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Surviving Vehicle Ambushes

Being prepared and knowing what to do before you take fire in your car can save your life.

October 17, 2011  |  by Ed Lovette

Oct. 31, 2009: Two Seattle police officers, one recently out of the academy, the other a field training officer, are parked on a quiet street discussing a traffic stop they have just made. Then a car pulls alongside their unit and opens fire, killing the FTO.

Jan. 10, 2010: An officer with the Anchorage Police Department is sitting in his patrol vehicle reportedly obtaining additional information on a call. A vehicle pulls up beside his unit and shots are fired by an unknown assailant wounding the officer.

Sept. 16, 2010: An officer with the Woodlawn (Ohio) Police Department is ambushed by four men armed with semi-automatic rifles. The officer, an Iraq War veteran, spots the ambush and accelerates through it. His vehicle is hit several times but he is not injured.

Vehicle ambushes of law enforcement officers are nothing new. We experienced a rash of such attacks starting in the late 1960s and running through the 1970s.

I was an instructor at the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy in the late 1970s, and I was responsible for developing and teaching a program that gave our officers the tactics and techniques they needed to manage this threat. The problem of police ambushes was so serious during those years that in 1974 the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) published a manual titled "Ambush Attacks: A Risk Reduction Manual for Police."

Much of that IACP manual's advice is as pertinent today as it was nearly 40 years ago when it was published. For example, I find that the IACP's definition of an "ambush attack event" is still useful in helping us understand the dynamics of the attack and what an officer is up against. The manual lists three key distinguishing characteristics of an ambush attack event:

  • Suddenness
  • Surprise
  • Lack of provocation

From the IACP's study of 32 ambush attacks used in preparing the manual, it was determined that ambush events fell into three main categories:

  • Sniping Attacks: Attacks by firearms at medium to long range
  • Direct Assaults: Attacks by firearms or other weapons at close range without effort at concealment
  • Coordinated Attacks: Attacks by firearms at close range by two or more assailants from pre-selected positions

The IACP analysis concluded that ambush attacks were conducted against officers in a variety of duty assignments, but uniformed officers in marked units were the group most frequently assaulted. Unfortunately what was true a quarter-century ago is still true today. Officers in marked cars are set up as targets.

Escaping the Kill Zone

I left law enforcement in 1982 to join the Central Intelligence Agency. During my early years with the CIA, we suddenly found ourselves having to deal with terrorist attacks against our officers planned for the express purpose of kidnapping or killing them. The majority of these assaults happened while our officers were in vehicles.

In the late 1980s, I did a tour of duty in one country with a very active terrorist threat where we averaged an attack a week. Probably my most valuable lesson from that experience was that there are actions that a lone officer in a vehicle can take to enhance his or her chances of surviving the direct assault vehicle ambush.

First let's take a look at those things you need to consider generally and then we'll get into the specifics. I would expect that most of you are already doing some of these things as part of your constant preparation to deal with "duty dangers."

At the top of the list you start with mindset. "You need to prepare your mind, for where your body may have to go." That's what ambush survivor Officer Stacy Lim of the Los Angeles Police Department told Lt. Col Dave Grossman as reported in Grossman's acclaimed book "On Combat."

Next you need to be aware of current intelligence. Pay attention to the information you receive at a roll call briefing or on the street regarding the rumor of an attack on a police officer as well as lessons learned from the investigation results of police ambushes. Always look for something you can use to avoid an ambush or at least see it coming. Was the attacker known to the officer or was it a truly random assault? Was the officer's vehicle followed by the attacker prior to the ambush? Did the officer have any patterns of activity that made him predictably vulnerable to attack?

You also need to make sure your awareness level is appropriate for the task at hand, in this case vehicle ambush. And you need training, with both classroom and practical exercises, on attack recognition and response, including evasion and counterattack.

And last but not least you need to consider the vehicle. The vehicle, the patrol car, the "shop," is obviously what distinguishes the vehicle ambush from other types of attacks. It also gives you instant mobility to get out of the kill zone. In keeping with the suggested tactics for lethal force encounters the vehicle helps you move and create distance. It gives you some protection from small arms fire. And it gives you a 4,000-pound weapon that you can use against your attackers.

Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

Tony Scotti @ 10/18/2011 9:45 AM

Great article

fate300m @ 10/20/2011 2:36 AM

I am just getting out of my police academy and I wished that they would have taught us this in class. I agree, a very informative article. Thank you!

Grady Emmons @ 10/31/2011 12:41 PM

Excellent article! Great advice for any professional, public or private sector.

Demerick @ 2/3/2012 9:41 AM

@fate300m - Your statement takes me back 17 years ago when I too was asking the same question with regards to reality and training, and now just laugh and remember every time I've heard " we don't use that academy crap out here on the street cause it'll get you killed!" nice hua!

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