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What Can be Learned from the Oakland Tragedy

Analyzing the events that left four officers dead is painful, but asking questions can help other officers come home alive.

May 01, 2009  |  by - Also by this author

Contact and Cover

The only place to start the analysis of this tragedy is with the traffic stop.

We don't know why Dunakin stopped Mixon, but we do know that Dunakin and Mixon must have spoken with each other. The stop was called in at 1:08 p.m. and it was eight minutes later that the 911 lines started lighting up with calls of "officers down." That's more than enough time for the traffic stop to have been made and some dialogue established between one or both officers and the violator. The question that has to be asked is: Did the officers have time to assume tactical control of the stop? Perhaps not. But perhaps they did and something about the situation did not raise red flags of alert for them.

Did the sight of Mixon on the phone inhibit the officers or lessen their potential anxiety? Were they too fixated on simply giving Mixon a ticket or impounding his vehicle to give serious consideration to a greater concern: who they were dealing with? And why did the two officers move in close proximity to one another, particularly without the benefit of cover? Why wasn't either in a position to respond to the threat of Mixon exiting the car in the first place?

These questions all come down to when the second officer arrived at the stop and whether he had time to serve as backup and help the first officer take tactical control before Mixon attacked. If he did have time to effect a more tactical posture, then not doing so was a fatal error.

Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based criminologist and decorated former officer Dr. William Schneid feels deeply for the officers and their families but worries that maybe the officers approached this broad daylight traffic stop too complacently.

"How many times have you driven by a traffic stop and mentally said to yourself, 'That guy's dead,' just because of his tactics?" Schneid asks. Schneid paints a picture of the situation as he believes it evolved in a mind-boggling frame-by-frame progression.

"The door flies open; no reaction. The guy's getting out of the car; still no reaction. The guy's pulling the weapon or has the weapon in his hands; still no reaction," Schneid says astonished. "This guy did not come out of the car firing. Now I grant you that maybe these officers may have been in total shock or [because one of them had just arrived on the scene] both were not 100 percent ready to react appropriately to what they should have been seeing."

Schneid's comments may seem harsh in light of the horror of the incident, but he is not alone in voicing concerns about what has been reported about the traffic stop.

"The one thing that I think was missed was the practice of contact and cover tactics," says Sgt. André Belotto of the Los Angeles Police Department. "Both officers were examining the parolee's documents to the rear of the parolee's vehicle, near their police motorcycles. No one was apparently covering the parolee seated in his vehicle. This appears to have allowed the parolee to get out of the vehicle, walk back toward the two officers standing close together as perfect targets, and open fire."

Like everyone else we contacted for this story, Belotto is not sure what happened during the Mixon stop. He doesn't know if the officers merely failed to take precautions or if they were surprised before they could do so. Nonetheless, Belotto, who supervises officers making traffic stops in dangerous areas, says he has used the incident as a teaching scenario for focusing on contact and cover issues in recent discussions with his troops.

"I told them that standing on the sidewalk watching traffic as the contact officer does his or her thing is not being the cover officer," Belotto says. "The cover officer must be in a position to observe the driver's hands at all times. Personally, I like to use the door post of the violator's vehicle as my barricade, and I stand there monitoring the violator's hands. If I am not comfortable with what I see, I'll direct the violator to keep both hands on the steering wheel while the contact officer does his investigation. If I still feel uncomfortable, I'll signal the contact officer to remove the violator from the vehicle and bring him to the sidewalk for a pat down search, while I cover the violator."

Belotto is emphatic on the cover officer's role during a traffic stop. "The sole duty—repeat, the sole duty—of the cover officer is to cover the violator and be prepared to break leather and fire should it come to that," he says. "Cover officers do not engage violators in conversation, conduct document inspections, search vehicles or persons, or give directions to passersby. The cover officer covers. Should a seated driver arm himself with a weapon, the cover officer will see that and initiate defensive measures immediately. A driver should never be able to not only arm himself, but also step out of a vehicle and have the first shot at officers without being engaged by the cover officer first.

"When I am the cover officer, I am expecting the violator to arm himself and I am waiting for it," Belotto observes. "That mindset does not diminish until I am back in my police car and the violator has driven away."

We may never know exactly what happened during the Mixon traffic stop. All of the parties involved are dead.

But one question that is on many officers' minds is: Did the recent racial unrest in Oakland play a role in how the officers approached Mixon, a young black man in a predominately African-American neighborhood? Was the BART incident on New Year's night, in which a white Bay Area Rapid Transit officer shot and killed an unarmed black man named Oscar Grant at Oakland's Fruitvale Station, a factor in this tragedy? That incident, which was captured on video and shown repeatedly by the local media, triggered violent demonstrations in Oakland against the police.

While it is doubtful Mixon was entertaining any thoughts of avenging Grant when he fired into the bodies of motor officers John Hege and Mark Dunakin, it's reasonable to wonder if the fallout from the BART incident inhibited the officers. Did they treat Mixon, a young African-American man, with kid gloves for fear of being called racists and escalating a tense situation?

We will never know, but it's a question that deserves to be pondered.

Dynamic Entry

The Oakland tragedy provides an opportunity to analyze not just the patrol tactics of the officers involved but also the tactics used in the SWAT operation.

John O'Connor, executive director of the U.S. National SWAT Championships, says the Oakland SWAT officers faced a situation that is among the most dangerous that tactical police face: a violent opponent in an enclosed space behind a closed door in a space with only one way in or out, a "fatal funnel."

"When you come through that door, it's a focal point," O'Connor says. "If somebody is waiting in ambush, which is the ultimate risk for an entry, they shoot to the point where they know you have to come in."

Schneid says he believes that the decision to enter the fatal funnel effectively sealed the two fallen SWAT officers' fates.

"The motor cops didn't know that he was a parolee at large and that there was a warrant out for him," reflects Schneid. "But by the time two hours had passed, SWAT knew what they were up against (a cop-killing parolee) when they made a dynamic entry. The suspect—hiding in a closet—fired three bullets through sheet rock wall. Through some crazy bad luck a round hit the first SWAT officer in the head and he died instantly. As soon as the second SWAT officer appeared in the hallway, he took him out with a head shot, as well."

Schneid says that the SWAT team's actions before they made the entry may have telegraphed their intent. "They tossed a flash-bang grenade. It's a tool designed to stun a suspect and give the team a second or two element of surprise. [Why do that] after announcements had been made? What effect could this device have had on Mixon who was hiding behind a door?"

Schneid adds: "Knowing that the suspect has killed two officers, why did SWAT simply toss a flash-bang grenade into the apartment? The suspect wasn't going anywhere. By doing so and following inside the officers placed themselves as potential targets with a known, armed killer. Did they not have the tactical option of flooding that apartment with sufficient gas to maintain their safety yet remain in a defensive/offensive position?"

O'Brien asks himself that same question. As to why an alternate course wasn't taken, the retired Cleveland SWAT officer can only speculate and empathize with the team that was searching for Mixon after he killed two of their brothers.

"They were probably getting so many tips...maybe they thought he might not be there," O'Brien says, reflecting on the complexity of such incidents. "These manhunts can be labor intensive, and sometimes it's a judgment call. Is this guy in there? Should we breach and hold?"

But O'Brien knows that such tactics are not always practical. "What are you going to do? Surround and call-out every possible location?" he asks. Maybe you should [but it's a tough call]."

Ron McCarthy, a founding member of LAPD SWAT and one of the nation's top tactical law enforcement experts, notes that no matter how one looks at the situation, it appears that the team made a dynamic entry on a suspect that was known to be armed and had already shot and killed police. He leaves the conclusion on whether that was wise to the law enforcement community.

McCarthy refuses to pass judgment on the tactics deployed by the Oakland SWAT team, but he is willing to discuss tactical considerations at a philosophical level.

"As a general consideration, if you have a highly emotionally charged incident—such as when an officer gets killed—and you have the shooter holed up inside a location, consideration should be made to utilize another agency's SWAT team. Otherwise, if you end up shooting and killing the suspect, the anti-cop crowd will characterize it as an 'execution.' Plus, you have to ask yourself: If your agency has had an officer killed, is the team going to be capable of focusing with the same sense of discipline that you would normally expect of them, or can somebody say they were allowing their actions to be swayed by emotion?"

McCarthy also believes that "once you've made a SWAT entry and an officer gets shot and goes down, you have to get that officer out of the location and lock it down."

Oakland SWAT reportedly spent an hour deciding what course of action to take. They decided to bypass evacuations of nearby apartments as the layout of the complex would have exposed occupants' lives to lines of fire. They probably also decided not to use gas because of the potential hazard to innocent residents of the apartment building. We won't know exactly what went into their decision-making process until the after-action report is released.

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Mom @ 8/1/2012 1:25 AM

As long as I live, I will never forget the day Sgt. Roman, Sgt. Sakai, Sgt. Dunakin, and Officer Hagee were murdered.

I think of them often and pray that God watches over their loved ones, family, friend, and fellow officers, especially the officers they helped train and mentored.

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