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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  | 

Indian troops respond to the Mumbai terror attacks. In America, police will be on the front lines of such an engagement. Photo: Zuma Press.
Indian troops respond to the Mumbai terror attacks. In America, police will be on the front lines of such an engagement. Photo: Zuma Press.

Mumbai Attacks

Nov. 26, 2008: Mumbai, India

Why would we make an incident that didn't even occur in the United States our most influential gunfight in the last 25 years? The reasons are many, but here's a few. One, we face the same enemy as the Indians, and that enemy loves to copy successful operations. Two, America's cities and public gathering areas are extremely vulnerable to this kind of attack. Three, in India the military responded, but Posse Comitatus will not allow that here. You will have to respond. That's why the 10 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks by Islamist terrorists on a hotel, hospital, rail terminus, and other populated locations still keeps American law enforcement tactics instructors awake at night.

The attacks, which occurred over four days, resulted in the killing of 164 people and the wounding of at least 308. The lone attacker captured alive disclosed that the attackers were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant organization.

The attacks have triggered a rethinking of terrorist response strategies by police, and the emphasis on lone-officer engagement during deadly assaults. As with the attacks on Columbine and Virginia Tech, Mumbai also taught officers they must engage active killers to lessen the bloodshed, according to Alwes.

In recent years, lone officers and partners have engaged shooters at a nursing home in Carthage, N.C., in March 2009, and at a military deployment center at Ford Hood, Texas, in November of that year.

"An active shooter situation is not a tactical team problem, it's a tactical officer problem," says Alwes. "A tactical officer is anyone on duty."

The NTOA and other trainers have begun teaching a tactical philosophy known as Multiple-Assault Counter Terrorism Action Capability (MACTAC) that allows more flexible officer deployment when multiple locations are hit. Regardless of the deployment strategy, officers who arrive first at the scene must now take matters into their own hands.

"If we know the killers are active, our first priority above all else is to get in there and stop them," says Alwes. "We can't wait for SWAT. The officers at the scene have to stop it."


Shots Fired: Bloomfield, Vermont 08/19/1997

FBI Honors Agents Involved In Bloody Miami Shootout

Columbine: The Horror Writer

LAPD Faces Urban Warfare In North Hollywood Bank Shoot-Out

Mumbai: You Would Have Shot Back

Editor's Note: You've read POLICE Magazine's top-five gunfights that changed law enforcement. Now, please give us your choices by adding a comment below.

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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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