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Key considerations for countering an ambush attack

We are targeted in restaurants, in our cars, while on foot patrol, when responding to calls for service, and while protecting large scale events — here are some thoughts on each kind of attack

I have tracked ambush killings of American police officers since 1997, when we first noticed a growing trend. Now, almost 20 years later, the technique has reached almost epidemic proportions. Last week, on July 7, five Dallas officers were killed and seven more were wounded in perhaps the highest single-shooter ambush tally — so far.

Two more officers were shot on July 8: One in Missouri and another in Georgia.

An ambush attack can happen anywhere, any time, and to any officer — or group of officers. We are targeted in restaurants, in our cars, while on foot patrol, when responding to calls for service, and while protecting large scale events. Here are some thoughts on each kind of attack.

Ambushes While Taking Meal Breaks
Looking at the 2009 Forza Coffee Shop ambush in Lakewood, Washington and the 2014 ambush at a CiCi’s Pizza Parlor in Las Vegas, Nevada, we must recognize that meal breaks can be very dangerous if you are not vigilant. Here are some thoughts to consider.

Would you be better off getting drive-through and sitting window-to-window while eating? Other options include carrying a sack lunch from home or having food delivered to the station.

If you do a sit-down, get the “gunfighter seat,” facing the entrance, back in a corner, preferably with a partner who can watch the other direction. Avoid large groups at a restaurant — that’s just too tempting a target for a would-be attacker. A familiar locale is best, know the back way out. Give some thought to parking out of sight, so the car doesn’t advertise “cop in here.”

Ambushes While in a Vehicle
For a close ambush, counterattack from inside your vehicle if possible. Drive at the attacker(s), firing through your own windshield if possible, as did Arkansas Wildlife Officer Michael Neal’s counterattack on the Sovereign Citizen killers in West Memphis. Like Neal, get down behind the dash for as much protection as possible.

Lower the front windows of your vehicle. This will provide a small degree of increased bullet resistance to the doors and more importantly prevents secondary missile fragments from blowing into your compartment from the side windows. It also enhances your freedom to fire out laterally.

If ambushed from a distance, especially in the case of a rifle firing from high ground, a rapid exit from the kill zone may be your only chance. Backing straight away from a rifle-armed killer makes you an almost stationary target. Turn away and become a difficult, rapidly moving target, if possible. Going almost any direction in “drive” will be more controllable than trying to go in “reverse.”

Take some time to consider specific training drills to enhance your ability to both survive an ambush and form teams to take the fight to them.

Ambushes While on Foot Patrol
Remember the ambush attack that took the life of Texas police officer Darren Goforth while he refueled his patrol car. Here are some thoughts on being attacked while outside your vehicle.

Will there be one attacker or more? Will you be a solo officer or one in a pair of officers or one among four, like those attacked from behind by a hatchet-wielding madman in New York City in October 2014?

It’s logical to assume an attack from behind, so put your head on a swivel and periodically check your six. Live in Condition Yellow, maintaining 360-degree awareness. Whenever possible, partner-up and if the situation is tense or unknown, operate as point and rear guard for maximum awareness.

Whenever multiple officers gather, always make sure you have a sentry checking all directions — facing out, away from the focus of the event — alert for an unexpected attack. The incident commander can simply point to one officer and give the command “360,” with a circular hand signal, meaning their role has now become perimeter safety officer, responsible for situational awareness.

Ambush During a “Routine” Call for Service
Don’t get complacent on calls. We all know there aren’t any “routine” police calls. Any of them can be different from the initial report or can turn bad even before you arrive. Still, some just don’t feel right.

In Gavin de Becker’s book, “The Gift of Fear,” he describes how intuition is simply our subconscious brain processing the sum of our life experiences. If that little voice whispers “danger” in your ear, listen to it.

Slow your response. Look and listen before approaching the scene. Don’t go alone just because you don’t want to seem cowardly by asking for back up. When you call for back up, wait for it — unless the situation demands instant action and any delay could cost innocent lives. Scan the area as you approach, take note of potential cover points and escape routes.

Ambush Attacks at Large Scale Events
Of course, with two political conventions coming — as well as ongoing protests against law enforcement — we must conclude this examination with some thoughts on officers being ambushed while protecting large scale events.

One or two officers can be killed by a rifle-armed felon on almost any police call, but tallies like the 12 casualties in Dallas can only occur where a number of officers have gathered for some notable event. So, let’s discuss some ways to enhance your safety at notable events. Here are five things to keep in mind:

1. Get the hell out of denial. There are active individuals and groups today who will kill you in numbers if they get the chance. This won’t get better after Dallas — it will get worse as copycats try to log higher scores, just like those who shoot up schools, looking to top the last record.

2. Appoint a Safety Officer for all preplanned events. The Safety Officer’s job is not public safety. Instead, their mission is to plan for the safety of the on-scene officers.

3. Build multiple perimeters and “high cover” into your event planning. Anticipate rifle attacks at preplanned events, scout threat locations and secure them inside your perimeter or place your own riflemen where they can observe and, if need be, engage hostiles.

4. Put covert intel officers in the crowd alert for anyone who might become an active shooter or act as a scout for a more distant sniper threat.

5. Train your officers in ambush survival tactics. Predesignate all officers into small teams, with a designated team leader. If shots are fired, the officers should cluster into their teams (contact teams similar to rapid deployment/active shooter response protocols). We saw the Dallas officers respond in teams of patrol officers. Drill those teams on bounding overwatch and fire and maneuver tactics for instantly attacking a shooter’s location. Attacking with rifles is best, but teams with only handguns can still pour fire into the shooter’s location. The high cover rifleman should advance to support the attacking teams with more precise rifle fire. Sound like military tactics? Yes, get your Army/Marine Infantry veterans to train you.

In my “Ambush Survival” training presentation I use a sniper clip from the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” It illustrates the most dangerous type of ambush, a skilled rifleman firing from high ground. Such a killer, using a semi-auto rifle with optics, has the advantages of distance, precision, rapidity of fire and the ability to defeat your soft body armor.

Make yourselves alert, difficult targets. Then respond with a level of coordinated, overwhelming aggression they are not prepared to resist.

Every day when you strap on your gun belt, also strap on your psychological armor. Repeat after me: Not here — not today. Today I will win the fight.

The best way to survive an ambush is to avoid one. Stay alert and regularly check your six.

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.