Ambush: Fighting your way through hell

Reclaim the element of surprise — attack the ambush!


Editor’s Note:

Editor's Note: PoliceOne Columnist Dick Fairburn is the co-creator of the Street Leadership Course presented by Illinois State Police Academy (ISPA). Earlier this year, we presented a profile of this unique course, which over the course of four days has new police sergeants working with pencils, pistols, and a giant model train set. An upcoming instance of the Street Leadership Course has recently been set to the calendar for June 22-25, 2010 at the ISP Academy in Springfield (Ill.).  Send Fairburn an email if you're interested in learning more. 

Last month I outlined the two types of ambush situations officers can face on the street, “Impromptu Ambush” and “Deliberate Ambush.” Maintaining a constant high degree of situational awareness is difficult for all of us since the “routine calls” we answer far outnumber the obvious high-risk dispatches. Maintaining a healthy — though controlled — degree of paranoia will help you collect the retirement check at the end of the rainbow.

Still, even the most alert among us could be caught in a well-planned ambush. Should you find yourself in such a dangerous circumstance, your response will determine your fate. Falling into an impromptu or deliberate ambush situation does not automatically spell doom.

For many years, the conventional wisdom for ambush survival was to exit the kill zone by backing away or turning away at a 90 degree angle. In the Wisconsin ambush I outlined last month, Captain Lutz of the Waukesha Police Department attempted to back his car away from the Oswalds’ guns, exactly as he had been trained. But against a man armed with a 7.62x51mm semi-automatic rifle at close range, backing away is much the same as remaining a stationary target. In many circumstances, trying to exit the kill zone by turning away at 90 degrees, would do little more good. Instead, most police agencies now train the same ambush survival tactic taught in the military — attack the ambush!

In a situation where the killer(s) have an overwhelming tactical advantage, running straight through the kill zone, may prove a second-choice option. Generally your best chance for success lies in a no-holds-barred frontal attack on your adversary.

I once met a Montana officer who survived an ambush by turning the element of surprise around on his attacker. While the officer was patrolling late one night, a man walking downtown drew a .357 Magnum and started firing through the windshield of the squad car. One round hit the inside rearview mirror, splattering the officer and his ride-along with glass fragments. Another round impacted at the top edge of the officer’s body armor, just below his throat.

The officer had never been trained to handle such a situation.

Having never been taught that he could have fired through his own windshield, the officer felt that in order to return fire, he would need to stop the car, throw it in “park,” step out, and draw his weapon. Instead, our officer did the first thing that popped into his mind as a way to protect himself and the department Chaplain — he pushed on the accelerator.

If my memory serves correctly, the officer said he jumped the curb, ran over a parking meter and the shooter, in that order. This officer attacked the ambush and gave his would-be killer a shocking — and terminal — surprise!

Talk about stopping power! Even my beloved .45 falls far short of the raw terminal ballistics of a Crown Victoria. In this circumstance, we can easily justify the use of a vehicle as a deadly force weapon. Hell, I was disappointed when the manufacturers quit putting a hood ornament on our cruisers—I had always figured that a hood ornament would make a dandy front sight.

In several ambush events drawn from the pages of the LEOKA report, the victim officers were dispatched to a home at the end of a lane. Calling the end of such a lane a “dead end” is no pun. Whenever you must approach a strong cover position that has no ready means of escape, other than the way you just came, you should be on maximum alert. If you have any pre-indication of danger on the call, you should strongly consider waiting for a backup unit who can maintain an overwatch position outside of the potential kill zone. The backup officer can quickly come to your aid either in person or with precision rifle fire. Backup “units” from an M4 carbine arrive at almost 3,000 feet-per-second.

Not long ago, federal agents arrested the “Hutarees,” a militia group who was planning to kill a police officer by luring one to a bogus call. In stage two of their plan, the Hutarees planned to use bombs and firearms to kill a large number of officers when they gathered at the first officer’s funeral. Obviously, you don’t need an advanced degree in aeronautics to understand the simplicity and killing power of an ambush. Fortunately, these “rocket scientists” advertised their presence on a web site and were taken down by undercover agents before they could execute their deadly plan.

A man was recently arrested in the state of Washington for planning an ambush — he’d intended to kill officers like the Lakewood ambush that took the lives of three of our brothers and a sister. This phenomenon is not unique to Washington, but they’ve certainly had more than their share over the last year!

The best way to survive an ambush is to avoid one. Don’t get complacent on “routine” calls. Slow your response, even to a call involving a downed officer, just long enough to look, listen and catch a deep breath to clear your mind before you rush in. Never bust a blind corner during a pursuit, whether on foot or vehicular. Anticipate a suspect who could have stopped or doubled back, waiting to drive home an attack as you round a corner.

If your Rapid Deployment team neutralizes one active shooter, make sure two officers maintain 360 degree security by facing out while the others search and restrain the killer. Avoid the overwhelming urge to allow your “security bubble” to collapse as everyone focuses on the suspect.

If you find yourself in an ambush turn around the element of surprise and attack the ambush. Don’t stand there, surprised and dumbfounded while the attacker(s) run their plan and kill you.

Unless you can see into the future, no one can be totally ambush-proof. If a criminal or terrorist group plans and trains well enough for an ambush, they will likely be successful. If the attackers have caught you in a kill zone where they have an overwhelming tactical and firepower advantage, where a frontal attack would be suicidal, your only chance for survival may be to run straight through, hoping to exit the kill zone before you die.

A quote from Winston Churchill best sums up such a desperate situation; “If you’re going through hell, keep going!

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

Contact Richard Fairburn

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