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Police ambush attacks: 4 strategies for survival

A study of police ambushes illustrates specific strategies and tactics that could greatly improve your chance of survival during an ambush attack


Training to move to cover and return fire has a history of success.

An IACP study of officer ambushes from 1990 to 2012 indicates an average of 9.3 officers killed by firearms annually. The FBI’s LEOKA studies show that there were five deaths in 2013, seven in 2014 and four in 2015.

According to the NLEOMF, there were 21 officers killed by gunfire ambush in 2016, and it was the deadliest year for ambushes against law enforcement in 26 years. The IACP study also indicates a disturbing growth in the trend, with death by ambush accounting for 12 percent of deaths of officers from 1990 to 2000 and an increase to 21 percent from 2001 to 2012.

The IACP study defines four factors that characterize an ambush:

  1. Element of surprise;
  2. Concealment of the assailant, their intention or their weapon;
  3. Suddenness of the attack;
  4. A lack of provocation.

The study also classifies ambushes into two categories. The first category is entrapment, which is qualified as a premediated, pre-planned luring of an officer to the attack site. The second category is spontaneous, which is classified as unprovoked with no pre-planning.

According to the IACP study, the majority of ambushes (68%) from 1990 to 2012 were spontaneous while 32% were entrapment.

Overall, both non-fatal and fatal ambush totals have declined from a high of 526 in 1991 to around 200 a year from 2000 to 2007, with a rise in the ensuing years. Firearms accounted for 36% of ambushes with pistols being used 51% of the time, rifles 38% and shotguns 11%.

Ambush survivability

An important aspect of the study is that the type of ambush had a direct impact on the officer’s likelihood of survival.

Predictably, the entrapment attack resulted in a 41% survival rate with the spontaneous attack at 49%. Among the key factors to increased survival rates was the use of body armor; officers who were in gear had a 53% survival rate compared to a 30% survival rate for those officers who were not protected.

There were two other factors that almost doubled survivability rates: taking cover and returning fire.

Obviously, getting behind something that will stop incoming rounds will greatly improve an officer’s chances of survival. Officer survival rate by taking cover was 68%, only 39% of officers survived when cover was not used.

Officers who returned fire also had a 68% survival rate and those who did not had a 39% survival rate. Putting rounds on your attacker will destroy his or her thought process and reduce the attacker’s ability to accomplish his or her mission.

The study also illustrates specific strategies and tactics to greatly improve your chances of surviving and winning an ambush, regardless of the type.

1. Environmental awareness

Officers need to remember to identify the nearest and last point of cover during each and every call for service.

Are you mentally rehearsing your route to that point when something goes bad? The realization that you are under fire has a detrimental effect on your response time when you are standing there looking around trying to decide where you need to be.

If you are driving your squad car when you suddenly come under fire, do you have a pre-planned response? Do you drive through or out of the ambush? Do you drive over your ambusher? Do you stop and fight from inside or outside your squad car? Have you planned your response for the different directions the attack could take place from? Have you factored in dealing with an assault from above-bridge, parking garage or high rise?

Are you leaving enough room between you and the car in front of you at the stop light or stop sign to drive out? If you can’t see the back tires when you stop, you need to give yourself more room.

Do you have a response in mind when an assailant opens fire on you during a traffic stop, before you exit your squad, as you approach the violator vehicle and as you stand at the door?

2. Proper use of cover and concealment

Officers need to know the difference between cover and concealment.

Can you identify those positions of cover and concealment as you drive or walk up to each call location? How often do you practice shooting from behind cover? Live fire practice from behind cover and concealment is good training, but you never get any feedback from your assailant. Grab a couple of training guns and work with a partner in a realistic environment that involves movement and an attacker who can critique your performance. FX rounds are an even better teacher.

3. Movement

A moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one. Remember, lateral movement relative to your attack does more to increase their likelihood of missing than linear movement directly at or away from an ambush. Make sure to practice lateral and linear movements during your training.

4. Shooting on the move

Shooting and moving is a critical skill.

As a firearms instructor for almost 20 years, I have always preached this response to coming under fire: move to cover, return fire when appropriate. All my trainees who survived their ambushes employed that training. Some, despite being shot in the vest or wounded, moved and returned fire, either killing the suspect or allowing for them to get to cover, with the suspects apprehended or killed shortly after.

My two trainees killed by gunfire both died in ambushes. Neither had a chance to implement their training because they died before they could take any action.

Ambush attacks on police are on the rise. Training to move to cover and return fire has a history of success. Make it part of your trained response when you come under fire to immediately take action to win the confrontation.

NEXT: Watch Police1’s on-demand webinar on ambush prevention and response.

This article, originally published on 3/1/2017, has been updated.

In February 2014, Duane Wolfe retired from his career as a Minnesota Peace Officer after more than 25 years of service (beginning in 1988). During his career, he served as a patrolman, sergeant, S.R.T., use of force and firearms instructor. He was a full-time law enforcement instructor at Alexandria Technical & Community College in Alexandria, Minnesota for 28 years. Duane has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Bemidji State University and a Masters Degree in Education from Southwest State University.