Of the 56 officers reported feloniously killed in 22 states and Puerto Rico during 2010, 14 were ambushed, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program database's latest statistics. The counter-ambush tactics discussed in this article will provide you with simple ways to respond to calls for service so that an ambush is less likely to occur.
This article focuses on the urban patrol environment. The tactics discussed are not super-secret SWAT or ERT procedures, nor sensitive military operations plans. It's simple: If your tactics prevent a suspect from ambushing you, you have used a successful counter-ambush tactic.
Nothing discussed here is a re-invention of the wheel per se, but a refocusing on, and highlighting of, things officers need to do every day. Over the years I have discovered two important truths about the patrol assignment: 1) Exhibiting complacency will eventually injure or kill a police officer; and 2) Every call, every stop involves at least one firearm: yours.
The Kill Zone
It's amazing how many officers responding to a radio call in an urban environment drive right up to the call location, or park their police vehicles just a house or a building away. These officers are gambling with their lives that this is just another "routine" call. Why? Is it because they have several calls holding and just want to get them handled as quickly as possible? That's not a valid reason. Each call has to be handled safely, and safety takes time; it cannot be rushed. Let dispatch worry about the calls holding. You can only worry about the call you're on.
In an urban environment, residence and business locations have one thing in common: a kill zone. The kill zone is the angle of view available to a suspect, based on his position inside the residence or business, to shoot at an approaching officer. If a suspect is standing or is seated right up against the front window of the location, he has a wider kill zone than if he were located further inside the room. Unless you drive or walk into the kill zone, you won't know your predicament until you're being shot at. Depending on the suspect's shooting skill, it could be too late.
Every call (unless handled over the phone) will require you to enter the kill zone. The following tactics will help you stay out of it long enough to get advance warning of the suspect's intentions, therefore allowing you a chance to respond. The only limit to these tactics is your own imagination.
Note: If you have a partner, let's assign him or her as the cover officer throughout this article. You are the contact officer and you will be on the side of the street where the call is located.
Depending on the nature of the call, request additional units to act as cover while you and your partner contact the caller. This may take some time due to the availability and distance of additional units, but if it's not a life-or-death type of call, wait. If it’s a situation where a delay will result in great bodily injury or death, you must act immediately. Otherwise, wait for additional units.
Approaching Homes and Businesses
If you can see the front window or front door of the residence or business, the suspect can see you. Park your vehicle at a location far enough down the street that you can't see the front door of the call location. Then walk toward the location. Have your partner walk on the opposite sidewalk. You should be walking on the street right next to the parked vehicles. This way both you and your partner will have parked vehicles as cover as you approach the location.[PAGEBREAK]If this is a residential neighborhood with unfenced front yards, start walking closer to the houses as you begin to see the front of the call location. In neighborhoods with fenced yards where shrubbery or trees provide concealment, you may not be able to walk closer to the houses. Nonetheless, you and your partner should stay abreast of each other on each side of the street. Your partner will get a visual on the location before you will and should signal you if it's safe to approach the location in order to contact the caller.
Don't walk up to the front door. Walk up to the side of the residence and try to peek into the side or front window. Listen for conversation. Conversations will tell you if there are any other persons at the location and may tell you if there are weapons involved. If it appears that no one is home, have dispatch call the location (or use your own cellular phone to do so) and have the resident come outside to meet you. You will be able to see the resident walk toward the front door and will be able to see if he or she is holding a weapon.
Never walk inside a high-risk business such as a liquor store, bank, convenience market, or check cashing location without peeking through the window while keeping out of sight. You may interrupt armed suspects in the middle of a robbery. This is even more important if you are stopping by as a customer. Most officers will stop at these locations during a shift to get cash from an ATM, buy lunch, or to get something to drink. Unfortunately, most officers also adopt the "customer" mindset and drive into the parking lot right up to the front of the location.
Approaching Multi-Unit Buildings
Multi-unit residential locations, such as apartment buildings or public housing projects, present very specific tactical problems due to their physical configurations. Officers responding to calls at these locations should always have at least one additional officer present before entering the location and should be thoroughly familiar with the makeup of its occupants (i.e. whether some of the residents are gang members, parolees, or ex-cons).
If the location involves a multi-story building of five stories or fewer, walk up the stairs; do not use the elevators. Elevators have a tendency to break down when you least expect it, or may make several stops on the way. Each stop may place you face to face with a resident who may think you are there for him or her and may react accordingly (fight or flight).
If the building is more than five stories tall, you may choose to use the elevators but stop at least three floors below your target floor and walk up the rest of the way. As you approach the target floor, listen for unusual sounds that may alert you to a possible threat, and once again at the target apartment, listen for conversation before knocking on the door.
Note: Police officers have a tendency to "bang" on doors with flashlights or batons, instead of knocking or ringing door bells. This is a warning to the occupants about who is outside the door, and is therefore a bad idea. Never, never stand in front of a door.
While driving toward a call located in a multi-story building, formulate an approach plan based on the building's location and surrounding area. If located in a downtown area amongst several other multi-story buildings, you may drive closer to the location and still stay out of sight. If the call is in the front part of the building, drive up in the alley to the rear. If the call is in the rear of the building, drive up in front. If there is an outside fire escape, use it to listen or see into the target location before making your presence known.
If the building is isolated, and in order to approach it you have to cross a large open space without cover, you will not be able to conceal your presence. In this situation, quickly drive up as close to the building as possible and immediately get out of the police vehicle and get inside. This will shorten your exposure to an attack by either firearms or thrown missiles or objects from the top of the building. An Air Unit, if available, can assess the rooftop for you.
Since the terrorist attack that targeted our nation on Sep. 11, 2001, we have become aware of the possibility that several terrorist cells may still be active in the United States, and possibly even within our own communities. Recent terrorist attacks in the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, and Asia point to the "ambush" as one of the terrorist's oft used tactics against government officials and police officers, as well as innocent civilians. Terrorists intent on injuring or killing police officers in the U.S. need only watch television shows such as COPS, Court TV, and other "realistic" police shows to learn about our tactics and develop a way to counter them.
It is, therefore, extremely important for officers working the streets of our cities and the roads and highways of our nation to remain alert, remain unpredictable, and do the unexpected on every call and on every stop. I hope this article has helped you toward this goal.
André Belotto is a 24-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, and has held the rank of sergeant since 1997. He currently supervises patrol officers in the field and acts as the Terrorism Liaison Officer for his station. He also recently supervised the training of his agency's personnel on Multi Assault Counter Terrorist Action Capabilities (MACTAC).