What Can be Learned from the Oakland Tragedy

Four officers murdered. A fifth wounded. One suspect dead. A police department in shock. Not since the 1970 Newhall shooting has an officer-involved shooting reverberated so strongly throughout the law enforcement community.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

The events that fatefully intersected the lives of the suspect and officers at 74th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland on March 21 are currently being investigated and dissected. A clear and comprehensive after-incident report of the shooting probably won’t be available for review for weeks, if not months.

But this much is now known.

Four officers murdered. A fifth wounded. One suspect dead. A police department in shock.

Not since the 1970 Newhall shooting that killed four officers of the California Highway Patrol has an officer-involved shooting reverberated so strongly throughout the law enforcement community. And as there were after Newhall, there will be lessons learned and our tactics will likely change over the next few years based on analysis of the Oakland incident.

But what can we glean from this tragic event right now? What can be learned that might help another officer get home safely tonight?

As of this writing, the Oakland Police Department is continuing its investigation. And we have no idea what the investigators are uncovering because they are operating under a gag order issued by their chief. But even though we probably will not see a thorough after-action report until early next year, some sense of what happened that day is known and worthy of being analyzed and discussed.

The intent of this article is not to disparage any of the officers involved and certainly not the officers who were killed. Our purpose in discussing this incident is to try to understand what may have happened, what might have been avoided, and what lessons learned from the Oakland tragedy can keep other officers alive and well in equally dangerous situations.

What We Think We Know 

The following has been pieced together from media reports, discussions with tactical experts, and from deep background interviews with officers who did not wish to go on the record. It is likely not a definitive account, but it is what we believe happened after speaking with numerous sources.

The tragedy began early in the afternoon on Saturday March 21. Lovelle Mixon, 26, was driving his recently purchased 1995 Buick and speaking with his uncle on a cell phone when he saw the flashing lights of an Oakland motorcycle officer, believed to be Sgt. Mark Dunakin, commanding him to pull over. Coming to a stop, Mixon kept the line open, even as he searched for documents in response to the motor officer's requests. Mixon then told his uncle he would call back and hung up.

Dunakin obtained some manner of identification from Mixon and walked to the rear. At some point Dunakin called for backup, and another motorcycle officer, John Hege, arrived on the scene. Perhaps in the moment that Hege arrived, the suspect—who unbeknownst to the Oakland officers was a wanted parolee—exited his vehicle. We don't know if either officer had an opportunity to respond to Mixon's movement. Perhaps they thought the young man was merely going to ask them a question. Or perhaps they were ordering him back into the car when things went bad.

We do know that upon exiting the vehicle, Mixon produced a handgun and opened fire on the two officers. Our sources say that Dunakin was hit first and that Mixon's fire was precise and devastating. Although Dunakin was reportedly wearing a vest, Mixon's shot hit him just above the protection and took out his spinal cord. He fell, unable to defend himself or help his fellow officer.

It doesn't take much imagination to picture what happened next. Hege probably tried to take cover, draw his weapon, and return fire. But a motorcycle is a poor shield. Hege was shot in the throat. Severely wounded, he also could not defend himself anymore. Mixon reportedly walked up to Dunakin and shot him point-blank in the head. He then executed Hege in the same manner.

Witnesses to the shootings called 911 to report that officers were down and one of the largest manhunts in the history of California commenced.

Two hours after the manhunt began, it ended. An anonymous tipster told police that their quarry was hiding in a nearby apartment.

Oakland's SWAT team contained the apartment. After a series of commands demanding the suspect's surrender proved unsuccessful, the tactical team, led by Sgt. Ervin Romans and Sgt. Daniel Sakai, decided to make a dynamic entry on the two-bedroom residence.

A flash-bang was lobbed into the apartment. It shredded the pants legs of 16-year-old Reynette Mixon, the sister of the suspect who was reportedly unaware that her brother had come home. She ran out of the room in terror. Then Oakland SWAT entered the apartment.

One of the SWAT sergeants entered the apartment and immediately received a head shot from an AK-47-type rifle that Mixon fired through a closet and through a wall. Seconds later, a second SWAT sergeant was also shot in the head. It's not known which officers were hit in which order, but Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai were both killed in the attack. In the ensuing gun battle, Mixon was shot and killed.

If accurate, this account of events raises legitimate questions about the actions taken by the Oakland police during both the traffic stop and the subsequent SWAT operation.

Retired Cleveland SWAT sergeant and PoliceMag.com's SWAT Channel columnist Bob O'Brien sums up the bewilderment of many who wonder how so much went wrong in so little time on that fateful Saturday.

"Oakland's a tough town and these were seasoned guys," O'Brien notes. "And yet we have three sergeants killed? That's unprecedented..."


Contact and Cover

The only place to start the analysis of this tragedy is with the traffic stop.

We don't know why Dunakin stopped Mixon, but we do know that Dunakin and Mixon must have spoken with each other. The stop was called in at 1:08 p.m. and it was eight minutes later that the 911 lines started lighting up with calls of "officers down." That's more than enough time for the traffic stop to have been made and some dialogue established between one or both officers and the violator. The question that has to be asked is: Did the officers have time to assume tactical control of the stop? Perhaps not. But perhaps they did and something about the situation did not raise red flags of alert for them.

Did the sight of Mixon on the phone inhibit the officers or lessen their potential anxiety? Were they too fixated on simply giving Mixon a ticket or impounding his vehicle to give serious consideration to a greater concern: who they were dealing with? And why did the two officers move in close proximity to one another, particularly without the benefit of cover? Why wasn't either in a position to respond to the threat of Mixon exiting the car in the first place?

These questions all come down to when the second officer arrived at the stop and whether he had time to serve as backup and help the first officer take tactical control before Mixon attacked. If he did have time to effect a more tactical posture, then not doing so was a fatal error.

Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based criminologist and decorated former officer Dr. William Schneid feels deeply for the officers and their families but worries that maybe the officers approached this broad daylight traffic stop too complacently.

"How many times have you driven by a traffic stop and mentally said to yourself, 'That guy's dead,' just because of his tactics?" Schneid asks. Schneid paints a picture of the situation as he believes it evolved in a mind-boggling frame-by-frame progression.

"The door flies open; no reaction. The guy's getting out of the car; still no reaction. The guy's pulling the weapon or has the weapon in his hands; still no reaction," Schneid says astonished. "This guy did not come out of the car firing. Now I grant you that maybe these officers may have been in total shock or [because one of them had just arrived on the scene] both were not 100 percent ready to react appropriately to what they should have been seeing."

Schneid's comments may seem harsh in light of the horror of the incident, but he is not alone in voicing concerns about what has been reported about the traffic stop.

"The one thing that I think was missed was the practice of contact and cover tactics," says Sgt. André Belotto of the Los Angeles Police Department. "Both officers were examining the parolee's documents to the rear of the parolee's vehicle, near their police motorcycles. No one was apparently covering the parolee seated in his vehicle. This appears to have allowed the parolee to get out of the vehicle, walk back toward the two officers standing close together as perfect targets, and open fire."

Like everyone else we contacted for this story, Belotto is not sure what happened during the Mixon stop. He doesn't know if the officers merely failed to take precautions or if they were surprised before they could do so. Nonetheless, Belotto, who supervises officers making traffic stops in dangerous areas, says he has used the incident as a teaching scenario for focusing on contact and cover issues in recent discussions with his troops.

"I told them that standing on the sidewalk watching traffic as the contact officer does his or her thing is not being the cover officer," Belotto says. "The cover officer must be in a position to observe the driver's hands at all times. Personally, I like to use the door post of the violator's vehicle as my barricade, and I stand there monitoring the violator's hands. If I am not comfortable with what I see, I'll direct the violator to keep both hands on the steering wheel while the contact officer does his investigation. If I still feel uncomfortable, I'll signal the contact officer to remove the violator from the vehicle and bring him to the sidewalk for a pat down search, while I cover the violator."

Belotto is emphatic on the cover officer's role during a traffic stop. "The sole duty—repeat, the sole duty—of the cover officer is to cover the violator and be prepared to break leather and fire should it come to that," he says. "Cover officers do not engage violators in conversation, conduct document inspections, search vehicles or persons, or give directions to passersby. The cover officer covers. Should a seated driver arm himself with a weapon, the cover officer will see that and initiate defensive measures immediately. A driver should never be able to not only arm himself, but also step out of a vehicle and have the first shot at officers without being engaged by the cover officer first.

"When I am the cover officer, I am expecting the violator to arm himself and I am waiting for it," Belotto observes. "That mindset does not diminish until I am back in my police car and the violator has driven away."

We may never know exactly what happened during the Mixon traffic stop. All of the parties involved are dead.

But one question that is on many officers' minds is: Did the recent racial unrest in Oakland play a role in how the officers approached Mixon, a young black man in a predominately African-American neighborhood? Was the BART incident on New Year's night, in which a white Bay Area Rapid Transit officer shot and killed an unarmed black man named Oscar Grant at Oakland's Fruitvale Station, a factor in this tragedy? That incident, which was captured on video and shown repeatedly by the local media, triggered violent demonstrations in Oakland against the police.

While it is doubtful Mixon was entertaining any thoughts of avenging Grant when he fired into the bodies of motor officers John Hege and Mark Dunakin, it's reasonable to wonder if the fallout from the BART incident inhibited the officers. Did they treat Mixon, a young African-American man, with kid gloves for fear of being called racists and escalating a tense situation?

We will never know, but it's a question that deserves to be pondered.

Dynamic Entry

The Oakland tragedy provides an opportunity to analyze not just the patrol tactics of the officers involved but also the tactics used in the SWAT operation.

John O'Connor, executive director of the U.S. National SWAT Championships, says the Oakland SWAT officers faced a situation that is among the most dangerous that tactical police face: a violent opponent in an enclosed space behind a closed door in a space with only one way in or out, a "fatal funnel."

"When you come through that door, it's a focal point," O'Connor says. "If somebody is waiting in ambush, which is the ultimate risk for an entry, they shoot to the point where they know you have to come in."

Schneid says he believes that the decision to enter the fatal funnel effectively sealed the two fallen SWAT officers' fates.

"The motor cops didn't know that he was a parolee at large and that there was a warrant out for him," reflects Schneid. "But by the time two hours had passed, SWAT knew what they were up against (a cop-killing parolee) when they made a dynamic entry. The suspect—hiding in a closet—fired three bullets through sheet rock wall. Through some crazy bad luck a round hit the first SWAT officer in the head and he died instantly. As soon as the second SWAT officer appeared in the hallway, he took him out with a head shot, as well."

Schneid says that the SWAT team's actions before they made the entry may have telegraphed their intent. "They tossed a flash-bang grenade. It's a tool designed to stun a suspect and give the team a second or two element of surprise. [Why do that] after announcements had been made? What effect could this device have had on Mixon who was hiding behind a door?"

Schneid adds: "Knowing that the suspect has killed two officers, why did SWAT simply toss a flash-bang grenade into the apartment? The suspect wasn't going anywhere. By doing so and following inside the officers placed themselves as potential targets with a known, armed killer. Did they not have the tactical option of flooding that apartment with sufficient gas to maintain their safety yet remain in a defensive/offensive position?"

O'Brien asks himself that same question. As to why an alternate course wasn't taken, the retired Cleveland SWAT officer can only speculate and empathize with the team that was searching for Mixon after he killed two of their brothers.

"They were probably getting so many tips...maybe they thought he might not be there," O'Brien says, reflecting on the complexity of such incidents. "These manhunts can be labor intensive, and sometimes it's a judgment call. Is this guy in there? Should we breach and hold?"

But O'Brien knows that such tactics are not always practical. "What are you going to do? Surround and call-out every possible location?" he asks. Maybe you should [but it's a tough call]."

Ron McCarthy, a founding member of LAPD SWAT and one of the nation's top tactical law enforcement experts, notes that no matter how one looks at the situation, it appears that the team made a dynamic entry on a suspect that was known to be armed and had already shot and killed police. He leaves the conclusion on whether that was wise to the law enforcement community.

McCarthy refuses to pass judgment on the tactics deployed by the Oakland SWAT team, but he is willing to discuss tactical considerations at a philosophical level.

"As a general consideration, if you have a highly emotionally charged incident—such as when an officer gets killed—and you have the shooter holed up inside a location, consideration should be made to utilize another agency's SWAT team. Otherwise, if you end up shooting and killing the suspect, the anti-cop crowd will characterize it as an 'execution.' Plus, you have to ask yourself: If your agency has had an officer killed, is the team going to be capable of focusing with the same sense of discipline that you would normally expect of them, or can somebody say they were allowing their actions to be swayed by emotion?"

McCarthy also believes that "once you've made a SWAT entry and an officer gets shot and goes down, you have to get that officer out of the location and lock it down."

Oakland SWAT reportedly spent an hour deciding what course of action to take. They decided to bypass evacuations of nearby apartments as the layout of the complex would have exposed occupants' lives to lines of fire. They probably also decided not to use gas because of the potential hazard to innocent residents of the apartment building. We won't know exactly what went into their decision-making process until the after-action report is released.

[PAGEBREAK] A City on the Edge

Mixon family members have characterized the suspect as "angry," "depressed," and "frustrated," with apologists citing the unique difficulties faced by parolees seeking jobs as possible explanations for his actions. Some have gone so far as to rally in his memory, celebrating his murderous actions with posters proclaiming "Hero #1" and "Your death won't be in vain." Activists handed out flyers inviting people to a rally where they would "uphold the resistance" of "Brother Lovelle Mixon."

Others have characterized Mixon as a mad dog. The evidence for that is hard to refute. He was a person of interest in a previous murder; a few days after the shooting he was implicated in the brutal rape of a 12-year-old girl; he executed two officers at close range; and in shooting blindly at SWAT officers with 7.62mm AK-type rifle rounds capable of penetrating multiple walls, he showed utter disregard for the lives of his neighbors.

Addressing Mixon's apologists, McCarthy notes, "It's difficult getting a job while you're busy procuring firearms. It's difficult doing everything at once."

As Mixon's arrest record started with the theft of six PlayStation 2 video games in 2000, one might reasonably ask if he hadn't spent much of the succeeding decade practicing some of his target acquisition skills through such media. His pathological taste for crime and mayhem was well documented through many a court proceeding, so there is little doubt that his mindset had been preconditioned for violence.

Richard Machowicz, former Navy SEAL and "FutureWeapons" host, openly wonders if the fact that Mixon's generation has a detailed proficiency with video games may have factored into his ability to exploit both the street confrontation and his attack on the SWAT team entry.

"Inside some of these games, they're actually showing these guys how to shoot from cover," Machowicz notes. "There are things that people can learn from playing video games, particularly bad people. I can shoot through drywall or just practice those tactics in a medium that is similar to actual combat. This means that the three successful principles of attack are going to have to be modified. The guy who understands how to barricade himself in a space or even just hide from direct observation has an advantage. Because everybody knows that if you want to stop a train, you're going to attack at the tunnel. You can practice all this in video games."

Radio personality Michael Savage has gone so far as to suggest that the city of Oakland is partially to blame for the officers' murders by effectively changing the rules of engagement for both militant blacks and reticent police officers. Others have wondered if Mixon didn't intentionally bait the officers into pulling him over so as to precipitate the shooting.

Implications for the Future 

There will be outraged allegations of Monday morning quarterbacking any time we discuss this tragedy. But given the magnitude of such losses, we have to ask: What could have been done differently? How can we prevent this in the future?

Working patrol, I made a point of telling other deputies that if I died in the line, I'd want people to discuss everything I might have done wrong. I didn't care whether or not all the facts were in. It was good to play "what if," not only working with what was known, but speculating about the unknown. I said that because I hoped that by dissecting my own "ill-fated" actions the officers I worked with and supervised might prevent another officer from being dissected on a coroner's slab.

I'm sure that the four heroic officers killed by Lovelle Mixon would want you to do nothing less when you consider the implications of the Oakland tragedy.

Dean Scoville retired from the L.A. Sheriff's Department as a sergeant and patrol supervisor. He is now the associate editor for POLICE Magazine.

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