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6 common factors in ambush wins

An analysis of recent ambush wins shows the reasons for victories jump off the pages because they are virtually all alike


Bullet holes show in a window of a Days Inn Hotel office from a shooting early Thursday morning, July 7, 2016.

Andre Teague/Bristol Herald Courier via AP

In “How 2 Wis. police officers thwarted an ambush attack”, I detailed how two cops won a fight during a Sheboygan, Wisconsin armed robbery call which was found to be the first phase of a deadly premeditated ambush. I advanced my opinion that their rapid, silent response – coupled with an explosive and overwhelming counter-attack – saved several police lives that night. But that was an analysis of a single ambush victory.

Through feedback to that article, I have accumulated details on more ambush wins. Some were from contacts who responded to the article and more were brought to me in person at the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association conference the following week in St. Louis. Those of us who research police incidents avidly analyze the details in the hope we can identify a pattern of facts. In the details of these ambush wins, no analysis is needed, the reasons for the victories jump off the pages because they are virtually all alike!

The six common factors leading to these ambush wins:

1. Stealthy approach: Giving the officers the element of surprise

2. Think ambush/kill zone: Could this call be an ambush? Where would I be? How can I avoid a kill zone?

3. High alert: Attention to small details (sights, sounds, etc.)

4. Instant response: No hesitation in taking aggressive action

5. Counterattack: No withdrawal or retreat – attacking forward

6. Overwhelming use of force: De-escalation through superior firepower

Bristol, Tennessee

About 15 hours before the terrible ambush attack in Dallas, Texas, three Bristol PD officers confronted a man bent on killing as many cops as he could. The first call was a 911 dispatch of a motel night clerk who had been shot several times through the front window of the establishment. More calls immediately flooded in from drivers of vehicles shot along the nearby parkway; one driver was killed and others were wounded by glass and bullet fragments. Officer Matthew Cousins, the shift sergeant, was second on-scene. He and the first arriving officer approached from a retail business next to the hotel and their response had been silent – no lights or sirens. The third arriving officer was responding Code 3, lights and sirens, as Cousins attempted to catch up to his first officer. Cousins is a K-9 handler, who kept his M4 carbine in the trunk due to space limitations up front. A 23-year veteran U.S. Army Infantry NCO, with a combat tour under his belt serving with the 101st Airborne, Cousins immediately spotted 5.56 mm casings on the dark parking lot, telling him the shooter had a long gun.

Cousins told his first officer, who was already armed with an M4, to hold up while he got his from the trunk. The third officer was just arriving with lights and sirens activated. As Cousins turned toward his vehicle, he spotted the killer who was trying to flank the officers and attack them from behind. The killer’s AR15 was slung and he had a pistol in-hand, so Cousins immediately engaged the killer with his own pistol, advancing steadily toward the threat as he fired, putting the attacker down. The downed attacker was fumbling with his carbine, attempting to get it into action, so Cousins and both other officers fired again, ending the fight. Cousins took a minor hit in the ankle from one of the attacker’s rounds which skipped off the pavement.

When one of the other officers asked Cousins why he advanced steadily toward his attacker during the two pistol-fire engagements, his explanation was simple: “I had trained for 23 years in the infantry to attack directly into a close ambush, using overwhelming firepower during the counterattack.” Cousins did exactly what good trainers have always told us, you will fight the way you train.

The killer, also an Army veteran, survived and pleaded guilty to life in prison. He also stated he could have easily killed the first arriving officer but was surprised to see the third arriving officer was also black, causing him to hesitate for a moment.

In Sheboygan, the officers’ stealthy response and alert approach allowed them to perceive the small detail that the seemingly calm patrons were all staring at the side door. The heavily armed attacker exited that door a second later – into the officers’ own impromptu ambush. In Bristol, Cousins also arrived silent and spotted the small detail of the fired rifle casings, causing him to turn to get his own rifle and thereby spot the attacker who was working around on their six.

St. Louis, Missouri

At the ILEETA conference, a sergeant from St. Louis PD sat on the active shooter/ambush panel during the four-hour session. Charles told us the details of July 14, 2015 – the night he was ambushed during a hire-back security detail after his normal patrol shift.

Seated in his personal vehicle overlooking a central West End neighborhood, Charles had his external body armor carrier lying on the seat next to him. The night was brutally hot and humid and the car was uncomfortable, even running his A/C full blast. When most of us would be struggling to stay awake, the sergeant remained alert. He noticed two men on foot a distance off to his left, paying close attention to him. They lingered long enough for him to pay close attention to them. The subjects wandered off before he could call a beat car to check them out. Still, Charles said every hair on his body stood on end, a feeling he had never before experienced.

At this point in Charles’ story, the room full of cops fell completely silent. He stated he heard a loud and distinct voice in his car say “Put your vest on.” The sergeant was so startled, he looked in the back seat to make sure he was alone and the voice in his ear repeated “Son, put your vest on.” He put his vest on.

Seconds later, a vehicle drove rapidly from left to right in front of Charles’ car, stopping in front of him. The passenger door flew open and when the attacker’s bandana slipped down, Charles immediately recognized the face of one of the men who had previously been watching him.

The attacker instantly began firing through the sergeant’s windshield (at least 14 shots) and Charles just as instantly began firing his issue Beretta sidearm back through the glass, commenting how clearly he saw his night sights. Tracking the attacker who ran to his left, rounds were now hitting the sergeant’s side window and outside mirror. Our good guy shot his pistol empty and quickly stroked a reload before exiting his car to chase the suspect. The sergeant’s vest – and just as importantly his alertness, instant response and violent counterattack – saved his life that dark morning.

More wins are coming in

The unofficial count of fatal police ambush attacks in 2016 was 21. I suspect there are many more ambush wins out there, they are simply not tracked because an officer wasn’t killed. Let me know if you were ambushed so we can further refine this list of survival lessons.

Be safe out there. Live on Condition Yellow and watch your six.

As our friend Sgt. Charles from St. Louis PD says, “When you hear that little voice, listen to it.”

Remember this survival motto: Not here, not today! Today, I will win the fight!

Dick Fairburn has had more than 26 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming. He has worked patrol, investigations and administration assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst, and as the Section Chief of a major academy’s Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident Training program.