As cops, we take tests all day, every day, and I recently failed one such test. I was driving along a side street and observed a man on the side of the road waving me down. This caught my attention, not because I am a police officer, but because of the situation itself. You see, I don’t operate a marked vehicle.
My police vehicle is a low-key SUV. Nothing about my vehicle says “police” and except for my haircut, no one would have thought I was a cop if they saw me in that vehicle. I was also not wearing a uniform this day, instead wearing a shirt and tie.
I believed the man to be in need of help. It is one thing to flag down a cop — it’s quite another to flag down a total stranger in a private vehicle.
The man was on the passenger side of my vehicle and I came to a stop beside him and rolled down my window. You guys see any problems so far?
A Learning Experience
The man asked, “Hey buddy, you got a cigarette?”
Rolling up my window, I drove on and started thinking. What a perfect ambush that was.
Though I had my weapon ready, I was unprepared for what could have happened.
As I stopped right next to the man and had my attention on him, an accomplice could have assaulted me from the driver’s side.
I failed the first part of the OODA Loop test. These tests are administered by the Police Gods on every single call to which we respond and every stop or encounter we initiate.
Many of you are familiar with Colonel Boyd’s OODA Loop. It states that he or she who observes danger, orients to that danger, decides what to do about it, then acts on that decision first, will win the encounter.
It is my belief — and I support this belief through my experience as a training officer — that officers fail the OODA Loop test in the first section. That is to say, they fail to observe or recognize danger. I have conducted and participated in thousands of scenarios where all the indicators that bad things were going to happen were given, yet officers did not pick up on them.
Research supports my belief as well. In a Justice Department review of 63 killings of law enforcement officers in 2011, 73 percent were found to have been the result of ambush-style attacks.
Let me lay out another scenario. You have pulled over a vehicle for a traffic violation. Upon exiting your patrol vehicle and approaching the violator vehicle, the driver of that vehicle gets out and runs away. What do you do? Time and time again, I have observed officers in training as well as in dash camera video chase after the violator, running right past the suspect’s vehicle. See a problem here?
If a violator has a partner in the car, as the officer runs past, the partner gets out and shoots the officer from behind.
True Story Time Again
I was a young patrol officer working in a small city. I worked nights with one other officer and a sergeant. My partner officer stopped a car and I started rolling toward him to back him up.
As soon as I arrived, his violator bolted and my partner chased him down a few feet away. They were fighting on the ground, and I ran over to assist with arresting the man. When my partner and I stood the guy up, there were four other people standing a few feet away from us who had also been in the car.
I never even saw them as I ran to help my partner. If they had planned to assault us as we dealt with their buddy, my partner and I wouldn’t have had a chance.
The guy who ran was wanted for bank robbery.
History Teaches Us Too
Criminals plan. Think back to the killing of four California Highway Patrol officers in Newhall, California on April 6, 1970.
The killers — Jack Twinning and Bobby Davis — had planned what they would do when confronted by police, and had decided they were never going back to jail again.
After the killings, on tape in a phone call during negotiations, Twinning said of Trooper Walt Frago, “He got careless, so I wasted him.”
For those of you who don’t know the story, Trooper Frago approached Twinning, who was seated in a car on the passenger side. When Frago ordered Twinning out of the car he had his shotgun propped on his hip pointing skyward, and as he reached for the door to open it, Twinning shot him in the chest.
We as officers need to plan for the Jack Twinnings of the world. We need to recognize dangerous situations for what they are, and what they could become. We need to, as close to immediately as possible, pick up on clues that bad things are about to happen, or at least have the ability to happen. Then react accordingly.
Don’t take anything in this article to mean that officers who were surprised by ambush attacks should have done something different. By definition, an ambush is a surprise.
However, we can do things to limit a subject’s ability to surprise us. Practice ambushing yourself mentally as you drive or walk your beat. Between calls, constantly look for areas in your neighborhoods where people could hide and attack you as you approach. As you respond to situations, take a second to evaluate what’s going on.
Recently there have been reports of offenders staging scenes and assaulting officers as they respond. Be wary of repeat calls. Previous calls to the same address could have been “rehearsals” for the attack. Remember the first step in crime response: make the scene safe.
In closing, approach all situations cautiously, scan everything for danger, and recognize it for what it is when and if it appears. That’s the first part of the test we take on every call. I know we all will “ace it” if we keep the aforementioned in mind at test time.
Stay safe. We need you out there.