Survival Lessons from Oakland and Pittsburgh

The lesson all of us must learn from the Oakland and Pittsburgh tragedies is to honor our fallen brothers in blue by doing whatever it takes to not only survive, or even to win, but to prevail.

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In the past month alone, at least 70 persons have been killed during mass murder rampages across America. This tsunami of active killings is unprecedented and has all of America reeling and law enforcement scrambling to find ways to prevent the next mass murder.

Despite these efforts, there will surely be a “next time.” The only questions are when, where, who, and how many cops will die fighting the threat.

Until this latest mass murder wave, the vast majority of active killers avoided confronting law enforcement. They would kill as many people as possible and then commit suicide when the police responded. However, the deadly incidents in Oakland and Pittsburgh say that it’s now “open season” on police. A staggering seven police officers—four in Oakland and three in Pittsburgh—have been murdered only two weeks apart by lone gunmen armed with rifles and other weapons.

The seven slain Oakland and Pittsburgh officers weren’t the only casualties of this mass murder tsunami. Two additional Pittsburgh officers were also wounded or injured.
You can’t really get a feel for the fury of the Pittsburgh firefight from reading newspaper accounts. During the Pittsburgh incident, three officers were killed responding to a domestic.

The suspect is a gun enthusiast, reportedly with white supremacist, anti-police beliefs. Here’s what that means in terms of the actual battle. Pittsburg SWAT was called in, and it fought a fierce battle with the barricaded, heavily armed shooter. It got so hairy that SWAT’s Armored Rescue Vehicle (ARV) sustained multiple hits, including prominent bullet strikes in the windshield.

What we’re seeing is that active killers are no longer satisfied to only murder the helpless. They are now very willing to take on police, even SWAT.

The experts will draw their conclusions and recommendations at some point in the future. Changes in police tactics will undoubtedly be made, just as they were with active shooter response in the aftermath of Columbine.

That’s all well and good for the future, but what about right now? Every day thousands of law enforcement officers go about their daily routines, handling assignments, making arrests, getting involved in confrontations, including some that turn deadly.

The Oakland and Pittsburgh tragedies started out as “routine” assignments and encounters. Oakland began as a traffic stop and Pittsburgh began as a domestic violence call. From day one in the academy all of us are taught there’s no such thing as “routine” and “routine kills.” Working the streets reinforces this into a hard and fast rule. So, I have no reason to think the Oakland and Pittsburgh officers were anything other than at their proper alertness levels. Still, they fell victim to “unknown risk.”

The reality is that most police assignments and encounters are “unknown risk,” and we must rely on our instincts and experience to ferret out possible danger signs. “Unknown risk” assignments and encounters are among the most dangerous because while you need to be ready for anything and everything, you still have to wait for a threat to manifest itself so you can react to it and defend yourself and/or others.

All police are trained to understand that action is faster than reaction. When you combine “unknown risk” with the action vs. reaction lag, you have the makings of the perfect ambush with police in the “kill zone.”

The “ambush kill zone” is precisely where the slain Oakland and Pittsburgh officers found themselves, and this combined with the superior firepower of their opponents gave them little chance to survive.

While we’re waiting for the experts to analyze these incidents and recommend what street cops can do to protect themselves, we need to go back to the basics. These basics include reality-based firearms training with sidearms, backup weapons, shotguns, and patrol rifles that encompasses not just proficiency but also movement, cover, concealment, and approach tactics. In addition, we need to maintain our fundamental skills in arrest techniques, less-lethal weapons deployment, contact and cover, communications, and watching each other’s backs.

Know and act within the law, but trust your instincts and intuition. If your gut feeling is something’s wrong, it’s almost a certainty that something is wrong. Articulate your knowledge of the law and rules to “justify” whatever action(s) your training, experience and instinct are telling you. Always remember we have the duty to protect people and save lives, our own included.

And stack the deck in your favor. Use whatever weapons, tools, and tactics you need to win confrontations. Be ready for anything and everything. Be prepared and think before you move.

Act and react according to your training, experience, and instinct. You can always explain your reason(s) later on, after the situation is safely under control.

Officer-involved shootings and violent confrontations with suspects happen with suddenness and ferocity, and they are life and death struggles. All of us need to ask ourselves whether we’re really ready to fight to the death when we find ourselves on the receiving end of a deadly assault. We need to be brutally honest in our answer, and if we realize we’re not really ready to survive a life-and-death attack, we need to do whatever it takes to get ready, right here, right now, no excuses.

The lesson all of us must learn from the Oakland and Pittsburgh tragedies is to honor our fallen brothers in blue by doing whatever it takes to not only survive, or even to win, but to prevail.

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SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)
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