This column first appeared on PoliceOne.com.
Like most cops, Bob Willis considered his home a safe haven—until gang members tried to crash through his front door on Christmas Eve, and he ended up barefoot in the snow in a gunfight in his back yard.
That startling ordeal, which terrorized not only his family but a houseful of holiday guests as well, remains unsolved. But Willis, then a patrol officer in New Berlin, Wis., has no doubt it was a strike of revenge, and an ominous warning: Stop interfering with a roving band of armed robbers and opportunity predators his department was pursuing, or cops will pay.
The lessons from that violent assault—and from surprise attacks on officers elsewhere—are worth attention now in light of retaliatory threats around the country. Within the last year:
• The ATF announced a “credible threat” that the Aryan Brotherhood (AB) has ordered hits on five law enforcement officers in California and “possibly the Western states” for every AB member convicted of crimes in Los Angeles.
• Officers in two Maryland counties were cautioned that MS-13, a vicious Salvadoran street gang, is plotting to ambush and kill them.
• Officers in two California jurisdictions have reportedly been placed on the hit lists of two street gangs, one a Crips affiliate, because of members shot dead in police confrontations.
Revenge threats are nothing new in law enforcement. Most are meaningless—offenders blowing off steam because you’ve disrupted their lives or trying to leverage some influence for themselves through fear and intimidation.
But a deadly minority of threats prove all too real: the New York officer whose face was blown away in a shotgun ambush by a motorist incensed over a traffic ticket; the Canadian officer stabbed multiple times on courthouse steps by the vengeful brother of an offender he’d killed; the Hawaiian detective fatally shot through the window of his home in retaliation for a gang drug bust; and the East Coast officer warned to back off of a local drug gang by members who burst into his home and put a shotgun to his mother’s head illustrate just a few legacies of vengeance on record.
“Any threat should be taken seriously,” says Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association and a former sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, “Once you start dismissing your adversaries, underestimating them, you can get yourself in trouble real quick.”
So, what can you do to protect yourself, particularly off-duty when potential retaliators may consider you and your family most vulnerable? And how can you balance a warranted heightened concern for protection with a normal lifestyle?
Here are some professional observations and recommendations from prominent law enforcement trainers, some of whom have survived personal life-threatening retaliation threats.
Threat Assessment & Avoidance
Despite whatever angry machismo they may hurl at you, most offenders accept arrest and prison as part of the cops-and-criminals cotillion. To “make” those who may have genuine revenge potential, stay aware of just whom you are dealing with.
“Most perps you contact don’t have the energy, the mental stability, the future-focused orientation or the planning skills to hunt you down,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, a psychologist specializing in law enforcement issues and executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. “But if you’re threatened by someone who has gone after and gotten other people who’ve crossed them, that’s a red flag for extra caution. The best predictor of future behavior is always past behavior.”
Lewinski himself reportedly has been the subject of a murder contract issued after he testified on behalf of an officer who killed a drug gang member in Kansas.
“Offenders who are likely to attack—even criminal gangs—for the most part tend to act impulsively in reaction to what is going on immediately in their life,” he explains. “The closer you are in time to a crisis that they might retaliate for, the greater your jeopardy.” Even a coldly calculated contract hit is unlikely to occur past a 3–9 month timeframe, he believes.
“Just setting up obstacles that make it tougher to get to you and surprise you will defeat most people,” he says. “If they can’t get you when they are most distressed and vengeful, other crises are likely to come along in their turbulent lives to distract them.”
The best way to defeat a threat is to avoid it in the first place. “A little respect for the people you deal with on the street goes a long way,” explains Lou Savelli, a former NYPD gang commander and author of The Pocket Guide to Gangs Across America and Their Symbols. “You can do the job aggressively and efficiently and still be respectful. Bad guys don’t like to lose face,” he says, especially gang bangers who often have little but their pride and wear it on their sleeve.
Adds Bob Willis, now a police trainer at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, a sworn deputy with the Brown County (Wis.) Sheriff’s Department and a part-time lake patrol officer with the Town of Merton Police Department: “It’s bad enough that some people will retaliate against you just for doing your job. It’s wise not to increase that possibility by being an asshole.”
Harden Your Home
The purpose of fortifying your home is not only to discourage half-hearted would-be avengers, but to delay the most determined long enough for you to reach a weapon or call for help. That could mean outfitting your place with:
• Special metal doors with solid wood cores, making them harder to knock down, splinter or bend;
• Deadbolt locks with long, enlarged screws deep-set into the frame of your home, not just door jamb;
• Sensor-activated yard lights, possibly combined with a TV-camera system to give you clear views of the perimeter;
• One-touch panic alarms strategically installed throughout as part of an overall alarm system;
• Multiple phones, including a night-stand cell phone pre-dialed to 911 so you can quickly transmit an emergency call even if your phone lines are cut; and
• Old faithful: a big, badass, barking dog.
Don’t make the mistake of many officers and civilians alike: beefing up the front of your house while ignoring vulnerabilities in the rear, such as flimsily framed sliding glass doors attackers can easily breach.
Many officers, of course, favor easily accessed guns for home defense, especially shotguns. If you have a locking system for child safety, make sure you practice with it enough that you can unlock it quickly under high stress.
And don’t dismiss the effectiveness of other weapons against intruders in desperate circumstances. “The same things in a family fight that can be threatening to an officer can be used in your home by yourself and your family to defend yourselves,” reminds Lt. Wayne Corcoran of the Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff’s Department. and a long-time survival trainer for the state of Arizona.
Apart from a gun, which may in reality go with the officer to work, Corcoran personally favors fire extinguishers. He recommends stashing several throughout your place, including near doors, and keeping three smaller ones in all the family cars (one each in the glove box, under the seat and in the trunk). “You can grab a fire extinguisher fast with one hand and fire it off from practically any position, even between your legs,” he says. Unlike OC, “it works immediately. The person blasted can’t see, can’t breathe and you can beat him over the head with it if you have to. What more do you want from a weapon?”
Engage your family in planning your home defense, understanding that you will not always be there to single-handedly repel an assault. “You should have and practice a family attack plan the same as you do a fire plan,” Corcoran advises. “It’s not a service to them if you shield your family from the risks they may face.”
Consider talking to neighbors, too, depending on your comfort level. Encourage them to call the police if they see strange cars around or suspicious people on your property. One advantage of living in a cop enclave, as many urban officers tend to do, is “you have other people looking out for you, many savvy eyes and ears monitoring and dealing with what’s going on,” says Lewinski. If an avenger has you under surveillance, “someone is likely to notice.”
There’s a disadvantage to enclave living, though. “When you work the streets and then come home to a cop neighborhood, you tend to stay continually in the police culture,” Lewinski says. “For your psychological health, there needs to be a disconnect at some point between your work life and your home life.”
Part of that disconnect, Lewinski points out, “needs to be a place for yourself, a cocoon, where you can isolate yourself from all the adversarial things you face in the world, a place where you can ‘take the uniform off’ and recharge.” With proper fortification, that place can still be your home.
A Midnight Knock
Bob Willis, then a patrol officer for New Berlin (Wis.) Police Department, was dozing on the floor in front of the TV when a knock sounded at his front door about midnight that snowy Christmas Eve. His wife, who’d been turning off lights to shut the house down for the night, peeked out, saw a young male standing on the stoop, thought perhaps he was a neighborhood teen in trouble or one of their son’s friends—and cracked open the door to a nightmare.
A gang of thugs stormed out of the shadows and lunged against the door. At least one brandished a weapon. “Gun!” she screamed. That and the sound of her falling to the floor as the attackers surged against the door jolted Willis awake.
“Initially, it was ‘What the [expletive]!’” Willis recalls. “I went from Condition White to Condition Black.” But quickly he “got the context” and threw a powerful shoulder block against the door, holding the clamoring intruders back until he could slam the deadbolt into place.
Through a glass portal he could see “three or four subjects and a couple of guns. I bodily threw my wife into the kitchen and yelled at her to call 911.” Then he bolted to the bedroom and grabbed his shotgun.
Through the living room picture window, he could see a two-door car backed into his driveway, motor running and apparently unoccupied. “They’re at the back door!” his wife shrieked. Clad only in black karate pants and a T-shirt, Willis, armed with a shotgun, ran outside barefoot into more than two feet of snow and below-freezing temperatures to do battle.
Seconds later, the gang ran from behind his house, across the driveway and through some bushes to a car parked on the street. As they reached the vehicle, Willis blasted off a round. They fired back—then piled in and fled. “They may have driven to a safe house or onto an expressway nearby,” Willis speculates. “They faded into the night and were gone.”
The car abandoned in Willis’ driveway turned out to be one of several stolen a few days earlier in Little Rock, but beyond that there were few productive clues, and the incident remains unsolved. Willis is convinced it was revenge motivated. There had been an upsurge of offenses perpetrated by gangs of Asian criminals convoying up from Texas and Oklahoma to prey on Hmong immigrants who colonized in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. They had invaded and taken down large wedding receptions at gunpoint and pulled other armed robberies, burglaries, car break-ins and assorted street crimes of opportunity.
Willis had been directly involved with them twice, once chasing a vehicle break-in suspect and eventually capturing him at gunpoint, another time as backup in a pursuit in which police rammed and flipped a car containing three suspects who ended up in jail. Neither incident registered heavily with him and as weeks passed, he “kind of lost track of them.”
Willis doubts he was targeted specifically but believes more likely he was selected somewhat randomly as a symbol for delivering a “back off” message to police. Investigators later established that the day before the attack, Asians posing as poll takers had canvassed Willis’ neighborhood. They duped people into answering a bunch of innocuous questions and, in the process, inquired as to whether any police officers lived in the neighborhood.
Earlier on the day of the attack, a car stolen in Little Rock was recovered, seemingly abandoned, near his house, although Willis had no knowledge of that because he worked in a different jurisdiction from where he lived. Exactly how the would-be invaders found his house or why they were attracted to his neighborhood remain mysteries.
Until the would-be retaliation, Willis had considered his suburban community very quiet, peaceful. A lot of people still left their doors unlocked. “Breaking pumpkins” was about as heavy as the crime usually got. His house was just five blocks from a police station.
But the close call changed the Willis family’s orientation. Willis beefed up their home fortification with sensor lights and alarms, fashioned hiding places where defensive weapons could be more readily accessed and saw to it that everyone was more actively security conscious.
Things are calm again now. But Willis frequently reflects back on that midnight madness. “What if I hadn’t been home that night and they had gotten in?” he wonders. “Would they have killed my entire family?”
Remsberg's column is a PoliceOne.com exclusive, sponsored by Blauer.