Surviving Vehicle Ambushes

The vehicle, the patrol car, the "shop," is obviously what distinguishes the vehicle ambush from other types of attacks. It also gives you instant mobility to get out of the kill zone. In keeping with the suggested tactics for lethal force encounters the vehicle helps you move and create distance.

Photo: 31, 2009: Two Seattle police officers, one recently out of the academy, the other a field training officer, are parked on a quiet street discussing a traffic stop they have just made. Then a car pulls alongside their unit and opens fire, killing the FTO.

Jan. 10, 2010: An officer with the Anchorage Police Department is sitting in his patrol vehicle reportedly obtaining additional information on a call. A vehicle pulls up beside his unit and shots are fired by an unknown assailant wounding the officer.

Sept. 16, 2010: An officer with the Woodlawn (Ohio) Police Department is ambushed by four men armed with semi-automatic rifles. The officer, an Iraq War veteran, spots the ambush and accelerates through it. His vehicle is hit several times but he is not injured.

Vehicle ambushes of law enforcement officers are nothing new. We experienced a rash of such attacks starting in the late 1960s and running through the 1970s.

I was an instructor at the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy in the late 1970s, and I was responsible for developing and teaching a program that gave our officers the tactics and techniques they needed to manage this threat. The problem of police ambushes was so serious during those years that in 1974 the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) published a manual titled "Ambush Attacks: A Risk Reduction Manual for Police."

Much of that IACP manual's advice is as pertinent today as it was nearly 40 years ago when it was published. For example, I find that the IACP's definition of an "ambush attack event" is still useful in helping us understand the dynamics of the attack and what an officer is up against. The manual lists three key distinguishing characteristics of an ambush attack event:

  • Suddenness
  • Surprise
  • Lack of provocation

From the IACP's study of 32 ambush attacks used in preparing the manual, it was determined that ambush events fell into three main categories:

  • Sniping Attacks: Attacks by firearms at medium to long range
  • Direct Assaults: Attacks by firearms or other weapons at close range without effort at concealment
  • Coordinated Attacks: Attacks by firearms at close range by two or more assailants from pre-selected positions

The IACP analysis concluded that ambush attacks were conducted against officers in a variety of duty assignments, but uniformed officers in marked units were the group most frequently assaulted. Unfortunately what was true a quarter-century ago is still true today. Officers in marked cars are set up as targets.

Escaping the Kill Zone

I left law enforcement in 1982 to join the Central Intelligence Agency. During my early years with the CIA, we suddenly found ourselves having to deal with terrorist attacks against our officers planned for the express purpose of kidnapping or killing them. The majority of these assaults happened while our officers were in vehicles.

In the late 1980s, I did a tour of duty in one country with a very active terrorist threat where we averaged an attack a week. Probably my most valuable lesson from that experience was that there are actions that a lone officer in a vehicle can take to enhance his or her chances of surviving the direct assault vehicle ambush.

First let's take a look at those things you need to consider generally and then we'll get into the specifics. I would expect that most of you are already doing some of these things as part of your constant preparation to deal with "duty dangers."

At the top of the list you start with mindset. "You need to prepare your mind, for where your body may have to go." That's what ambush survivor Officer Stacy Lim of the Los Angeles Police Department told Lt. Col Dave Grossman as reported in Grossman's acclaimed book "On Combat."

Next you need to be aware of current intelligence. Pay attention to the information you receive at a roll call briefing or on the street regarding the rumor of an attack on a police officer as well as lessons learned from the investigation results of police ambushes. Always look for something you can use to avoid an ambush or at least see it coming. Was the attacker known to the officer or was it a truly random assault? Was the officer's vehicle followed by the attacker prior to the ambush? Did the officer have any patterns of activity that made him predictably vulnerable to attack?

You also need to make sure your awareness level is appropriate for the task at hand, in this case vehicle ambush. And you need training, with both classroom and practical exercises, on attack recognition and response, including evasion and counterattack.

And last but not least you need to consider the vehicle. The vehicle, the patrol car, the "shop," is obviously what distinguishes the vehicle ambush from other types of attacks. It also gives you instant mobility to get out of the kill zone. In keeping with the suggested tactics for lethal force encounters the vehicle helps you move and create distance. It gives you some protection from small arms fire. And it gives you a 4,000-pound weapon that you can use against your attackers.[PAGEBREAK]

Room to Move

As discussed earlier, an ambush is characterized by suddenness, surprise, and lack of provocation. That means it has much in common with other types of attacks on officers and even hostile contacts and situations you face on a daily basis. You manage those situations by controlling them. And that's what the vehicle does for you, it gives you control in a vehicle ambush. Most often you can take that control just by stepping on the gas.

To make the vehicle's advantages work for you during a vehicle ambush, you need to recognize an attack, have the engine running, and have room to move. Consider what you are doing when you shut the engine off. You are losing the biggest advantage your vehicle can offer you, instant mobility. Once you turn the engine off, you are more vulnerable to an attack because you have made it more difficult to escape.

The less time you spend sitting in a parked car the better. Unfortunately, this is simply not always possible. So you need to have a plan if you have to park your vehicle, shut it off, and sit there for a while.

If you are stopped at a light, you need to pay attention to what is going on around you. Keep your eyes moving and watch your mirrors.

Be aware of people who approach your car on foot. Watch their eyes, their hands, and their demeanor for pre-assault cues. Observe their clothing where they can hide weapons. And if someone approaches your car and raises your suspicions, do a quick 360-degree check to see if there are others with the person.

On a roadway with multiple lanes, stay in the far left lane if possible. This permits vehicles going in your direction to only approach you on the right. This also makes it a little easier for you to watch them.

Vehicles Approaching

As cars approach you, note if they are slowing down. Are their windows down? How many occupants are in the vehicles? Shooters approaching your vehicle in a car are a more likely scenario in light traffic because they can't make their getaway as easily in heavy traffic.

Which brings up a really scary problem: motorcycles. In one country in which shooters on motorcycles was a common tactic, the CIA noted that hardly anyone wore a helmet, partly due to the macho culture and partly due to the expense. On the other hand the bad guys showed a preference for helmets with dark face shields to hide their identity. So anyone with a helmet got an extra look.

At some point, in order to access his or her handgun a motorcycle shooter has to take one hand off the handlebars. That gives you something to watch for. And it may be the only warning you get of a motorcycle attack.

If someone on a motorcycle pulls alongside you and starts shooting, your natural inclination will be to turn away. The CIA learned that if you can train and condition yourself to turn your car into the shooter, you can gain an advantage. The shooter will suddenly need both hands to control the motorcycle and with luck you may cause him or her to crash.

From a Parked Car

With these suggestions in mind, let's return to the problem of sitting in a parked car, with the engine off. Your awareness of the people and vehicles around you is critical in this situation.

Resist the temptation to do anything that interferes with your ability to concentrate on what is going on around you. Unlock the doors so you can exit the vehicle from either side in a hurry-assuming computers and such don't block your way-and make sure the interior light is turned off so it doesn't come on when you open the door.

I think it is also imperative to give some thought to your holstered sidearm and how quickly you can get it into action while seated in a vehicle. Be prepared and willing to shoot through the windshield or side windows of your unit.

Some years ago the Drug Enforcement Administration produced a training film in which agents basically shot up a vehicle at close range with everything in their arsenal-handgun, shotguns, and .223 rifles. After shooting the car to pieces the instructor cleaned the glass off the seat, got in, started it up, and drove away. Bear that in mind if you have to shoot through your car and then use it to scoot away.[PAGEBREAK]

Long-Range Ambush

The sniper attack is an especially difficult tactical problem because you are not likely to see it coming. That means you are going to have to get off the "X" under fire.

Even worse, you may not hear it coming as there are all sorts of things in an urban environment that serve to absorb or distort sound. Having your windows up and the air conditioner or the heater running, noise produced by traffic, wind, the distance from the shooter to you, buildings, all are working against you. And what really compounds the problem is that you are going to be up against a high-powered rifle. That means shooter accuracy goes up as well as stopping power and lethality. And your pistol-rated body armor will do you little good.

What this can mean for the officer in this situation is that attack recognition usually takes place when the rounds start to smack the patrol vehicle, penetrating metal and glass. If you are not moving you need to start. If you are already moving, you need to move faster. And as soon as you can, find a side street, park, or parking lot, and make a hard turn at right angles to your direction of travel and away from the direction of fire. This serves to instantly put buildings between you and the sniper, blocking his view of you.

Unconventional Weapons

Before I move on to the worst-case scenarios, I'd like to mention the Molotov cocktail as another type of weapon that has been used in police vehicle ambushes.

At one time Motorola (now Calibre Press) produced an excellent little film titled "Vehicle Under Attack," which dealt with the problem of Molotovs against vehicles. Basically, it showed that if you can keep the burning gasoline out of the car by having your windows up, you can accelerate away from the attack and force the gas on the outside of the vehicle to quickly burn itself out. This kind of attack is scary as hell but survivable.

I have suggested that you simply step on the gas and accelerate forward to get out of the kill zone in a vehicle ambush. But what happens if you cannot go forward and the only way out is to put the car in reverse before stepping on the accelerator?

As with all of your CQB skills whether using empty hand, knife, stick, or handgun, you need to keep this maneuver simple. Your response needs to be something you can do while you're being shot at. Forget the fancy turns and spins. Back up until you feel you have gotten out of the kill zone (usually about a block), then turn the car around and duck down a side street.

In the CIA, we learned that a combination of road and traffic conditions, underpowered rental vehicles, stick shifts, and right hand steering, along with a lack of practice virtually guaranteed that the James Bond tricks stayed where they belonged, in the movies.

Worst Cases

And finally we come to the two worst types of vehicle ambushes: the coordinated attack with multiple assailants at close range and the ambush involving explosives. These types of attacks are really at the limits of what an officer can reasonably expect to get through without being hit and what an unarmored vehicle can survive. My experience has been that getting through one of these types of ambushes generally takes a lot of luck. Most often they simply don't end well.

The good news is that such attacks are fortunately rare against U.S. police. The experiences of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland are worthy of our attention as a serious study of these two types of ambush attacks against police. Two good sources are "The Thin Green Line" by Richard Doherty and "Shadows" by Alan Barker.

I'd like to close with an incident that is one of my personal favorites because it is a great reminder that we must never, ever give up.

A U.S. military officer and his driver are on the way to a meeting. A single round, seemingly from out of nowhere, instantly kills the driver. The officer manages to squeeze himself into the space between the front of the seat and the dashboard. He works the gas pedal with one hand while steering with the other. The only guide he has to steer himself by are the rooftops of the buildings he can see through the driver's side window. As soon as he thinks it is safe to do so because no more shots are being fired he pulls the body of the driver out of the way and returns to his compound.

The investigators who debrief him ask if he could demonstrate how he managed to drive the car so they could get some photos. He tries again to wedge himself into the space between the front seat and the dashboard and finds that he can't. There simply is not enough room.

Be prepared for an ambush, have the right mindset, and your survival instinct will help keep you alive. Never give up.

Ed Lovette is a retired CIA officer. Before joining the CIA he was a police officer and a police instructor. He is a member of the POLICE-TREXPO advisory board.

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