The events that fatefully intersected the lives of the suspect and officers at 74th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland on March 21 are currently being investigated and dissected. A clear and comprehensive after-incident report of the shooting probably won’t be available for review for weeks, if not months.
But this much is now known.
Four officers murdered. A fifth wounded. One suspect dead. A police department in shock.
Not since the 1970 Newhall shooting that killed four officers of the California Highway Patrol has an officer-involved shooting reverberated so strongly throughout the law enforcement community. And as there were after Newhall, there will be lessons learned and our tactics will likely change over the next few years based on analysis of the Oakland incident.
But what can we glean from this tragic event right now? What can be learned that might help another officer get home safely tonight?
As of this writing, the Oakland Police Department is continuing its investigation. And we have no idea what the investigators are uncovering because they are operating under a gag order issued by their chief. But even though we probably will not see a thorough after-action report until early next year, some sense of what happened that day is known and worthy of being analyzed and discussed.
The intent of this article is not to disparage any of the officers involved and certainly not the officers who were killed. Our purpose in discussing this incident is to try to understand what may have happened, what might have been avoided, and what lessons learned from the Oakland tragedy can keep other officers alive and well in equally dangerous situations.
What We Think We Know
The following has been pieced together from media reports, discussions with tactical experts, and from deep background interviews with officers who did not wish to go on the record. It is likely not a definitive account, but it is what we believe happened after speaking with numerous sources.
The tragedy began early in the afternoon on Saturday March 21. Lovelle Mixon, 26, was driving his recently purchased 1995 Buick and speaking with his uncle on a cell phone when he saw the flashing lights of an Oakland motorcycle officer, believed to be Sgt. Mark Dunakin, commanding him to pull over. Coming to a stop, Mixon kept the line open, even as he searched for documents in response to the motor officer's requests. Mixon then told his uncle he would call back and hung up.
Dunakin obtained some manner of identification from Mixon and walked to the rear. At some point Dunakin called for backup, and another motorcycle officer, John Hege, arrived on the scene. Perhaps in the moment that Hege arrived, the suspect—who unbeknownst to the Oakland officers was a wanted parolee—exited his vehicle. We don't know if either officer had an opportunity to respond to Mixon's movement. Perhaps they thought the young man was merely going to ask them a question. Or perhaps they were ordering him back into the car when things went bad.
We do know that upon exiting the vehicle, Mixon produced a handgun and opened fire on the two officers. Our sources say that Dunakin was hit first and that Mixon's fire was precise and devastating. Although Dunakin was reportedly wearing a vest, Mixon's shot hit him just above the protection and took out his spinal cord. He fell, unable to defend himself or help his fellow officer.
It doesn't take much imagination to picture what happened next. Hege probably tried to take cover, draw his weapon, and return fire. But a motorcycle is a poor shield. Hege was shot in the throat. Severely wounded, he also could not defend himself anymore. Mixon reportedly walked up to Dunakin and shot him point-blank in the head. He then executed Hege in the same manner.
Witnesses to the shootings called 911 to report that officers were down and one of the largest manhunts in the history of California commenced.
Two hours after the manhunt began, it ended. An anonymous tipster told police that their quarry was hiding in a nearby apartment.
Oakland's SWAT team contained the apartment. After a series of commands demanding the suspect's surrender proved unsuccessful, the tactical team, led by Sgt. Ervin Romans and Sgt. Daniel Sakai, decided to make a dynamic entry on the two-bedroom residence.
A flash-bang was lobbed into the apartment. It shredded the pants legs of 16-year-old Reynette Mixon, the sister of the suspect who was reportedly unaware that her brother had come home. She ran out of the room in terror. Then Oakland SWAT entered the apartment.
One of the SWAT sergeants entered the apartment and immediately received a head shot from an AK-47-type rifle that Mixon fired through a closet and through a wall. Seconds later, a second SWAT sergeant was also shot in the head. It's not known which officers were hit in which order, but Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai were both killed in the attack. In the ensuing gun battle, Mixon was shot and killed.
If accurate, this account of events raises legitimate questions about the actions taken by the Oakland police during both the traffic stop and the subsequent SWAT operation.
Retired Cleveland SWAT sergeant and PoliceMag.com's SWAT Channel columnist Bob O'Brien sums up the bewilderment of many who wonder how so much went wrong in so little time on that fateful Saturday.
"Oakland's a tough town and these were seasoned guys," O'Brien notes. "And yet we have three sergeants killed? That's unprecedented..."