During “Doug Day at the Booth” at SHOT Show 2014 on Wednesday, I was fortunate to finally meet Mike Wood, who has written several PoliceOne First Person Essays and become one of my email “pen pals.” I was delighted when Wood gave me a signed copy of his book. I’ve already read it in electronic form, but I collect books, so having the print edition is important to me on a personal level.
“The shooting is described in minute detail,” Mike told me when we met up in Las Vegas. “I had unprecedented access to the files of the detectives who investigated this case, and conducted numerous personal interviews with officers who participated in the gunfight.”
I first learned about Mike’s book from my friend and PoliceOne colleague Mark Schraer, whose article about it almost two years ago caused rather a big stir in the comments area. Having read Wood’s book and looked at some other available “open source” materials, Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis is, in my opinion, the most comprehensive and thoroughly researched account of this shooting available. In fact, you likely will not find a more-thoroughly documented account of the Newhall incident.
The Incident Unfolds
On April 6, 1970, four California Highway Patrolmen were murdered in the town of Newhall (Calif.) in the most deadly law enforcement shooting of that era. That gunfight spurred law enforcement agencies nationwide to review their tactics, training, equipment, and operations.
Mike Wood — the son of a California Highway Patrolman who was a firearms and tactics trainer for the agency — grew up hearing the Newhall story. He witnessed many of the changes that resulted in its aftermath. Over time, interest in Newhall remained high, but curiously, it seemed like much of what the law enforcement and self-defense communities “knew” about Newhall didn’t withstand scrutiny.
“There was a lot of legend and mythology surrounding the Newhall shooting,” Wood explained, “and some of it just didn’t smell right to me.”
For instance, some claimed the officers died because they had never received any training on how to make a “hot” vehicle stop, but it didn’t seem reasonable that the Highway Patrol would have entirely ignored this subject in training.
Wood added, “We heard stories about how the officers missed their targets primarily because they couldn’t control the recoil from their Magnum ammunition,” but that sounded suspicious to him as well, based on his own experience shooting his dad’s duty gun with Magnum ammunition on CHP shooting ranges since he was a youngster.
Wood noted that certain parts of the Newhall narrative were hotly contested, and unclear.
Brass in Pocket
“We had people saying that Officer Pence died with spent revolver brass in his pockets, while others claimed it wasn’t true. Who was right? Was it a ‘training scar’ that cost him his life? Or was it a complete misunderstanding that became ‘fact’ because it was repeated so often by well-intentioned, but mistaken, people?”
Wood was driven to answer these questions for reasons greater than simply correcting the historical record. Over the years, Newhall had achieved a certain cult status among serious students and instructors of armed self-defense tactics. Newhall was frequently referenced and used to “prove” various points.
“It was necessary to figure out exactly what happened — to the best of our ability — before we attempted to draw conclusions from it that would be used as the basis of training,” Wood said.
He wasn’t sure that we’d achieved that level of understanding.
In fact, Wood was growing increasingly worried that in some corners of law enforcement, “we had missed the boat on Newhall.”
It seemed to him that some agencies had failed to identify the core lessons of Newhall and got distracted by other, less important issues.
“Some of the most progressive agencies properly focused on the critical lessons about mindset, training and tactics from Newhall,” Wood said, “but other agencies focused too much on equipment issues and ignored those other, more important areas.”
Wood described the process some of these agencies went through as “looking for hardware fixes to software problems.” In the process, these agencies failed to address the critical influence of things like sympathetic nervous system responses on officer performance, and modify their training accordingly.
Scars of ‘Training Scars’
Wood said that law enforcement trainers and agencies can be proud that they have vanquished some dangerous Newhall-era training habits, “but if we’re honest with ourselves, we will find that sometimes our current training practices encourage or allow officers to make similar mistakes with a modern twist.”
Wood noted that some officers try to catch ejected magazines during training instead of letting them hit the deck, some programs habituate officers to retain spent magazines, and some programs allow officers to shoot qualifications without fully engaging the retention devices on their security holsters.
“Do bad habits like these create ‘training scars’ — the modern-day equivalent of highly criticized Newhall-era training sins, such as policing brass during a course of fire or loading from ammo cans instead of pouches? Perhaps we haven’t come as far as we think,” Wood said.
It was Wood’s intention to go back and analyze the Newhall shooting with a fresh eye and the benefit of 40-plus years of learning about the physical, mental and emotional changes that occur when someone is fighting for their life. He wanted to distill the core lessons from Newhall, and shift the emphasis away from equipment issues and back onto what he felt were the critical areas: mental preparation and awareness, tactics, and training.
He succeeded, in my opinion. In doing so, Wood gave us what is perhaps one of the best “officer survival” books I’ve read since Remsberg’s Blood Lessons.
It’s a must read. Beginning today, and over the course of the next several weeks, we will be posting a handful of excerpts for you to sample this excellent new book. Click here to read the first of those installments, Section One: The Approach and Initial Shots Fired.