Ambush: Awareness means avoidance

Though the numbers vary considerably, anywhere from 11 to 20 percent of the officers killed by gunfire each year die in ambush scenarios


For the last 15 years, I’ve tracked two trends in the FBI Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) annual reports: the number of officers killed each year by rifles and the number of officers killed each year in what the FBI defines as an “Ambush” situation. The LEOKA report breaks down the ambush category into two sub-categories: an “Impromptu Ambush” or a “Deliberate Ambush.”

An impromptu ambush involves a felon springing a sudden and essentially unplanned attack on an officer. An example of this type event occurred in Wisconsin on April 28th, 1994.

In Pursuit 
While being pursued from their latest bank job by Captain James Lutz of the Waukesha Police Department, the Oswald father and son bank robbery team made a sudden 90 degree right turn. When Captain Lutz rounded the corner in hot pursuit, he found the two suspects out of their stopped vehicle. A Springfield Armory M1A rifle can hold a total of 21 rounds of 7.62x51mm ammunition (20 round magazine plus one in the chamber). The Oswalds quickly fired all 21 rounds into the Captain’s squad car. Just for good measure, the Oswald son then walked back to the Lutz’s car and fired a head shot from a handgun to ensure the Captain was dead. Following a wild chase, multiple carjackings, a breached roadblock, and a spectacular encounter with a large tree, police captured the Oswalds hour after they had ambushed and murdered Captain Lutz.

A deliberate ambush generally involves one or more officers being suckered into a bogus call, like the one near Pleasanton, Texas on October 12th, 1999.

Bogus Call
An Atascosa County Deputy Sheriff responded to the second domestic violence call of the day at a home in a rural subdivision. On the first call, a man was taken into custody for domestic violence. This time, as the Deputy was exiting his vehicle, the freshly bailed out criminal cut him down in a hail of 7.62x39mm rifle bullets, followed by a couple of shots from a 12 gauge shotgun. Within two minutes, a second Atascosa Deputy arrived as backup and was killed just as quickly with the same weapons. When the two Deputies failed to respond to radio calls, a Texas DPS Trooper was dispatched to the scene. The trooper saw the downed Deputies and called in the report while attempting to back away from the scene. The suspect, who had then concealed himself in a nearby brushy area, opened fire on the trooper, wounding him in the head and hip.

Minutes later, a Pleasanton PD Patrolmen and a retired US Border Patrol Agent reached the wounded trooper’s vehicle and they were both wounded as they attempted to reach the trooper. Two civilian passersby assisted the wounded patrolman and agent resulting in one civilian being wounded. During an extended exchange of gunfire with many officers, the suspect self-inflicted a fatal gunshot wound, ending the bloody day. A subsequent investigation determined the second call to the home was bogus and they found the suspect had cached ammunition in likely ambush spots.

Though the numbers vary considerably, anywhere from 11 to 20 percent of the officers killed by gunfire each year die in one of these ambush scenarios. In the deliberate ambush category, the felons often choose center-fire rifles to give them the advantage of distance and penetration.

Last year we saw several ambush killings, including almost exactly one year ago, when Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle, and Paul Sciullo II of the Pittsburgh police department were shot to death while responding to an argument between a mother and her 22-year-old son.  Then, in the Autumn, it was the four Lakewood, Washington officers killed in a coffee shop. That suspect, Maurice Clemmons, later staged a second ambush, luring a Seattle officer with an apparently disabled vehicle. Thankfully, the Seattle officer was on high alert and the ambush backfired on the killer.

Cooper’s Colors
Hopefully, you maintain yourself in Condition Yellow whenever you are working. You must maintain yourself on a high state of alert whenever you are dispatched to a call, or when pursuing someone on foot or by vehicle. When anything seems out of place, shift to Condition Orange, until you are satisfied there is no threat. Alert officers make this shift from Yellow to Orange several times each shift, without going mad or developing a “hair trigger” mentality. You may even shift to Condition Red when a potential threat presents itself without firing your weapon.

The “Color Code” of situational awareness developed by Jeff Cooper is widely taught, but I’ve found many officers who have received inappropriate instruction on its use. I was fortunate enough to learn it directly from the Colonel, and I can review it whenever I like because he was videotaped during the class I attended. In a future column I’ll give you the pure version of the Color Code, “direct from the horse’s mouth.”

By keeping your alert system active, you can avoid many potential ambush situations. On any type of backup call, get there as quickly as prudence allows, then pause a ways out to look and listen. Even when the call is for an Officer Down — the most adrenaline-pumped police call of all — take a few seconds and a few deep breaths before blasting into the scene. In far too many cases, the first wave of backup units can become the second wave of victims. Even if the attack on the first officer wasn’t a deliberate ambush, the shooter may have taken up a position to whack you as you approach.

During any kind of pursuit, if you lose sight of the crook around a blind corner, do not bust around the corner blindly! Slow your pursuit and “peek” around the corner to see if the felon has pulled up short, waiting for you to round the corner. It happened that way to Captain Lutz and it happened the same way for an Ohio Officer on February 15th, 1997.

Most of us recall the dash camera footage of the shootout between the Kehoe brothers and an Ohio Trooper and Deputy Sheriff. After that exchange of ineffective gunfire, the Kehoe brothers took off in their blue Chevy Suburban only to be spotted by another officer, who initiated a pursuit. I have a copy of the rarely seen dash camera footage of this pursuit, which ended when the pursuing officer skidded around a blind corner only to find the Kehoe brothers outside their stopped vehicle, firing into the police vehicle with an M16. We see bullets stitch across the windshield just before the dash camera went blank. The officer threw herself down behind the dash and the 5.56mm caliber bullets failed to penetrate into the driver’s compartment. The Kehoe brothers escaped that day because of a well executed impromptu ambush.

Pulling an ambush of either variety isn’t rocket science. Even the dumbest crooks can pull one off. In Jonesboro, Arkansas, two boys, aged 11 and 13 years, pulled the fire alarm to initiate a near-perfect ambush in which they killed five and wounded 10 at the Westside Middle School in 1998.

You must stay vigilant to the possibility of an ambush and avoid them whenever possible.

Next month, I’ll discuss tactics for surviving an ambush you couldn’t avoid.

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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