3-15
 Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BlackLiberationArmy, Reference 10
 Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BlackLiberationArmy, Reference 11
 Edward Duel and Richard Wemmer, “The Minkler Incident” and “The Eviction Murders,” https://www.leoka.org