For this last column of 2010, PoliceOne Senior Editor Doug Wyllie asked me to look at lessons learned from recent police shootings. Doing a thorough analysis of such events is a rather large undertaking, starting with the need to capture the events, when there isn’t really a real-time database of police involved shootings. So, short a full-blown anecdotal analysis of recent police shootings, I’ll put forward my gut reaction. The mean streets are getting meaner. This is not an old guy saying, “Things were tougher when I was young.” On the contrary, the “bad old days” of offenders killing police officers is now.
From a purely numerical point-of-view, the numbers of officers being killed in the line of duty each year was much worse in my youth. The largest number of officers feloniously killed in a single year was, if my aging memory still works, 132 officers murdered in both 1972 and 1973. So, with the number feloniously killed running around 50 for the last several years, things are getting better, right? After all, more officers were tragically killed in on-duty accidents last year than were murdered ... for the first time since we’ve been keeping score.
No, things are not getting better. Since the early ‘70s we have seen body armor thousands of cops from death or great bodily harm. In fact, according to Ron McBride at the DuPont/IACP Survivor's Club, some 3,112 Law Enforcement Officers have been saved by body armor since the first documented save in 1975... an average of 90 per year. Not all of them are felonious attacks, some are car crashes, but the number is still awesome!
Weapons, Tactics, and Nature
We have also seen an incredible improvement in emergency medical care and transportation. Without modern body armor and improved EMS, we might be looking back at 132 felonious killings per year as the good old days! My gut reaction that the streets are meaner is based on three observed changes: The weapons, the tactics, and the aggressive nature of the felons who are killing our brothers and sisters.
In the 70s, police officers were primarily shot with handguns, generally the size carried by the officers or smaller. Handguns still rate number one in terms of weapons used by felons, but the calibers are often the size carried by the officers or larger. Even more deadly is the rise in the use of long guns by felons, particularly center-fire caliber rifles, like the .223 Remington (5.56x45mm) or the 7.62x39mm. LTC Dave Grossman summed up the power of a rifle in his famous quote: “Taking a rifle to a gunfight is like taking a chainsaw to a knife fight,” and that power works just as effectively for our enemies. Felons have learned that a rifle provides them with both a distance and a penetration advantage. No concealable body armor will reliably protect you from a rifle round, though some lucky “stops” have occurred.
The tactics of the felons have also changed. In the past, officers rarely faced more than a single assailant with a pistol, perhaps an armed robber flushed from the crime scene or a desperate felon on a traffic stop who was determined not to go back to prison. Now, we are seeing an evolution in criminal behavior that includes two very dangerous trends — felons who have learned how to spring an impromptu or deliberate ambush and criminals working as coordinated teams.
I detailed the ambush problem in the articles referenced above, but teams of criminal shooters pose an extraordinarily powerful threat. In West Memphis, Arkansas in May of 2010, a father and son team combined the deadly power of an ambush with long guns, and hate-filled aggression, to kill two West Memphis officers on a traffic stop. When two other officers later discovered those killers in a parking lot, the combination of explosive violence and heavier weaponry nearly cost more police lives. Another father/son team used rifles to kill a Waukesha (Wisc.) Police Captain after a bank robbery in 1994, nearly three years before the wild bank robbery gun battle with two rifle-armed monsters in North Hollywood.
A highly respected friend who died from cancer last year was one of the last great men from the first generation of SWAT officers our nation developed. He told me once of his concerns for the direction SWAT teams were headed. In the early days, SWAT teams typically made stealthy, surreptitious entries when forced to go into a building, hoping for an element of complete surprise. But, my friend said, now the younger guys tend to think in terms of violent, explosive entries as the way to surprise a barricaded gunman or hostage holder. My friend was the Entry-Team expert, not me, but he feared that overconfident teams had grown accustomed to encountering primarily drunks and fools, who were ill prepared to resist a “dynamic” entry.
In fact, his prophetic words have been borne out in more than one high-cost SWAT engagement. We have seen teams take heavy casualties when they made entry on a suspect who was both well armed and ready to fight head on. They aren’t all drunks and fools. Similarly, not all school shooters are scared little boys who will crumple as soon as they face an authority figure.
Law Enforcers Under Attack
While we always knew a trapped rat would fight to the death when backed into a corner, we are now seeing the killers take aggression to a whole new level ... they are hunting us! The recently released analysis of the coffee shop killing of four officers in Lakewood, Washington last year proves this point. That killer walked calmly into the presence of four uniformed officers and opened fire. The first two officers went down instantly to execution-style head shots. The remaining two officers attempted to engage the killer physically, and the felon’s first sidearm was found to have malfunctioned, but he produced a second handgun and killed the third officer, again with a head shot. The fourth officer put a round in the bastard, but it was tragically too little, too late, and the fourth hero was also murdered in cold blood.
Several other examples of bad guys hunting the good guys could be outlined, four off-duty officers in just the last few months in Chicago … here in my own state. Just yesterday, as I write this, the murder of Chief Deputy Kevin Roberts of the Greene County (Ga.) Sheriff’s Office proves this final point. A convicted felon executed the Chief Deputy, then self-inflicted, at the very place an officer should be able to feel safe, at the front door of his own home on a quiet Sunday morning.
What can we do to counter these threats? First, avoid the poison of denial. It can happen in your community and it can happen to YOU! Whether you work in Manhattan, New York or Manhattan, Montana, stay alert and vigilant for your own safety and the safety of your fellow officers. When you gather in groups, while relaxing in a coffee shop or while gathered at an incident scene, make sure some of you maintain a 360 degree alertness.
We can’t allow ourselves to drift into paranoia and draw a weapon on every citizen encounter, but cultivate a “sixth sense” to help you pay attention to that little voice who whispers “danger” in your ear. I remember a legendary academy instructor who had the paperwork to prove he had made more than 25,000 traffic stops in his career as a State Trooper. He warned us that if your little voice says “don’t stop this guy – something seems really wrong,” ... to listen to that voice! If something feels hinkey, back off and get some help. It is never cowardice to ask for backup when something doesn’t feel right.
Train HARD and train OFTEN. Hone your survival and fighting skills at every opportunity. I guarantee your department will not provide you with adequate training time or ammunition to maintain peak performance, especially in today’s budgetary climate. It’s your life, you have to decide how much of your own time and money to spend in protecting it.
Whether as patrol officers, investigators, or “bulletproof” SWAT cops, we really need to think long and hard about any mission which will confront a felon on his home turf. Perform a reasoned Risk Assessment on every mission. Do we really need to arrest him today? Do we really need to arrest him at his home? In most cases, we can arrest him somewhere else or at some other time.
Get Pissed Off!
When the fight comes, fight all out! An Arkansas Game Warden saved the day at the second shootout with the West Memphis killers. He rammed his 4x4 patrol truck into the suspect vehicle, while laying across the radio console for cover and emptying his weapon into the bad guy’s vehicle through his own windshield. If you see the Game & Fish officer interviewed about the incident, it comes through clearly that seeing the other officers being cut to ribbons pissed him off. If the fight comes to you, get pissed off! Return their hate-filled rounds, properly augmented by your superior training, weapons and tactics. We really are better than our enemies.
I work at a police academy, interacting daily with the bright, young faces who will be joining your ranks in a very few weeks. In some respects I envy their youth and enthusiasm, but I do not envy these boys and girls the dangers they will face in their careers. This new generation of sheepdogs manning the thin, blue line will encounter wolves that are leaner, hungrier and have sharper teeth. The killers are packing more powerful weapons, have learned the effectiveness of teamwork and ambush tactics, and are perfectly willing to bring the fight to us, rather than waiting in their lair for us to arrive. So, we must be ever stronger, faster and more determined.
People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because
rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
— George Orwell