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.
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.
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.
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.
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