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5 Gunfights That Changed Law Enforcement

In the past 25 years, American law enforcement tactics, procedures, and policies have evolved because of these horrific incidents.

May 04, 2011  | 

Crime scene photo of the infamous FBI Miami shootout, showing suspect and agents' vehicles and battle debris. Photo: Miami-Dade PD.

Crime scene photo of the infamous FBI Miami shootout, showing suspect and agents' vehicles and battle debris. Photo: Miami-Dade PD.
Crime scene photo of the infamous FBI Miami shootout, showing suspect and agents' vehicles and battle debris. Photo: Miami-Dade PD.

Twenty-five years ago, eight FBI agents pursuing two armed robbery suspects attempted a felony stop that resulted in a hail of gunfire, four deaths, and a reexamination of law enforcement weaponry, duty ammunition, body armor, and vehicle-stop tactics.

The gear and training employed by officers is much different today, partly as a result of the FBI Miami shootout. There have been other game-changing gunfights in the last quarter century. The following article examines each of them and how they changed your tactics, procedures, and policies.

We've ranked each one in order of importance (from fifth to first) and settled on an even five just to simplify matters. There are others, and there's no doubt a few readers will mention the Newhall incident in which four California Highway Patrol officers lost their lives in a fierce gun battle on April 6, 1970. But we wanted to stay within the past 25 years. (We encourage you to send us feedback about our choices.)

We spoke to police trainers, firearms experts, and tactical instructors to help us spell out the lasting impacts of these events on patrol officers. As noted by Massad Ayoob, director of the Massad Ayoob Group, in addition to horrific circumstances, these incidents contain plenty of bravery by law enforcement officers.

"One thing you take from all of these is the tremendous courage of cops fighting against the odds, for their brothers and for the public they serve," Ayoob says. "It's inspiring."

New Hampshire State Trooper Charles West helped end Carl Drega's homicidal rampage.
New Hampshire State Trooper Charles West helped end Carl Drega's homicidal rampage.

Carl Drega Rampage

Aug. 19, 1997: Bloomfield, Vt.

Recluse Carl Drega took his one-man war with society across state lines on Aug. 19, 1997, launching a rampage that started with the murder of two New Hampshire troopers attempting to ticket him in the parking lot of a LaPerle's IGA market in Colebrook.

Drega, who armed himself with an AR-15 and ballistic vest, stole the trooper's cruiser and drove to Columbia, where he killed a judge and newspaper editor. He then crossed into Vermont, running a game warden off the road and firing on responding officers who located the stolen cruiser.

Two New Hampshire troopers and a U.S. Border Patrol agent with an M14 .308 rifle providing mutual aid eventually stopped Drega by shooting and killing him. The gunman had also been struck in the vest with a rifled shotgun slug.

Following the incident, rural agencies began equipping their officers with patrol rifles, says Ayoob, who is also a reserve officer in New Hampshire.

"Drega sold more police patrol rifles than the entire firearms industry sales force," says Ayoob. "It reminded the public that smalltown, rural departments were just as likely to face this sort of thing as the municipal departments."

Crime scene photo of the infamous FBI Miami shootout, showing suspect and agents' vehicles and battle debris. Photo: Miami-Dade PD.
Crime scene photo of the infamous FBI Miami shootout, showing suspect and agents' vehicles and battle debris. Photo: Miami-Dade PD.

FBI Miami Shootout

April 11, 1986: Pinecrest, Fla.

A close-quarters gun battle involving eight FBI agents and two heavily armed suspects during a felony stop in southern Miami, this incident led FBI Firearms Training Unit Director John Hall to conclude that the carnage was primarily "an ammo failure."

The FBI's after-action report solidified Hall's belief, because it showed that Michael Platt and William Matix—an Army Ranger and Army MP of the 101st Airborne, respectively—sustained fatal wounds yet continued to bring the fight to the agents. The agents had fired .38 Special and 9mm rounds from revolvers and semi-auto pistols, which lacked adequate stopping power, FBI officials said afterward. Only Special Agent Edmundo Mireles deployed a long gun—his Remington 870 pump-action shotgun.

One bullet, in particular, was singled out as the "shot that failed." Fired by Special Agent Jerry Dove, this 9mm bullet struck Platt's right forearm, entered his right ribcage, and stopped an inch from his heart. Platt survived to fight for four more minutes, eventually killing agents Dove and Benjamin Grogan.

Matix had also apparently been taken out of the fight early with a .38 Special +P round fired by Special Agent Gordon McNeill from his S&W Model 19 that struck Matix in the face and contused his brain. According to Dr. French Anderson's "Forensic Analysis of the April 11, 1986, FBI Firefight," the wound "must have been devastating." After he lay unconscious for more than a minute, Matix became alert, left his car, and joined Platt in agent Grogan's and agent Dove's vehicle.

Following the tragedy, the FBI phased out revolvers and .38 Special ammunition. Agents were also eventually issued H&K MP5 submachine guns for high-risk encounters.

"The FBI went looking for a pistol round with deeper penetration," says Dave Spaulding, a retired Ohio police lieutenant and pistol instructor. "It's not important that you hit something, it's important that you hit something important."

The FBI's adoption of 10mm Auto to attain greater stopping power popularized the then-obscure round. The FBI later switched to a subsonic load (the "10mm FBI") to better tame the full-powered 10mm that delivered about 38,000 pounds psi, says Ayoob, who's written extensively about the incident.

Later, the FBI switched to the .40-caliber S&W that is now the most prevalent duty ammo in law enforcement. The .40-caliber provides similar ballistics to a 10mm in a shorter casing.

Comments (17)

Displaying 1 - 17 of 17

Mike @ 5/5/2011 12:58 PM

WHile I don't disagree with any of thee events being listed in the top 5, one gunfight that I feel also carries great importance is the Trolley Square shooting in Feb 2007, in Salt Lake City, Ut. Off duty Ogden Officer Ken Hammond prevented countless deaths by immediately taking the fight to the shooter. Although the situation was ultimately handled by SWAT, the off-duty lessons learned are extremely valuable.

Tim Dowling @ 5/5/2011 8:46 PM

you forgot the Norco Bank Robbery/Pursuit in 1980

Tim @ 5/5/2011 8:51 PM

he CHP Newhall Shootout in 1970. The Newhall massacre resulted in a number of changes at the CHP, including procedural changes in arresting high risk suspects and standardization of firearms used across the department.

DJ @ 5/6/2011 10:00 AM

Maybe I'm geeting old but, I seem to remember three other, and to me more significant gunfights that changed law enforcement. The first being the Panther shootout in LA. This is what brought about the formal structuring of SWAT. The second being the CHP shooting in Newhall and how it changed training on the range. The third would be the SLA shootout and the related response by on and off duty officers. Honorable mention goes to the Philidelphia PD satchel charge on the radical group MOVE and the Norco rolling gun battle where shots were fired from the PD helicopter. Something I haven't heard being done since. But we all have our own memories!

Bill @ 5/10/2011 1:12 AM

I think DJ has it right, but you might also want to add the Williamburg Seige of January 19, 1973, when Black Muslim Terrorists took over John & Al's Sporting Goods Store in the 81st Pct. of NYC. They took hostages, killed an ESU officer and wounded a number of other NYPD cops. It was one of the first big domestic terrorist incidents and a lot of lessons were learned.

Adam Kasanof @ 5/24/2011 8:34 PM

I'd add this gunfight, which happened just under 25 years ago. On June 28, 1986, NYPD Police Officer Scott Gadell was shot and killed. He was 22, and had been an NYPD officer for about 3 years. He was shot while trying to reload a .38 revolver from "dump boxes," which tip down and pour loose ammo into your hand. Speedloaders hadn't been authorized by the NYPD yet. The suspect who killed him was armed with a 9mm autopistol, and didn't need to reload. As a result of Gadell's death, the NYPD promptly authorized the use of speedloaders, and this incident certainly contributed to the NYPD's eventual shift to autopistols as its main duty weapons. As a retired NYPD lieutenant, I'd like to say that this officer, and this incident, should be remembered.

John @ 7/6/2011 10:06 AM

I would have hoped that the WACO raid would have made this list, talk about an event that changed the way law enforcement deals with barricaded suspect(s). Easily a top 5 event in law enforcement history.

Tom Ret @ 11/28/2012 8:30 AM

I recall one incident that was used as a training aid when combating snipers who are firing from elevated positions which occurred around 1973. A Mark Essex, black panther, ended up shooting 19 people including 10 police officers in or around New Orleans.
He ended up shooting people inside a Howard Johnson hotel before taking a perch on the top where he could snipe down on people and officers below. Eventually a USMC helicopter was brought in and fire
poured down on Essex as officers on adjacent buildings fired on him.
He was pulverized by gun fire and had about 200 bullet holes in him. Prior to being killed, he did a lot of damage with a 44 mag carbine.

S.S @ 11/29/2012 6:39 AM

I'm an ex-SWAT officer, and I think all of these incidents lead most police departments ,and law enforcement agencies to rethink what officers carry while on duty. To me what stood out in my mind was the North Hollywood Bank shootout. These felons were armed to the teeth and had way more firepower than law enforcement did. We weren't outmanned but we were outgunned. I think this incident changed it more than any other incident. While all these incidents are tragic, we are able to learn a great deal from the officers that are no longer with us.

Jim Kelly @ 12/10/2012 8:16 AM

fortunately, I have never been any of these. But I wonder what the "formal lessons learned report" tells us about preparing for and preventing a Waco disaster.

Ken Larson @ 1/12/2014 12:43 PM

One thing learned for sure was - never underestimate your opponent. The will to keep up the fight, as in platt & agent mireles can never be taken for granted! Platt sustained a fatal wound early on in the gun fight and was still able to shoot on the move and out flank agents dove & grogan. killing them both and wounding everyone but agent risner. Lesson learned? just because you shoot someone does"nt mean that they fall down and die!

C Warn @ 4/29/2014 7:52 AM

The Drega case is a much more involved tragedy (as are most) but included "border jumping" between NH and VT as well as some behaviors from Drega before the incident. The lessons learned by the tragic loss of Troopers Phillips and Lord were many. Other shootings that have changed law enforcement (at least in training) include 4 specific incidents when 4 officers have been slain by one or two gunmen. Although one occurred in 1970 and another in Canada, they all should be remembered as "lessons learned". The incidences I refer to are Newhall, Ca 1970; Mayerthorpe, Alberta 2005, Oakland, CA in 2009 and Lakewood, Wash in 2009. The 16 officers who paid the ultimate sacrifice taught many police officers lessons regarding tactics, while showing administrations and citizens what can happen when you do not equip and/or train your officers appropriately. Every incident, even without a fatality can teach valuable lessons. Wear your vest!

Travis @ 1/31/2015 10:36 AM

I am sure this has been mentioned, but the .40 S&W round does NOT provide similar ballistics to those of a 10mm loaded to anything approaching original specs, but only to the FBI light loading which was mentioned in the article upon which many current factory mass produced loadings are unfortunately based.

Steve Ferdin @ 6/5/2015 1:16 PM

I my opinion the unfortunate and important element connected to these shootouts is that there were probably officers that had been telling their chiefs of police or management about these deficiencies in equipment and training prior to or after previous shootouts but the chiefs or management did not act on the information because of incompetency or acquiesced to political pressure.

JttK @ 11/6/2015 9:32 AM

What goes around comes around. FBI today announced dropping the .40 in favor of the 9mm +p+ rounds.

Curtis @ 12/8/2015 5:05 AM

While it was a horrible day indeed the drega shooting should have never happened...I was recently talked to a local from the area that stated Drega was poked and poked and poke and after his wife died of cancer he snapped... A sad day indeed for everyone..

Joe Stalvey @ 4/17/2016 11:37 PM

In the 35 years I was in military and civilian law enforcement, one of the things that concerned me was that as weapons progressed, a trend toward "shooting", as opposed to marksmanship started to emerge. Hi capacity handguns, and "spray and pray" mentality seemed to take over for a while. Training to hit dedicated targets on the suspect, and hit accurately, yet quickly must be achieved. With the suspects hi powered, hi capacity weapons, and body armor, the days of "shoot to kill", may have returned.

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