3 lessons from the Las Vegas police ambush about on-duty breaks

Police officers are highly visible public figures who are vulnerable to attack any time they are out in public, regardless of what they are doing.

The murders of two Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers who were dining in a restaurant by a pair of radical militants happened less than a week ago, and the heinous crime is still under investigation. Details are sketchy at this point — but we know it was similar to the attack which left four Lakewood (Wash.) officers dead at a coffee shop in November 2009. Memories of that crime — combined with what we know about the recent murders — have reignited discussions about officer safety during on-duty breaks in public, and it seems appropriate to discuss for a moment the associated hazards and the tactics to mitigate them.

In the wake of this most recent attack, some agencies may overreact and enact protocols which will prohibit or restrict officers from taking on-duty breaks (for report writing, personal business, meals, etc.) in public locations. While that may soothe the nerves of the chain of command, it’s not a particularly realistic course of action and it ignores the larger issue that officers are highly visible public figures who are vulnerable to attack any time they are out in public, regardless of what they are doing. 

There is no unique or special risk associated with dining in public during an on-duty break — officers are equally at risk when idling at a stop light or interviewing a person on the sidewalk, so it makes no sense to put unreasonable restrictions on the former. Instead, it would be much more helpful to focus on strategies and tactics that enhance safety.

1. Vary Your Break Locations
One of those strategies is for officers to stay somewhat unpredictable by avoiding routines and patterns which would allow attackers to predict the officer’s actions. We all have our favorite restaurants and our favorite tables at those restaurants, but if you meet at the same place, at the same time, on the same day every week, and if you sit in the same spot, you’ve handed your enemy all the information they need to set up an effective ambush. 

It appears that the Las Vegas shooting — like the Lakewood shooting which preceded it — was not planned far in advance and the officers were only selected as “targets of opportunity,” but why make it easy for your attacker? 

Try a different place. Order take out. Pick a different time or a different table. Park somewhere different. Vary your routine, and deny your enemy an easy opportunity to carefully plan his attack and escape.

When it’s time to take that on-duty break, make yourself a hard target. If circumstances allow, take your break with another unit so that you can provide mutual support — two sets of eyes and two guns are better than one. Pick a table in a remote part of the restaurant — is there a back room or closed section where you can be seated? — that will keep you away from the traffic flow and out of the public eye, and prevent you from becoming a “target of opportunity” for the whack job who just happens to stumble across your path. 

Avoid sitting by a window (particularly at night, when attackers can clearly see in but you can’t see out) or next to a partition that hides the people on the other side from your view. Pick a table that allows you a good view of all the people who would approach you and which increases your reactionary gap.

2.) Choose Table, Not Booth Seating
Preserve your mobility as well. They may be comfortable for sitting, but the last thing you want is to be trapped in a booth that hampers your ability to access your weapon and quickly move off the line of the attack. Sitting at a table in lieu of a booth will allow you much greater mobility and will enable you to “get off the X” and get into the fight much more quickly. 

While we’re talking about tables, it may look a little funny to sit side-by-side with your partner instead of across the table from each other, but depending on the layout of the environment, it may allow you greater visibility and awareness of your surroundings, particularly if you can put your back to the wall.

3.) Stay in Condition Yellow
Most importantly, maintain your vigilance. It’s natural to want to let your guard down and relax when you’re on a break — that’s why they call it a “break,” right? — especially when you’re among friends. It’s also natural to feel secure when you’re in a familiar environment, but you cannot allow yourself to fall into either of these traps. The local coffee shop “substation” that you and the guys hit on every shift might feel like a second home — a friendly port of call — but it’s not and sharks pass through those waters every day, so don’t get lazy and don’t let yourself feel too secure in your comfortable surroundings. Stay alert.

When you’re out in public (even in “plain clothes,” which do almost nothing to hide your LE status from alert predators), you cannot slip into “condition white.” 

Strive to stay in “Condition Yellow” and be aware of the people around you and what they are doing. Keep your head and your eyes up. Look up from that report, that computer screen, or those pancakes and scan your environment periodically. If necessary, split up the area around you into zones and agree with your partner which ones he is going to watch and which ones you are going to watch. If necessary, stand watch while your partner grazes for a bit, then switch. 

Does that sound silly or unnecessary to you? I hope not. It appears that at least one of the officers in Las Vegas was shot in the back of the head and never saw it coming. The same thing happened in Lakewood to at least one, and possibly two, of the officers. We will never know if these fallen officers could have reacted quickly enough to avoid being shot or to launch a successful counterattack if they had seen their attackers first, but we can be damned sure that they had zero chance of surviving an unseen ambush.

When you’re out in public, you’re a target — make yourself a hard one. 

Stay alert, and stay safe out there. 

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