4 OPD Officers Killed on 3/21/2009: Yearning for Learning a Dozen Years Later

Sergeant Mark Dunakin, Officer John Hege, Sergeant Ervin Romans, and Sergeant Dan Sakai were senselessly and brutally murdered by a convicted felon wanted on a no-bail warrant for a parole violation in two separate incidents taking place nearly two hours apart on the afternoon of March 21, 2009.

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Earlier this week, law enforcement officers in Oakland, CA—and indeed, across the country—took a moment to honor the memory of four OPD officers who were fatally shot on the afternoon of March 21, 2009. Those four heroes were senselessly and brutally murdered—in two separate incidents taking place nearly two hours apart—by a convicted felon wanted on a no-bail warrant for a parole violation.

What began as a "routine" traffic stop—there is no such thing—ended in an ambush attack in an apartment after a furious fugitive search. It was the deadliest encounter in the history of the Oakland Police Department and the deadliest day for California law enforcement since the Newhall incident that took the lives of four California Highway Patrol Officers in 1970.

This week's column is dedicated to the memory of Sergeant Mark Dunakin, Officer John Hege, Sergeant Ervin Romans, and Sergeant Dan Sakai—the Oakland Four.

The Incidents

In the early afternoon of March 21, 2009, two motorcycle officers—Hege and Dunakin—initiated a "routine" traffic stop on a vehicle and observed the driver to be in possession of what appeared to be a fake driver license. Upon attempting to arrest the subject, the suspect suddenly opened fire from within the vehicle, striking both officers. The gunman then exited the car and fired additional shots—execution style—into the fallen officers' backs before fleeing on foot.

During the subsequent search, officers were told that the gunman might be located in a nearby apartment and just over two hours after the initial shots were fired, an ad hoc entry team forced open the front door and was quickly met with fire from an SKS carbine rifle. Romans was fatally struck and another officer wounded in the initial barrage.

As the team pressed forward into a darkened room where the gunman was hiding Sakai was mortally shot. The gunman was then killed by other members of the entry team.

The Aftermath

As is so often the case in law enforcement training, tragic incidents are examined by experts and explained in slow-motion detail for many years after the fact. The 1991 murder of Constable Darrell Lunsford in Nacogdoches County (TX) and the 1998 slaying of Kyle Dinkheller in Laurens County (GA) come immediately to mind.

Sometimes misinformation and mythology replace reality. For example, many years passed before an inaccurate assumption about the abovementioned Newhall incident—that Officer James Pence "wasted time" during the gunfight placing spent casings into his jacket pocket—was corrected.

Sometimes the benefit of 20/20 hindsight vision compels critics to condemn the participants in a tragedy. To some extent, this occurred in the ex-post-facto inquiry into the 3/21 incident. An independently conducted after-action report ordered by Acting Chief of Police Howard Jordan contained words like "uncoordinated" and "problematic" and "failed."

The report said that the traffic stop approach was "not in compliance with OPD training procedures" and that a "newly promoted and inexperienced" watch commander at the apartment scene "did not establish a command post or implement any basic emergency incident management protocols."

Conversely, it's important to note that the independent review also lauded some of the actions of responding officers, saying that first responders "arrived at the scene quickly and took self-assigned actions that were outstanding" and that "many members of the Oakland Police Department performed with high levels of courage and bravery during this trying ordeal."

It's likely that those final words of commendation rung hollow for those who read the report as mostly condemnation.

The Legacy

In the San Francisco Bay Area, 3/21 hasn't gone unnoticed for a dozen years—the hurt from the events of that early spring day casting a dark shadow on the season every year since that terrible day.

Following the deaths of the four officers in Oakland, one of the murderer's family members—his grandmother—told a local media outlet, "We're crushed that this happened. Our hearts and prayers go out to the officers' families....This shouldn't have happened."

This shouldn't have happened, indeed.

First and foremost, the perpetrator of this catastrophic cascade of events was out on parole that probably should have never been granted in the first place. If this individual—whose name merits no mention in this space—had been behind bars where he belonged, those four LEOs almost certainly would not have been killed that day.

Second-guessing the traffic stop is a pointless endeavor—it's unlikely that any change in officer tactics would have had a better result because the subject knew he was wanted and faced a likely stint of time in prison if apprehended. The bad guy quite simply had the drop on the good guys and he was hell-bent on killing them (or dying trying).

Third-party analysis of the subsequent effort to apprehend the gunman in the apartment is well-intentioned (and may provide some opportunities for individuals involved in similar circumstances in the future to achieve more optimal outcomes) but offered few real lessons learned.

Four fine law enforcement heroes died that fateful day, and it shouldn't have happened.

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