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This simple counter-ambush tactic could save police lives

Because of the nature of policing in a free society, police officers are highly visible and accessible, by design, 24 hours a day


This year has been the year of the ambush for law enforcement. Ambush has been a tactic used during warfare to inflict maximum casualties against an enemy, while increasing the odds of survivability of the attacker(s).

This tactic is also used against police officers. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 20 officers have been killed in ambush attacks this year in places like Des Moines, Urbandale, Baton Rouge and Dallas.

Due to this increase of deadly ambushes on police, many officers are asking about the types of reactive and proactive tactics that can be used.

Protective overwatch (PO-W) is a proactive counter-ambush tactic that has been utilized by the military and SWAT for years. (Photo/Houston Police)
Protective overwatch (PO-W) is a proactive counter-ambush tactic that has been utilized by the military and SWAT for years. (Photo/Houston Police)

Reactive counter-ambush tactics
The very nature of ambush is that attackers draw their target into their pre-determined kill zone often called the “X,” where the attack is initiated specifically to inflict lethal casualties on the enemy. 

It is important to note that I am not designating the public as the enemy. The general public is not our enemy. However, to understand the danger out there for police officers, one has to realize that there is a small, but dangerous percentage of the public out there who view the police as the enemy. No amount of community policing will alter their unreasonable hatred.

The planning of an ambush is generally done by anticipating the movements of an adversary. The attack will be executed at a location, where their target will be slowed, even stationary and exceptionally vulnerable to a violent sudden assault.

Because of the very nature of policing in a free society, law enforcement officers are highly visible and accessible, by design, 24 hours a day. If a suspect has a desire to ambush officers, any ambusher can find one on the “X,” during every vehicle contact, on every call, investigating any accident, gassing any squad car or even while patrolling and stopped in traffic.

Once an ambush is detected it is imperative that the target officer react immediately by getting off the “X,” accessing cover, identifying and neutralizing the threat. These four things need to be a trained response that happens so rapidly it appears that they are happening simultaneously.

Proactive counter-ambush tactic
Protective overwatch (PO-W) is a proactive counter-ambush tactic that has been utilized by the military and SWAT for years. It is merely the recognition that, when an individual or team of individuals are engaged in any activity that slows them down or renders them stationary and vulnerable to ambush, a protective overwatch  is called for. By putting a PO-W in place you are assigning one or more team members to occupy a position of advantage, where they might be able to watch for, identify and address an impending ambush.

This is a tactic for a time when conditions are as potentially treacherous as they are now for police officers. Officers can be formally assigned or self-assigned informally to provide a PO-W to cover the scenes and contacts of their fellow officers.

Here’s how this simple, but under-utilized concept works. When an officer and their backup officers are busy with a traffic stop or assigned call, if there is another officer available they respond to the area as well. After assessing the scene, this additional officer is placed in a position of advantage to provide a PO-W of their fellow officer(s) at the scene of the contact or call. 

This overwatch can be maintained to allow for the PO-W officer to observe the avenues of approach for possible developing threats. The PO-W should choose a position that allows them to identify and warn of an impending threat, or even respond to diffuse those threats. The PO-W officer should preferably be low profile.

Informal PO-W
A question that will arise is how a department can get the personnel to do PO-W. The answer is quite simple - PO-Ws are all around you. They are you.

In the 1960s and 1970s, officers were ambushed across the nation just like we’re seeing today. Besides criminals, there were anti-police groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army and some combative chapters of the Posse Comitatus, who posed serious threats to the police. Many deadly ambushes were carried out.

PO-W was implemented nationwide, informally, by fellow officers on adjoining beats and sometimes by adjoining jurisdictions. Officers did it for you and in turn, you returned the favor.

Formal PO-W
This type of overwatch can also be formally done on shifts by assigning officers to perform the function. Agencies with volunteer reserves can even assign members of this group to perform this function.

It also can be formally implemented by assigning personnel to PO-W of their fellow officers at demonstrations, crime scene investigations and many other planned and spontaneous events. In many of these circumstances, officers will discover that the PO-W term will be literal in that the vantage point chosen will be the high ground overlooking the scenes.

Sign of the times
It is impractical to believe that every contact made by officers will have a PO-W in place to prevent every police ambush. There are times, however, that the PO-W is a viable counter-ambush tactic that can be utilized if someone thinks to do it.

PO-W, in short, is the tactic that turns the words, “I’ve got your six!” into action.

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