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Lessons from the Onion Field

"The Onion Field" incident changed the game for all of us in law enforcement.

March 25, 2013  |  by Greg Meyer

Photo by Greg Meyer.
Photo by Greg Meyer.

It was a memorable day on March 9 at the opening of "The Onion Field" exhibit at the Los Angeles Police Museum marking the 50th anniversary of a police tragedy. By all means, if you are in Los Angeles, come see the exhibit.

Imagine visiting with the families and descendants of murdered LAPD Officer Ian Campbell and his partner Karl Hettinger, now also deceased, and speaking with author and former LAPD Sergeant Joseph Wambaugh, who has spent more than half his life telling the story of "The Onion Field." I did those things that day, and doing so caused me to reflect beyond the tragedy itself.

"The Onion Field" was one of those occasional police incidents that changes the game for all of us in law enforcement. Prior to this incident, officers were occasionally disarmed by suspects, who then fled without doing violence. In Los Angeles alone in the weeks prior to "The Onion Field," three officers were known to have been unarmed, but unharmed.

This time was different. After Campbell and Hettinger (both ex-Marines) were disarmed and kidnapped, Campbell was murdered while standing at gunpoint with his arms up in the air. The crooks (both now deceased) fired at Hettinger. He managed to escape, but only physically. Hettinger was doomed to a life of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was unheard of in the 1960s.

Younger readers may scratch their heads. "How could this have happened?" The answer is found when you realize that in the past half century you have had the benefit of improved tactical training that came at the cost of the blood and minds of officers like Ian Campbell and Karl Hettinger.

Consider these phrases—officer-survival skills; weapon-retention skills; improved holsters; training to not ever give up your gun; the warrior mindset; pre-determined code words between partners that mean, "I'm in trouble, SHOOT HIM NOW;" physical-fitness emphasis; front- and rear-gun takeaway training; close-contact shooting; back-up guns; hideaway guns; and finish the fight.

My first case as a use-of-force expert 23 years ago involved a California Highway Patrol officer who literally saved his own life by killing the suspect with a five-shot back-up gun he wore on his boot. He had lost his duty pistol in a knock-down, drag-out fight. I sure hope YOU carry a back-up gun.

A few days after "The Onion Field" tragedy, legendary LAPD Commander John "Two Gun" Powers—a World War II veteran involved in quite a few shoot-outs—issued what came to be known as "The Hettinger Memorandum." Here are a few lines:

"The police are engaged in a hot war. There are no truces, and there is no hope of an armistice. The enemy abides by no rules of civilized warfare.

"The individual officer, when taking his oath of office, enters a sacred trust to protect his community to the best of his ability, laying down his life if necessary.

"All men return to dust. The manner of a man's living and dying is of paramount importance. Although some moderns have attempted to sap the strength and ideals of this nation by slogans such as 'I'd rather be red than dead,' there are situations more intolerable than death."

"Two Gun" Powers even mentioned that shoving a sharp Number 2 pencil through the suspect's jugular would do the trick. How's that for creative?

My final thoughts: DO NOT give up your gun to a crook. Whatever it takes to save your life, do it. Finish the fight. Win the fight.

And if you have never read Wambaugh's book or seen the movie, please do.  Your mind and heart will be impacted forever. The mindset that comes from the lessons of "The Onion Field" may just save your life.

Greg Meyer is a retired LAPD captain who is an internationally known use-of-force expert. He is a member of the POLICE Advisory Board.

Tags: Onion Field Case, LAPD, Police History, Weapon Retention

Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

Walt @ 3/27/2013 1:11 AM

It's these type of tragedies that result in changes. Another infamous turn of events was the Newhall incident and the list goes on. Each time we learn new things and training methods,wouldn't it be nice if we could implement these changes without loss of life.

Henry Johnson @ 3/27/2013 8:19 AM

I entered law enforcement in 1979. I was trained at the Rio Hondo Police Academy. Most of the staff were members of LAPD. A great deal of training (which was indicated in this article) resulted from what occurred in "The Onion Field." I read the book three times. The first was shortly before I was hired. The second time was in the late 80's, when I was a FTO, and the last time was in 2005. I am now retired, after 31 yrs. I am sure I will read the Onion Field again. Also, I attended the LAPD Historical Museum. I enjoyed that day trip and plan to attend again.

Sean @ 3/27/2013 2:25 PM

One thing to remember is that there were not even hand-held radios back then. If I remember correctly from what Wambaugh said outside of the book, is that several officers had ben involved in similar incidents over the previous year and were let go after the offender was able to escape. One of the lessons I would hope officers take away from this is to be careful how you criticize your co-workers. On comment sections I see a lot of second guessing and "I would never" "What were they thinking"
This job is a lot like golf, you never play the same hole the same way twice.

Trigger @ 4/1/2013 10:47 AM

Alot of new training and knowledge have come out of critical incidents such as "The Onion Field". Unfortuantely all of this training is useless unless practice is in place. An old combat veteran once told me back in my probationary year was "Just because you can boil water does not make you a chef", what he was trying to get me to understand is the need to try new techniques and skills, to keep working with those and others to keep you safe. A quote from FLETC Instructor John Bostain sums it up: "If you knew you would be fighting for your life tomorrow, would you change the way you train today?"

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