Setting the record straight on the Newhall Incident

For more than forty years it has been wrongly alleged that Officer James Pence placed spent casings into his jacket pocket during the gunfight

Editor’s Note: The Newhall Incident is the single pivotal moment in law enforcement training that started the ball rolling toward the modern research and practices that became survival training. The investigation and willingness to examine why things happened helped tens of thousands of cops win. The truth of the matter is that is Officer Pence is a hero and a martyr for law enforcement, and to tell the truth to make us better as a profession has NEVER denigrated his sacrifice. In fact, to tell the Newhall story is to add greater meaning to the sacrifice of all four Newhall officers, and this week especially they should be remembered. Whether Pence had brass in his pocket or not — and we’re reviewing alternative sources related to the incident since it is such an important and widely-used incident for ongoing training — the Pence story is equally valid. Do not allow yourself to accumulate scars in training which could adversely affect your ability to win in real world. 

In April 1970, four California Highway Patrol Officers were murdered in a tragedy that became known across the nation as “The Newhall Incident.” These murders served as a wakeup call for law enforcement training nationwide. In fact, many of the tactics that officers still use today originated from this terrible event.

However, I recently learned that one of the most notorious “facts” about this incident is not true. As one of the countless officers and instructors who accepted and repeated this myth, I would like to do what I can to help set the record straight. 

For those of you who are not already aware, the Newhall Incident occurred about 15 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. At around midnight, two California Highway Patrol Officers conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle wanted in a firearms brandishing incident. As these officers began to remove the suspects from the vehicle they were ambushed and murdered by the occupants. Their cover unit arrived just moments after the ambush however these officers were also murdered in an intense gun battle.

Casting Light on the Truth
For more than forty years it has been alleged that Officer James Pence — one of the two back-up officers and the last of the four to be murdered — wasted time placing spent casings into his jacket pocket during the gunfight. This allegation included specific details such as how these casings were found in his jacket by the coroner; as well as information on where Pence developed this costly habit.

Pence allegedly reverted back to the habit of “catching his brass” in order to avoid picking up casings from the ground at the end of training. It was also alleged that this habit was common in the CHP at the time.

However, this story — as well as all of the details surrounding it — is just that, a story. The truth is that Pence dumped his expended casings on the ground and, despite being shot several times and sustaining a lower leg fracture, reloaded his revolver just prior to being murdered. But an even more important truth is that Pence did the best he could with the training and equipment he brought to this fight and he deserves better in death than to have his heroic efforts colored by a story that is untrue.

I only learned that this story was not true last September after writing an article which was published in the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors’ (IALEFI) magazine. I referenced the Newhall Incident, and Officer Pence’s alleged habit, to stress my belief that although police tactics have advanced significantly in the past 40 years, law enforcement firearms training has not.

Busting the Brass Myth
A retired California Highway Patrol Officer contacted the magazine claiming that one detail in my article — Pence pocketing spent casings — was not true.

Having known about the Newhall Incident for thirty years, I was confident in my claim.

However, I decided to contact Sheriff John Anderson of the Madera County, California Sheriff’s Department to confirm my facts. Sheriff Anderson served for more than thirty years with the California Highway Patrol and co-authored the book The Newhall Incident.

I was confident that Sheriff Anderson would confirm what I — and almost every American law enforcement officer — had been told about this tragedy. Instead, and obviously to my surprise, Sheriff Anderson confirmed the claim made by the retired officer.

Anderson told me that the myth about Pence’s actions started in the aftermath of the Newhall murders as the agency tried to learn from this tragedy. While CHP management ordered instructors to no longer allow officers to pocket their brass, this order was just one of a number of post-Newhall improvements to training. The order had nothing to do with any action taken or decision made by Officer Pence. Unfortunately, because the order came out in response to the Newhall murders, someone within the CHP made up a very believable story about spent casings being found in Pence’s jacket pocket.

The rumor took years to dispel within the CHP, but continued to be accepted around the country.

I feel a special responsibility to do what I can to right this wrong. Officer Pence was raised in my hometown and attended one of the local high schools with senior officers that I worked with early in my career. Officer Pence is buried in the local cemetery and his parents continued to live in the community after his death. When I joined my former agency in the early 80’s new officers were still driven to Pence’s gravesite and taught about the Newhall Incident, along with the importance of applying the tactics that were developed from the tragedy.

Years later — like many instructors from my generation — I referred to Newhall, particularly the story of pocketed brass, in my courses. While I was always respectful of Officer Pence’s efforts that night, I referenced his alleged actions to stress the need to not only train frequently, but to also train correctly. I had heard this rumor from so many sources, and over so many years, that it never crossed my mind that the story was not true.

While few instructors nowadays refer to the Newhall Incident in their courses, officers around the country still believe the myth about Pence’s actions that night. I have taught in ten states since speaking to Sheriff Anderson, including several classes on the East Coast. In every one of these courses I have found several officers who recalled the story of Newhall. While no one knew of Pence by name, all knew about the officer who placed spent casings in his pocket in the middle of a gunfight.

Burnishing a “Tarnished” Name
All four officers involved in the Newhall Incident deserved better in life than to die at the hands of these worthless criminals. But James Pence also deserved better in death than to have his brave efforts sullied by a story which is not true. I believe that it is important, however late, to clear up this rumor. I also feel that it is appropriate to once again honor Officer James Pence and his partner, Officer George Alleyn, for their heroic efforts in coming to the aid of two fallen partners.

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