Police Ambush Murders

Ambush murders are perhaps the cruelest and most inexplicable of law enforcement deaths. Often, they are not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself, an event consciously orchestrated with no purpose other than the killing of an officer.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

When Brian Etheridge received the larceny report last September, the Sedgwick County (Kan.) Sheriff's deputy probably didn't give it a second thought.

After all, Etheridge had handled plenty of calls just like this one, crime reports filed long after the incident had occurred and the suspects were long gone. Vehicle burgs-such as this one-often turned out to be little more than paperwork filed in the hopes of placating some insurance claims adjuster.

Still, Etheridge may have thought it unusual when his knock at the informant's door failed to elicit a response.

No matter.

Etheridge wasn't about to just get back in his patrol unit and leave, not without having made a good faith effort to find the victim.

As the conscientious deputy walked around the back of the house, a shot rang out.

Etheridge fell, a rifle round in his torso.

The deputy's unseen assailant had somehow double-fed his lever-action 30-30. It was now jammed but he still wanted to finish off his prey. Emerging from where he'd been lying in wait, the gunman approached Etheridge, removed the severely wounded lawman's sidearm, and shot him again at point-blank range.

Etheridge died of his wounds. The man who ambushed him would later die in a shootout with other responding officers.

Killing a Badge

Ambush murders are perhaps the cruelest and most inexplicable of law enforcement deaths. Often, they are not a means to an end, but an end in and of itself, an event consciously orchestrated with no purpose other than the killing of an officer.

Rarely is the victim officer known to the offender. It is enough that he wears the uniform and serves as an embodiment of his profession. As interim Seattle police Chief John Diaz said in the aftermath of the recent ambush killing of one of his department's officers, "This was a hit on law enforcement, a hit on government, not this particular officer."

Calls that end in ambush often give no hint of danger to the responding officer until shots are fired. Indeed, some suspects go out of their way to draw officers into a kill zone by creating a sense of false assurance.

Perhaps most tragic is that the officers have done nothing wrong. They were as tactically sound as they would be expected to be given the circumstances. Many were simply caught off guard. As Dep. Etheridge's boss Sedgwick County Sheriff Bob Hinshaw notes, "There is nothing to indicate that Dep. Etheridge did anything wrong. In fact, he did everything right."

But then few things are as untenable as trying to compensate for the unanticipated suspect who has a mission, a place to hide, the element of surprise, and the added advantage of a long gun-or the man who in silent approach opens fire. As such, ambushes of police officers are among the hardest tragedies to prevent.

Hunting Cops

From walk-ups to drive-bys, from front door blind-sides to sniping an officer in a parked car, suspects have ambushed cops from coast to coast using a variety of methods.

Can you anticipate such an insidious threat and adjust for it? Probably not.

Of recent officer-involved shootings where more than one law enforcement official was killed, most were ambushes. Often they were perpetrated through the use of a long gun, frequently an assault rifle. Rare is the instance where an ambushed officer put himself in a position that objectively would have been recognized as unduly "vulnerable."

And even when the possibility of an ambush is known and anticipated, officers still may fall victim.

When LAPD officers responded to a "shots fired" call on Feb. 22, 1994, there was little ambiguity about the situation's inherent danger: The informant was the suspect himself, a teen who'd shot and killed his father.

Despite their precautions, they unwittingly parked their patrol unit in front of a location where the suspect had set himself up for an ambush shot. He opened fire, and a round passed through the patrol car's window, striking LAPD Officer Christy Lynn Hamilton in the armhole of her vest. Hamilton died from her wounds.

Five years ago in the Central California town of Ceres, Calif., an Iraq War veteran armed with an AK-47 strode into a convenience market, prompting a call from a concerned employee. Police response was prompt.

"The first unit on scene was a unit with a trainee in it," recalls Ceres Dep. Chief Michael Borges. "They tried to use what little cover and concealment they had; it was more concealment than it was cover because it was a mostly glass building."

The suspect, a reputed gang member, was waiting in front of the store and keeping vigil for the officers' approach; immediately he turned and opened up with his AK-47 from beneath his poncho and started firing at the two-man unit. In the next few minutes, he killed Sgt. Howard Stevenson, a 20-year veteran who also happened to be the SWAT team leader, and wounded another officer.[PAGEBREAK]

Seeing Signs

Absent clairvoyance or telepathy, the best thing officers can do to protect themselves from ambushes is take precautions. The second is to recognize the significance of any warning signs.

Taking precaution includes adopting sound officer safety practices, which means doing the little things like not having a predictable pattern to your work habits. For example, avoid eating at the same places at the same times and sit with your back to the wall when you do. In short, being aware of your surroundings at all times will minimize your vulnerabilities.

Be especially vigilant in and around station parking lots or while assisting with counter traffic inside a station: Sometimes, people will bring the fight right to your front door.

In every jurisdiction, there are probably some patrol areas officers will not venture into alone. It's smart to take note of these places. But remember, under the right conditions, any venue may constitute hostile territory.

The assassination of four of Lakewood, Wash.'s finest in late November just as this story was being finished illustrates the dangers of what one determined and deranged man can accomplish even in a well-lit public place. Initially bypassing the four officers as he entered the coffee shop, he quickly doubled-back from the counter to open fire on them.

The ambush was brutally simple and devastatingly effective. Two officers were shot where they sat working on their laptops; a third was hit as he rose from a chair; and a fourth was able to actually shoot the suspect before dying himself. The officers killed in this ambush did nothing wrong. They were just sitting in a coffee shop before their shifts, and they had no way of knowing what was about to happen.

Kill Zones

One of the places that officers are most vulnerable to ambush is in their cars, especially if they are alone at night. Officer survival experts warn their students to be particularly vigilant inside their vehicles.

Lt. Dave Asterlund, the training unit commander for the Salt Lake City Police Academy, notes that the technology in contemporary patrol cars can distract officers from hazards and back light them for sniper attacks.

"It's a different time from when we used to remove the overhead dome light to keep from illuminating ourselves," Asterlund says. "Back then, we used to write reports by hand where you could keep your report up on the wheel and an eye on the horizon. Today, the officers are looking down at a computer screen that's lighting them up at the same time. As far as officer safety, (computers) are not doing us a real favor."

Some calls are particularly suspicious. Enraged husbands and boyfriends have been known to lie in wait for police called to domestic disturbances. Other calls-such as robberies in progress-are also ideal for anyone planning an ambush. The bad guys know we respond in coordinated numbers, and there is little or no improvisation to our approach.

Suspects have also stiffed in low-priority calls to police stations, anticipating that fewer officers will respond and those that do won't be as vigilant on their approach. To further hedge their bets, they may lure responding officers to locations off the beaten path, to places that force maximum exposure of the officer while minimizing the prospect of their own detection.

At such calls an inability to locate the informing party is a concern. This may be a matter of the desk calling back to find that the informant's number is bad or your arriving to find no one making his or her presence known. Many times, a lack of police experience or area knowledge precludes desk personnel from gathering as much intelligence for us as we'd like. It may be advisable to get a callback number so that you can contact the informant to direct the person to where you want to meet him or her.

As you near the problem location, ask yourself: Does it look like an ideal set-up for an ambush? Have you responded to a wide open, well-lit parking lot opposite a field?

Consider running a check of the location and adjacent addresses for any outstanding warrant subjects (particularly if street numbers indicated in the call are bad). Run addresses for any police hazard hits (and take the initiative to enter notes on a site if you anticipate it may be a source of such a problem in the future. Example: Terminated ex-LEO. Numerous firearms at location. Field sergeant to respond on any call).

Red Flags

At all times, rely on your instinct. If you get that hinky feeling that something isn't quite right, listen to it. Just because it isn't admissible in court doesn't mean it isn't valid.

"If you're looking for red flags," says Mike Thomas, an instructor with the Tactics and Survival Unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, "the first thing you need to realize is that anything, anywhere, at any time can be an ambush. The thing that would stick out in my mind would be going to a location and things being out of the norm.

"For example: You get a loud music call," Thomas explains. "But there's no loud music when you get there, and the location is blacked out with no cars in the driveway. Was I sent to the wrong location? If so, why? It could be something as simple as somebody doesn't like their neighbor, so they want a police presence there. It could be something as elaborate as maybe somebody hates the police and they want to kill me."

One of the best ways that you can protect yourself from ambush is to be aware of your surroundings. Knowing the territory through your patrol experience will help you realize when something isn't right. "The red flags have to come based on your experience in the area, its history, its people, and recent calls and recent activities in the community that would lead people to want to do an ambush," says Thomas.

Still, regardless of your vigilance and your experience, you can fall victim to an ambush. There's just no foolproof way to prevent or even discern a surprise attack. "Sometimes, you just don't know," Thomas says. "Something completely random, completely unexpected-it would be hard to look for that."[PAGEBREAK]

Tactical Considerations

In an ambush situation, your survival may come down to you spotting a fortuitous glint off of a scope and taking cover or your assailant missing with his first shot. You'd best be ready to make the best of them. Prior planning and mental conditioning can help.

Officers are trained to anticipate, be flexible, and have a backup plan. All come into play during an ambush, says Bank Miller, director of law enforcement and civilian training at International Training in Dilley, Texas. Miller notes that an officer facing the prospect of an ambush has to ask five questions:

  • When do I move?
  • Where do I move? (to and from)
  • How do I move?
  • Where am I the most predictable?
  • Where am I the most vulnerable?

As the former chief firearms instructor for all DEA firearms and tactical training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., Miller has studied all manner of officer-involved shootings, including those where an officer was unable to get off a round. He knows that there have been many instances where an officer was killed despite being tactically sound. Still, he cautions against a fatalistic attitude.

Miller notes that officers can do things well before they arrive at some fateful location. He adds that situational awareness and being aware of the potential for an ambush can go far toward evading one.

Inside Your Car

As discussed earlier in this article, many officers are shot at while in or near their vehicles.

Consider this example: Responding to a domestic violence call in 1997, Riverside County, Calif., deputies James Lehmann and Michael Haugen parked their patrol car a considerable distance from the location. As they exited their unit, they were ambushed by a sniper who shot them with an M1 rifle. One deputy was shot in the head and the other in the side. Both were killed so quickly that neither was able to radio in the incident.

To counter a lone gunman, consider having units approach from opposite ends of the street at the same time. By dividing the sniper's attentions, you also mitigate his element of surprise, something that is lost with the first gunshot. But if officers pull up in the same direction and/or arrive at different times, they are playing into a suspect's hand.

Thomas recommends that two-man cars make separate approaches on foot, and avoid any tendency to bunch up together.

"It's preferable, especially if you have multiple officers, to not seek cover together when that cover is available," Thomas explains. "If you have officers in different areas and you have single or multiple threats, you have an advantage over that sniper because you can fire from different angles. Also, if you are more advanced and you have some understanding of bound and cover techniques, you can actually move from one point to another by being separate and bounding and covering from one location to another.

"It gives you better tactics to move from one place to another because if you're shooting at somebody who's shooting at you, the ideal is to be able to shoot from cover and then relocate and shoot from another position," Thomas continues. "Because after you shoot your rounds and that person sees where your muzzle flash is coming from, he can easily wait for you to pop back up."

Thomas cautions against continued engagements with the suspect from a stationary position. "You don't want it to be like a game of Whack a Mole where the bad guy can hold his sights on one spot and wait for you to come back up," he says. "That was determined to be one of the problems with Dep. Hagop Jake Kuredjian's 2001 shooting in Santa Clarita, Calif. Because he was firing from the same place, it was easy for the suspect to get his sights on where Kuredjian was and fire the shot that killed him. You want to look for multiple sources of cover on your approach."

Bank Miller advises that distance between yourself and the shooter plays a part in how you respond to the threat.

"Consider this," says Miller. "A near ambush is considered contact distance to 25 yards, and a far ambush 25 yards and beyond. In a far ambush, return fire and seek cover, then call in the location and ask for assistance. Be sure to provide all the information you can, as we don't want our fellow officers driving up into the ambush.

"In a near ambush, the tactic is to counter-attack the attacker, if possible. This takes a lot of nerve, meaning you will be shooting back at the person who just tried to kill you. The dynamics change once you can get bullets going at the attacker. The reason for this maneuver is that the person shooting at you will try to assault you immediately if he thinks he missed you since he feels he has the edge."

Illumination is no small concern: 70 percent of officer-involved shootings take place in low- or no light. You may have no more than a muzzle flash with which to gauge where the attack is coming from. Take cover and concealment accordingly.[PAGEBREAK]

Know What You're Up Against

Ballistic-resistant vests have been a godsend, saving hundreds of patrol officers' lives over the past 35 years. But many of the threats officers are coming up against are increasingly more lethal. And while so-called "assault rifles" may be the predominant weapon of choice for ambush shooters, many other long guns prove just as lethal.

"Look at what some folks call 'old' guns, like the lever-action 30-30," says Thomas. "Anyone who can pick up their sights and aim straight with a lever-action 30-30 can kill anybody. That round will penetrate your standard body armor that cops have. Short of wearing a hard plate in your vest, nothing will stop a 30-30."

The mindset of the ambush shooter is demonstrably different than that of most suspects who are simply hell-bent on putting as much distance as possible between themselves and officers. In gunning for cops, the former is angling for the engagement, and after an initial attack, may remain in the vicinity, moving only to set up in a different location to avail himself another tactical advantage.

Ceres PD's Borges notes that in the immediate hours following the death of Howard Stevenson, the suspect actually set up in a tree for several hours before descending to the ground where he was eventually engaged and killed. Borges believes that the suspect had been waiting for ground search officers to enter the kill zone before getting impatient. Ironically, it was the discipline and patience of those ground searches that prevented his success.

Learning From the Past, Anticipating the Future

The late 1960s and early '70s saw a rise in ambush murders of officers by black militants and other self-proclaimed radical factions.

During the 1992 Rodney King Riots, representatives of various notorious street gangs convened at the home of a wealthy respected drug dealer and Blood gang member. All agreed to stop fighting with each other for the duration of the riots so as to unite against law enforcement and kill white police officers. Their plan: Stiff in phony calls for service and ambush responding officers.

Today ambushes remain an omnipresent concern.

A confluence of existing circumstances may find officers going into ambush situations with increasing frequency. Mental health cuts, video game training, gang retaliations, personal vendettas, a generation increasingly desensitized to violence, and returning military vets with tactical experience are just a few factors that have come into play in officer ambushes, and may again in the future.

As these attacks may come from both close-quarters assaults and not, officers need to be flexible and adaptable in both anticipating and responding to them. Continue sound practices such as making blacked out approaches and not backlighting one another. If you're in a known "hot zone" and have no reason to stick around, get the hell out.

In the end, dealing with the prospect of an ambush is like any other aspect of the job: You can do only so much to prevent an ambush, and as Sheriff Bob Hinshaw observes, "You can't maintain 100-percent vigilance at all times."

But by being attuned to your surroundings and red flags, you can do much to mitigate an ambush's success.

Related Articles:

Duty Dangers: Traffic Stops

Duty Dangers: Booby Traps

Duty Dangers: Into the Hearts of Darkness

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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