Absent clairvoyance or telepathy, the best thing officers can do to protect themselves from ambushes is take precautions. The second is to recognize the significance of any warning signs.
Taking precaution includes adopting sound officer safety practices, which means doing the little things like not having a predictable pattern to your work habits. For example, avoid eating at the same places at the same times and sit with your back to the wall when you do. In short, being aware of your surroundings at all times will minimize your vulnerabilities.
Be especially vigilant in and around station parking lots or while assisting with counter traffic inside a station: Sometimes, people will bring the fight right to your front door.
In every jurisdiction, there are probably some patrol areas officers will not venture into alone. It's smart to take note of these places. But remember, under the right conditions, any venue may constitute hostile territory.
The assassination of four of Lakewood, Wash.'s finest in late November just as this story was being finished illustrates the dangers of what one determined and deranged man can accomplish even in a well-lit public place. Initially bypassing the four officers as he entered the coffee shop, he quickly doubled-back from the counter to open fire on them.
The ambush was brutally simple and devastatingly effective. Two officers were shot where they sat working on their laptops; a third was hit as he rose from a chair; and a fourth was able to actually shoot the suspect before dying himself. The officers killed in this ambush did nothing wrong. They were just sitting in a coffee shop before their shifts, and they had no way of knowing what was about to happen.
One of the places that officers are most vulnerable to ambush is in their cars, especially if they are alone at night. Officer survival experts warn their students to be particularly vigilant inside their vehicles.
Lt. Dave Asterlund, the training unit commander for the Salt Lake City Police Academy, notes that the technology in contemporary patrol cars can distract officers from hazards and back light them for sniper attacks.
"It's a different time from when we used to remove the overhead dome light to keep from illuminating ourselves," Asterlund says. "Back then, we used to write reports by hand where you could keep your report up on the wheel and an eye on the horizon. Today, the officers are looking down at a computer screen that's lighting them up at the same time. As far as officer safety, (computers) are not doing us a real favor."
Some calls are particularly suspicious. Enraged husbands and boyfriends have been known to lie in wait for police called to domestic disturbances. Other calls-such as robberies in progress-are also ideal for anyone planning an ambush. The bad guys know we respond in coordinated numbers, and there is little or no improvisation to our approach.
Suspects have also stiffed in low-priority calls to police stations, anticipating that fewer officers will respond and those that do won't be as vigilant on their approach. To further hedge their bets, they may lure responding officers to locations off the beaten path, to places that force maximum exposure of the officer while minimizing the prospect of their own detection.
At such calls an inability to locate the informing party is a concern. This may be a matter of the desk calling back to find that the informant's number is bad or your arriving to find no one making his or her presence known. Many times, a lack of police experience or area knowledge precludes desk personnel from gathering as much intelligence for us as we'd like. It may be advisable to get a callback number so that you can contact the informant to direct the person to where you want to meet him or her.
As you near the problem location, ask yourself: Does it look like an ideal set-up for an ambush? Have you responded to a wide open, well-lit parking lot opposite a field?
Consider running a check of the location and adjacent addresses for any outstanding warrant subjects (particularly if street numbers indicated in the call are bad). Run addresses for any police hazard hits (and take the initiative to enter notes on a site if you anticipate it may be a source of such a problem in the future. Example: Terminated ex-LEO. Numerous firearms at location. Field sergeant to respond on any call).
At all times, rely on your instinct. If you get that hinky feeling that something isn't quite right, listen to it. Just because it isn't admissible in court doesn't mean it isn't valid.
"If you're looking for red flags," says Mike Thomas, an instructor with the Tactics and Survival Unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, "the first thing you need to realize is that anything, anywhere, at any time can be an ambush. The thing that would stick out in my mind would be going to a location and things being out of the norm.
"For example: You get a loud music call," Thomas explains. "But there's no loud music when you get there, and the location is blacked out with no cars in the driveway. Was I sent to the wrong location? If so, why? It could be something as simple as somebody doesn't like their neighbor, so they want a police presence there. It could be something as elaborate as maybe somebody hates the police and they want to kill me."
One of the best ways that you can protect yourself from ambush is to be aware of your surroundings. Knowing the territory through your patrol experience will help you realize when something isn't right. "The red flags have to come based on your experience in the area, its history, its people, and recent calls and recent activities in the community that would lead people to want to do an ambush," says Thomas.
Still, regardless of your vigilance and your experience, you can fall victim to an ambush. There's just no foolproof way to prevent or even discern a surprise attack. "Sometimes, you just don't know," Thomas says. "Something completely random, completely unexpected-it would be hard to look for that."