Learning from the Past

By studying the threats faced by officers years ago, today's police can prepare themselves for what they might face and develop the tactics, the training, and the mindset to prevail.

Photo: Police Historical Society and LAPDPhoto: Police Historical Society and LAPD

Not long ago I was perusing the internet looking for something to satisfy my insatiable appetite for good reading material. During this search I happened across a book on the infamous Newhall Incident that was published in 2013 and I was surprised that I hadn't seen it before.

The book is "The Newhall Shooting—A Tactical Analysis" by Mike Wood. Even though I was a sophomore in high school when that deadly shootout between two heavily armed criminals and four California Highway Patrol officers took place in the Los Angeles suburb of Newhall on April 5, 1970, I knew about it. Even at that young age, I was already personally committed to a career in law enforcement. So when news reports told the story of how four troopers were killed that night, I was shocked and angry.

Looking back on the incident, Wood's book takes the reader through the shootout, which occurred in four-and-a-half minutes in real time. And through thorough and extensive research, Wood breaks down what happened moment by moment so that it can be understood as to what transpired in each dimension of the incident. Wood explains how things happened and more importantly why things happened as they did.

Law enforcement has changed a great deal over the years, largely in response to lessons learned in major incidents. Photo: Police Historical Society and LAPDLaw enforcement has changed a great deal over the years, largely in response to lessons learned in major incidents. Photo: Police Historical Society and LAPD

The book closes with a discussion of how the law enforcement profession reacted and adapted to the Newhall Incident. Over a period of time since 1970, many innovations in equipment and tactics have been developed to enhance officer safety and survival in gunfights and other assaults. This book is an excellent read for officers at any stage of their career, for the rookie to learn by and the veteran as a refresher.

Precision, Power, Speed
I've discussed the Newhall Incident and Wood's book for one reason. I believe it's critically important that as officers we be aware of the past of our profession and how it affects the present and even the future. So let's continue looking at the history of the concept called "officer survival."

Newhall wasn't where the officer survival movement began; it probably was conceived about seven years earlier when a Det. Pierce R. Brooks of the Los Angeles Police Department was investigating the murder of LAPD Officer Ian Campbell during the spring of 1963. Campbell and partner Karl Hettinger were abducted after being disarmed by two criminals. They were driven out of the city by the two men to an onion field near Bakersfield. There, Campbell was shot and killed but Hettinger managed to escape and ran four miles to get help. That incident shook up a lot of law enforcement agencies and led to new policies on what to do in similar situations.

Because law enforcement has traditionally been reactive as opposed to proactive, the change after the onion field incident was slow, but constant. There was some resistance to change, as there always is. But innovations in equipment and tactics were to come.
In terms of police weapons and firearms, here's what I saw during my career, which began in the 1970s:

➔ We went from dump pouches to belt loops, to speed strips, to speed loaders
➔ We went from lead round-nose ammunition to jacketed hollow-point
➔ We went from revolvers to semi-automatic pistols

In response to the Miami Shootout in 1986, officers now use more long guns in felony stops. Photo: Miami-Dade PDIn response to the Miami Shootout in 1986, officers now use more long guns in felony stops. Photo: Miami-Dade PD

Holsters also were the subject of major improvements. We went from the Jordan holster to thumb-break holsters. There was even an attempt to make a security holster that put the gun into action fast. It was called the "clamshell holster," and it presented us with a lot of problems. Holster security became a bigger issue, and then the debate raged about the tradeoffs of weapon security vs. speed of draw.

Firearms training also evolved. At first training was minimal, then along came the concept of Police Pistol Combat (PPC) training, which, if nothing else, gave the officer some opportunity to draw and fire his or her weapon at different distances. PPC ushered in change at a rapid pace. We went from the one-hand shooting technique to the crouch position, to the Isosceles stance, to the Weaver stance. And now today's officers are being instructed in what's often called the "fighting stance" and taught to shoot from "unconventional shooting positions."

Lessons Learned
All of these changes came about because we were learning new lessons from actual police operations and evolving our training to save officers' lives.

Here, in my opinion, are the top six pivotal incidents and the lessons learned that changed officer training and spurred innovations in how officers are equipped for duty.

➔ The Onion Field: This March 9, 1963, incident involved the kidnapping of two LAPD officers and the murder of one. From it law enforcement developed better traffic stop techniques and counter-ambush tactics.
➔ The Newhall Incident: The April 6, 1970, Newhall Incident led to the murders of four California Highway Patrol troopers. The shootout began when two troopers stopped two career criminals after one of the men brandished a handgun during an argument with another motorist. This terrible incident led to the development of felony stop tactics, better firearms training for officers, and improved equipment.
➔ The Howard Johnson Sniper: On January 7, 1973, in New Orleans, a man who had previously murdered an officer and a police cadet went on a killing spree in and around a downtown Howard Johnson Hotel. From the top floors and roof of the hotel, he opened fire on responding officers with a carbine. A raging battle ensued in which several officers and the man were killed. The lessons learned from this incident were many, but I believe the most important are scene control and tactical approach.
➔ The Norco Bank Robbery: On May 9, 1980, five men robbed a bank in Norco, CA, and engaged in a fierce gun battle and vehicle pursuit with deputies from the Riverside County Sheriff's Office, the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Office, and the CHP. One deputy and two perpetrators were killed. Lessons learned from this incident include the need for rifles in law enforcement operations and the need to train in the techniques suspects can use to ambush

The major lesson learned from the North Hollywood Shootout was the need for rifles in law enforcement operations. Photo: Los Angeles Police Museum/David Fryar
➔ The FBI Miami Shootout: On April 11, 1986, in Pinecrest, FL, eight FBI agents and two heavily armed bank robbers with military training engaged in a firefight after a felony stop. Two agents and the suspects were killed. Lessons learned from this infamous incident include the use of more long guns in felony stops and the development of more effective handgun ammunition for officers.
➔ The North Hollywood Bank Robbery: On February 28, 1997, two heavily armed men dressed in body armor robbed a Bank of America in the Los Angeles neighborhood of North Hollywood. As they left the bank they were confronted by multiple LAPD officers and a 44-minute-long battle began. When it was over both suspects were dead, 11 LAPD officers were wounded or injured, and thousands of rounds had been fired. The major lesson learned from this incident was the need for rifles in law enforcement operations.

I did not go into any detail about these incidents. That was intentional. I gave you the basic information for you to research these on your own and learn from them.

These, of course, aren't the only major incidents that American law enforcement has experienced that were, as they say, "teachable moments." There have been too many to count and you could easily include in this list the March 21, 2009, Oakland, CA, shootout and the Aug. 1, 1966 University of Texas Tower Shooting in Austin.

The Survival Mindset
It's up to us to keep the officer survival movement alive. Here are my two recommendations for how to do that:

1. Read and get your mindset straight.
2. Do the research and learn from the experience of the officers who preceded you. Find out what worked and what didn't work and why.

One thing you must keep in mind while researching any of these shooting incidents is to not just learn from how the officers died but also learn how officers who were involved survived. In many of these cases, while some officers died, there were other officers on the scene who did not. Learn from both failures and successes. Some of the tactics and techniques that were developed in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s went against some longstanding policies and procedures in the law enforcement firearms instruction world.

There was resistance to them, but when they were shown to be capable of saving officer lives, they were accepted, albeit somewhat reluctantly in some situations.
There is always resistance to change. I'm guilty of it myself. When I went to revolver instructor school in 1979 I had my S&W Model 19, speed strips, and a healthy dose of confidence. I was doing just fine and had good hits—until they turned out the lights. After that experience, I ran out to purchase speed loaders.

Shooting instruction must evolve with the times. Way back when, shooting instruction was nothing more than blow a whistle, run a stopwatch, count holes, and record scores. It's come a long way.

The major lesson learned from the North Hollywood Shootout was the need for rifles in law enforcement operations. Photo: Los Angeles Police Museum/David FryarThe major lesson learned from the North Hollywood Shootout was the need for rifles in law enforcement operations. Photo: Los Angeles Police Museum/David Fryar

But the survival mindset must also be taught. A prime example is that of Officer Stuart Guy of the LAPD who, during the North Hollywood Bank Robbery, was hit in the thigh with a 7.62 X 39 rifle round breaking his femur. He had the proper mindset and took cover, and used his gun belt as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding until he could get medical treatment. And he survived. He is the reason I put "self-rescue kits"—not first-aid kits—in each of my agency's patrol cars.

To assist you in survival mindset instruction, I would recommend you read the stories of these five officers who survived against incredible odds.

➔ Trooper Bobby Smith—Louisiana State Police, shot in the face on March 14, 1986
➔ Officer Ken Tuthill—Suffolk County (NY) Police, shot in the face with a 12-gauge rifled slug on May 27, 1986
➔ Agent Kenny King—Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, shot six times during Waco operation on Feb. 28, 1993
➔ Officer Stacy Lim—LAPD, shot in the chest with a .357 Magnum on June 9, 1990
➔ Officer Stuart Guy—LAPD, shot in the leg with a 7.62 X 39 rifle round during the North Hollywood Bank Robbery on Feb. 28, 1997

Learning lessons from the mistakes and the triumphs of officers from the past can give you the tactics and skills to avoid such life-threatening wounds on the job. But sometimes good officers who do everything right get shot. If that happens to you, remember these stories of survival.

I end this discussion with the words of Winston Churchill, who wrote: "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see."

Mike Burg is the retired Chief of the Rittman (OH) Police Department. During his 39.5-year law enforcement career he worked patrol, K-9, SWAT, and administration. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy 168th Session.

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