10 keys to preventing an ambush in your squad car

Here are 10 things to keep in mind to mitigate the risk of ambush in your patrol vehicle


November 29, 2009 was a day nobody in law enforcement will forget — every one of us remembers precisely where we were when we heard the tragic news out of Lakewood, Washington. Since that day, we’ve had other days such as the 2010 ambush of Hoonah (Alaska) Sergeant Tony Wallace and Officer Matt Tokuoka and the most recent deaths of New York City Police Department Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

We remember these events, not only because they are tragic reminders of our vulnerability in a free society, but because the event of an ambush is rare. Roadway incidents continue to be the leading cause of line of duty deaths and while firearm related deaths remain the second leading cause, a small number of those are actually designated as ambushes — and even fewer are vehicle ambushes. Despite the uniqueness, we should take every precaution we can to mitigate the risks to any pending ambush attack. 

North Carolina Trooper Kirk Hensley teaches the best class I know on ambush attacks called The First Three Seconds. Hensley cites Department of Justice Data that the average officer-and-suspect violent encounter lasts three to five seconds while the average officer response to the actual threat is five to seven seconds. Clearly we have some work to do in order to be more prepared for ambush attacks.

Pre-Attack Indicators
That work comes in the way of knowing what to look for before an attack occurs. Virtually every attack on law enforcement is preceded by an action that should indicate to the officer what’s coming. 

Whether it’s a suspect’s hands in their pocket, failure to comply with commands, or a foot on the brake as you approach, there are clues that can help us but we have to be looking for them. To survive an ambush — and particularly an ambush in a vehicle — the time to act is before the attack begins. 

Vehicle Ambush
While rare, ambush attacks in our vehicle do occur and the confinement of our vehicle can make it difficult to prepare for. Here are ten things to keep in mind to mitigate the risk of ambush in your patrol vehicle:

1.    Paperwork should be done in a secured location where citizens cannot approach your car.
2.    You should always know an escape plan. Park for a rapid exit and leave a cushion with cars around you on the road.
3.    Check mirrors often and observe those around you. 
4.    Make sure you aren’t being followed. A few left turns will help you  identify potential danger.
5.    Try to avoid using the same routes daily. This vigilance should continue while driving home.
6.    Scan parking lots and intersections as you enter them.
7.    Make eye contact with others when you can. Pay particular attention to those that avoid looking at you.
8.    Be cautious when cars stop suddenly in front of you or when they fail to pull completely off the road when they stop.
9.    When suspects exit their vehicle, if they leave their door open that could be an indication they plan on attacking and running back to their car.
10.    Never let someone approach you while you are sitting in your car.

Debunking the Seatbelt Myth
The lack of seatbelt use by officers has been well documented. Despite a civilian rate of well over 90 percent, officers wear seatbelts about half the time and we have paid for it with blood. 

Ask a cop why they don’t wear their seatbelt on the job and the likely answer is “officer safety.” If an ambush occurs in the vehicle, they presume that they need to be able to get out of the car quickly, and a seatbelt would hamper that. 

I haven’t seen a vehicle ambush at highway speeds — and you can’t get out of the car at 65 miles per hour anyway — but leaving that alone for now, our profession wrongly presumes that the answer to a vehicle ambush is to get out of the car.

To find the answer on what to do in a vehicle ambush we should look no further than the U.S. Military. While vehicle ambushes are relatively rare in American policing, they are more than common in the Military on foreign land. Their training and equipment has risen up to those dangers and we can learn from their history and lessons. 

While you likely don’t have the luxury of an armored vehicle, the training to escape an ambush remains the same. The last thing that should be done is to exit the security of a vehicle and expose yourself to an ambush that by nature, has the drop on you. 

The military describes the necessary action as “Get off the X” or “Drive through the Kill Zone” and while the environment is different here than foreign soil http://youtu.be/_Vh-gEq_Y6s , the premise remains the same. An ambush places you at a severe disadvantage. If you decide to exit your vehicle to combat an ambush, you continue to take fire while being very vulnerable. Driving out of the area or even using your car as a weapon may be a much better alternative. 

Training is Key
Preparing for vehicle ambushes should be a mainstay in our training. Scenario-based training has proven to be highly successful and a basic course that simulates an ambush and the officer driving out of the ambush can go a long way. 

We can’t assume that driving through an ambush means driving forward, and pulling up to a call and having to drive in reverse very quickly is a real possibility. Instead of traditional vehicle training that tells us to stop backing our calls due to a high likelihood of collisions, we should train for it in non-stressful and stressful situations. 

If your officers tell you that they don’t wear their seatbelts because they are trying to mitigate the dangers of an ambush,  they need to be trained on how to mitigate a potential ambush and that training will emphasize the importance of a seatbelt, because driving fast away from an ambush and sometimes in reverse is virtually impossible from the passenger seat. 

About the author

Major Travis Yates is a Commander with the Tulsa (OK) Police Department. His Seminars in Risk Management & Officer Safety have been taught across the United States & Canada. Major Yates has a Master of Science Degree in Criminal Justice and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy. He is the Director of Training for SAFETAC Training and the Director of Ten-Four Ministries, dedicated to providing practical and spiritual support to the law enforcement community.

Contact Travis Yates

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