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Officer ambush: Risks and awareness

By Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith,/p>

The law enforcement community is mourning the death of Detective Michael Thomas, a 24 year veteran with the Aurora, CO Police Department. [Read more]

Det. Thomas, a highly decorated officer who served in numerous specialty positions during his career, was murdered as he sat in his personal car at a stoplight, wearing plainclothes and returning from lunch during a routine training day.

At the time of this writing, it is not known if the 27 year old suspect specifically targeted Det. Thomas; however, the suspect was also being sought in connection with another shooting that had occurred on Monday, September 18th at around 10am.

As cops do in the wake of every officer death, we examine the tactics, the circumstances, and the factors involved in the incident so that we can better prepare our students, our personnel, our departments, and ourselves for a similar situation. In fact, the intense study of police officers who make the ultimate sacrifice is one of the ways we honor the memory of our fallen and deal with their loss.

But how do you train and prepare for a situation as seemingly random and senseless as this?

First of all, be aware that seemingly "unprovoked" attacks take police officer's lives more often than we may realize. In 2004, CHP Officer Thomas Steiner was shot three times, including once in the head, while he stood in front of the Pomona, CA courthouse after testifying in traffic court. The attacker, a 16 year old gang-banger hoping to gain the respect of the street gang he was attempting to join, wanted to kill a cop, and Officer Steiner was the first one he saw.

When you're in uniform, you're a target, so stay alert and be prepared to take action.

Accept that sometimes activities that you've been involved in hours, days or even years before may be the catalyst for an ambush, both on and off duty.

In 2002, Pulaski County, KY Sheriff Samuel Catron was shot and killed in an assassination while leaving a political rally after giving a campaign speech.

Officer Joey Vincent of the Greenville, KY Police Department was murdered in 1999 by a subject to whom he had served a mental health warrant on a week earlier. The suspect, a cousin of Officer Vincent, ambushed him with a rifle in the officer's own driveway as he and his wife were taking their 2-year-old to the emergency room. Detective Thomas Newman of the Baltimore, MD Police Department was murdered by three suspects in retaliation for his testimony is a case in which Det. Newman had been shot and wounded the year before. The suspects approached Det. Newman as he left a bar with his girlfriend and began shooting without saying a word. He was struck five times with .32 caliber and 9mm rounds and died shortly thereafter.

Expect the unexpected! In 2003 Youngstown, OH Patrolman Thomas Hartzell was returning to headquarters when he ran the license plate of a suspicious vehicle ahead of him. Without provocation, the driver exited his vehicle and opened fire on Patrolman Hartzell, killing him.

Only a year and a half ago, Sergeant Carl Graham Jr of the Missouri Highway Patrol was shot and killed in an ambush in front of his home in rural Van Buren, MO. The suspect, arrested three days later, had been the focus of Sgt. Graham's investigation of a fatal traffic crash the year before in which the shooter had been involved.

As Dave Smith teaches, the "ambush" style attack can be the most difficult to prevent. This type of cowardly assault reaffirms the need to constantly attend to our surroundings, both on and off duty.

Each officer death forces us to remember the risks of this profession and should compel us to continue to read, to research, to train, to learn, and to constantly be aware. Through AWARENESS we can minimize Fate's intervention without living our lives in a state of constant paranoia.

For every officer killed, there should be countless officers who survive, who WIN, as a direct result of the heightened awareness created by the loss of one of our own.

Stay safe.

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