Shortly after the murders of four Oakland officers by parolee Lovelle Mixon in March, I got a call from Police Magazine editor David Griffith. He wanted me to write a feature article on the Oakland incidents.
To be honest I didn’t want to do it.
I knew that researching the Oakland shooting would be a difficult and unpleasant assignment. Not only was I half a state removed from the crime scene, but I knew from the get-go that getting those close to the investigation to go on the record would prove damned difficult. Not that I didn’t understand why: If I was under a gag order, I’d keep my mouth shut, too.
Meanwhile, others not shy about articulating their concerns given their understanding of the incident can sometimes do so in very assertive terms. And I knew that their comments had the potential to anger the men and women of the Oakland Police Department who served with the murdered officers.
So in writing the article, I had to find my own answers to two questions: How does one encourage reflection and discussion on a tragedy of such magnitude in the absence of incontrovertible facts? And will those facts ever be truly ascertained when most of the principals are dead?
Perhaps the question should be one of whether or not a discussion should even take place so soon in the aftermath of such a tragedy before the release of the official report. For in doing so, we are almost obligated to go out on a limb and ask uncomfortable questions and make unpopular speculations. After all, Monday morning quarterbacking is easy. Being an active participant in the trenches is hard.
So I still wrestled with the question: Was I doing the right thing. Then as I worked on the Oakland article, another mass killing of officers occurred when three of Pittsburgh's finest were shot and killed. Again it was incident to two separate engagements by a lone suspect who—like Oakland’s Mixon—took the first two officers by surprise.
The Pittsburgh incident solidified my determination to go forward with my Oakland article, which was published in our May issue under the title “What Can Be Learned from the Oakland Tragedy.”
Because whether or not one agrees with our take—indeed, whether or not our take is 100-percent accurate given the limitations of what was communicated to us—some of the suggestions and considerations articulated from the experts that we contacted could save the lives of law enforcement officers.
There is precedent for law enforcement tragedies spurring changes in procedure and policy to keep officers safer. Case in point, the Newhall, Calif., incident in 1970.
The California Highway Patrol shootout in Newhall is generally cited as spurring a paradigm shift in the tactical training of patrol officers. And I like to believe that even if Oakland and Pittsburgh are not catalysts for change at a national level then at least some local practices will likely change in their aftermaths. Hopefully sooner than later.
There are some 12,000 officers’ names on the National Law Enforcement Memorial. Our highest mission at Police Magazine is to keep as many names as possible from being added to those walls. One way of doing that is by examining how the names of others got there. That’s what we tried to do with our May feature article on the Oakland Tragedy.
It is our sincerest wish that this article will serve as a jumping-off point for discussions of patrol and SWAT tactics and perhaps serve some minor role in preventing future police massacres.