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Departments : The Winning Edge

Vehicle Counter-ambush Tactics for Patrol

Don't let yourself become a victim of an attack in or near your car.

May 23, 2012  |  by Andre Belotto

Photo: Mark W. Clark
Photo: Mark W. Clark

You don't have to be on a call for someone to ambush you. In early December 2011, lone police officer Deriek W. Crouse sat in his police vehicle after conducting a traffic stop inside the Virginia Tech campus. A male unrelated to the traffic stop walked up to the vehicle and shot the officer as he sat there, killing him. This is yet another example of an officer being ambushed while on duty. Could this officer have done something to give him a chance to survive this ambush?

In last month's The Winning Edge article, "Urban Counter-ambush Tactics," I discussed how to anticipate and respond to ambushes when arriving on calls in an urban environment. In this related article, I will discuss how to handle ambushes while in your car, including tactics that could have helped this Virginia Tech officer.

Police Vehicles as Targets

Police vehicles are magnets that attract all sorts of people's attention, including those who want to find an officer to kill. Any traffic stop, whether involving motorists or pedestrians, will put officers in the limelight and will expose them to possible ambushes or attacks. Here the concept of "contact and cover" is most important.

The contact officer will do most of the work during the stop. The cover officer will cover. Nothing else. If you are a one-officer car you will do everything, and covering yourself will be the most time-consuming and tiresome job. But don’t compromise.

Never sit in your police car to write a citation or access your MDC during a traffic stop. Use your radio to make inquiries, and do so while in a position of advantage. I usually stand at the right rear of my police vehicle, with the armored passenger side door open as cover. From that vantage point I can maintain an eye on the violator and his vehicle, and I can see anyone approaching me on foot or in a vehicle. Looking up from the citation you're writing every 10 seconds and looking around is a practiced skill. Practice it.

The police vehicle is a big target for a determined sniper, yet many officers act as if they are attached to their police vehicles by an invisible umbilical cord. Police vehicles do not make good cover unless you are fortunate enough to have the engine block between you and the shooter. A moving target is harder to hit, so if you’re being fired on and cannot get out of your vehicle, keep moving and accelerate away from the location, and turn away from the street you're on (into another street or a driveway) in order to reduce the size of the kill zone.

If you are in a residential neighborhood and you are being shot at by an unseen shooter, immediately turn left or right into a driveway and drive all the way up as far into the location as you can. If there are no driveways, drive over the curb toward the space between two houses. Immediately exit the police vehicle and try to locate the shooter.

At this point, breathe. Don't panic. 

The last thing an officer should ever do is scream incoherently for help on the radio. This will only bring other officers into the kill zone, without any helpful information. Do request assistance or help, but ask responding officers to set up a large containment of the area until you can ascertain the suspect's location. If you know the direction the shots came from, have officers respond to your location from the opposite direction on foot via backyards or alleys. This is important: Have them stay off the street.

If you are being fired upon from the upper floor or the rooftop of a multi-story building, hit the accelerator and drive toward the building. This will reduce the angle of the kill zone because the shooter will have to reveal more and more of himself as he tries to keep the police car in his sights below his location. If necessary, drive the police car into the building’s lobby. In this situation, have responding officers take control of the rooftops of the adjoining buildings and contain the building where the suspect is located.

Unless the suspect presents an immediate threat to others, this situation should be handled by trained SWAT personnel. Officers should contain the area and begin to get intelligence information, building plans, etc., that will assist SWAT personnel with their mission.

Emergency Lights

Whenever possible, turn off your police vehicle emergency lights immediately upon arrival at or near a call location, especially at night. Several police vehicles parked at a call location with their emergency lights flashing red/blue hues into the darkness is something you should only ever see on cop shows on TV.

In reality, activated emergency lights at a call location only serve to attract unnecessary people to your call location like moths are attracted to a light bulb. Additionally, emergency lights in modern police vehicles are very bright, and these super-bright emergency LED lights deprive you of your night vision as well as make your police car an even more visible target.

Tags: defensive tactics, Vehicle Stops, Cover and Concealment, Lighting


Comments (7)

Displaying 1 - 7 of 7

Dick @ 5/24/2012 9:23 PM

André Belotto, are you for real? 35 years ago Southern California law enforcement experts were preaching writing citations from outside the car. Try that when it is 10 below zero in a snow storm. Also most modern departments that I am aware of use their MDC’s to issue citations making it very difficult not to use them

Brandon @ 5/25/2012 9:12 AM

Yea, being outside of your car is a plus but not practical. Many people are ordered to use the computer to run people or write tickets. Or bad portable radio range forces you to use the car radio. Busy radio days also ruin that. Some officers including myself dont want to scratch up their cars paint finish with a ticket book because when its rusting, the agency wont repaint. If I know I am not going to write somebody or not at that moment, I stay out of the car. If I am writing someone, I keep the door open and only sit half way on the seat and look up as often as possible when writing them. I also try practicing shooting from inside the car. At night, an FTO taught me to stand to the right rear against my car so I use the light from my tail lights to read the ID when running it and I can look thru the back window to watch the car while they assume your in the driver seat. The tail light thing has been very helpful to me but he swears by it. I have seen people get out of their car and start looking for him in the driver seat and he just stood against the right corner panel. Would really screw up someones plans if they wanted to jump out shoot you in the driver seat.

Dustin @ 5/29/2012 9:55 PM

If it works, I would rather be alive and driving around with a lightly scratched car with perhaps some rust in those areas unlike Brandon below here...just saying...

Dave @ 5/30/2012 3:27 AM

Andre, I always enjoy reading your contributions to Police-L and elsewhere, and I usually agree with you, but I have to take issue with two points in this column.

I'm in a colder climate (northeast Ohio). You try standing outside to write a citation when it's 10 below zero, six inches of snow are expected in the next three hours and the wind is blowing at 20-40 mph. Okay...maybe don't sit in the driver's seat, but stand outside the car?

The second point I'd like to contest is turning off the emergency lights. Your article says to turn them off on a call, and I have no argument with that in general, but on a traffic stop that's taking place OFF the road (ALWAYS leave the overheads on when stopped on the street), such as when a suspect pulls into a parking lot or gas station, I want my lights to stay on so my back up units can easily find me.

My two cents worth.

Juan 10-13 @ 5/30/2012 7:34 AM

Yes Dave.....the weather is a definite factor to consider while and before considering a vehicle stop! I have always kept my lights for my safety from vehicular traffic. All traffic stops are unpredictable and having your lights on will assist your back up officers to locate you quicker if things go south!

Pup @ 5/30/2012 9:00 AM

Andre, I enjoyed reading your article and most of the tactics you mentioned, I teach. I don't live in the sub zero weather, so I can't really comment, other than I teach staying out of the car, unless you have the occupants secured.

My point is, everyone has their own thoughts about tactics and their safety. As for the rotating lights, I agree they should be shut down to the ambers once the vehicle has yield. The reason I teach this method is while standing at the Def vehicle, you're blinded and back lit by your own bright rotators or solid red/blue. This procedure doesn't allow you to see if anyone is approaching from the rear of your unit/sidewalk, especially in a unlit area. As for traffic noticing your on a T-Stop, other units and citizens will notice you just as much with your ambers. Again, these are my thoughts. Being a neighbor to LAPD, and with LASD for 34 years, currently as a Master Trainer, our departments tactics are pretty much the same except for searching tactics. One thing we could all agree on is "Victory Loves Preparation". Be safe and God Bless..

vikingpj @ 8/21/2012 7:08 AM

I have watched many ambush shootings where suspects jump out of their car after a pursuit and shoot the officer while they are still in the car. I have wondered if we rely to much on training with firearms to save our life as opposed to using the vehicle you are driving as a weapon. Running through the suspect or the scene to open distance may be your best option at this point.

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