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Tactical considerations to prevent ambush attacks

Ambush attacks on police officers do not discriminate in gender, assignment or age, and they affect all category of assignment

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For additional resources on officer safety, download Officer Down! A Police1 Survival Guide.

Ambush attacks do not discriminate in gender, assignment or age, and they affect all category of assignment – patrol, detectives, warrant teams, gang units, task force officers, SWAT teams, and solo and full-crew units.

The following are just some of the examples of law enforcement officers being ambushed in 2022:

To date, the FBI’s 2022 Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) program documents six incidents where a law enforcement officer was fatally wounded as the result an unprovoked attack. The 2021 LEOKA report documented 24 incidents where a law enforcement officer was fatally wounded as the result of an unprovoked attack and eight were identified as ambush attacks (entrapment/premeditation). The 2021 National Law Enforcement Officers Fatalities Report from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) identified 19 incidents where officers were ambushed and killed.

An ambush can occur on the way to work, at the station, on the way home, while trying to eat lunch, on a family violence investigation, on a high-risk warrant execution, while conducting surveillance, and while off-duty or working an off-duty job.

Teaching about these events and reinforcing the importance of being alert is a four-step process that begins with the pre-service training academy and is reinforced by field training officers, sergeants and field lieutenants.

Download this resource for review during roll call and in-service training.

Here are some tactical issues for you to review with your team at roll call that address police ambush prevention and response:

Immediate action drills

Plan in advance for your active response to an ambush:

  • If in a vehicle, I will do _____.
  • If on foot, I will do _____.
  • If conducting surveillance, I will do _____.
  • If off-duty, I will do _____.

Mentally identifying the types of ambush you could face will help you to immediately react, repel and stop the ambush.

Lunch and coffee

When ordering your meal, or stopping to get coffee, don’t get drawn into the menu or line. One of you should be facing toward the person taking the order and the other should be covering your rear to prevent someone from sneaking up on you. It is similar to contact and cover on a field contact, traffic stop, or domestic violence investigation. It is as simple as saying partner when you sit down to eat, “I’ll cover the entrance or partner,” or “I’ll cover the back of the restaurant.”

Patrol operations

Proactive police work includes attempts to locate (ATL) wanted suspects. Safely doing so requires a thorough review of the suspect, their history and the location where you will be executing the ATL. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the criminal history? Is there a history of weapons possession, possession of and/or distribution of narcotics, gang membership, etc.?
  • What threat does the offender present? Is the suspect a military specialty, offensive tactics expert, etc.?
  • What are the environmental hazards? Is the suspect location in an elevated position? Are you forced to channel into a kill zone (occurs in rural and urban areas, as well as internally in buildings)?
  • Is this a high-risk warrant? Recognize if your ATL is actually an attempt to execute a high-risk warrant. Follow agency high-risk warrant policies and procedures and involve special teams and/or your gang unit to make it a team response.

Figure 1: Be aware of the danger zones in and around your vehicle.

Vehicle operations

The patrol and unmarked unit often serve as a mobile field office. Officers may take a break or complete reports while remaining in their vehicle and constant surveillance operations can turn an investigator’s unit into a second home.

As Figure 1 demonstrates, be aware of the danger zones in and around your marked or unmarked unit (remember, the vehicle cage limits your ability to clearly see and respond to a threat from the rear). If ambushed on arrival, while driving or while leaving, get out of the kill zone! Moving into the attack, or an immediate right or left turn, are things that you will need to accomplish in order to get out of the kill zone. Stopping and trying to reverse can delay your ability to get out the kill zone. Each situation dictates your response, but the key is to move!

Surveillance operations

Surveillance operations are typically in response to a felonious action or to gather actionable intelligence on a location. Surveillance can be conducted from a vehicle, a building, and even on foot. Just like pre-warrant execution planning there needs to be a surveillance plan and everyone involved must be briefed. If you have been working the case for a while and are fatigued, speak up and get someone who is alert and rested. Remember that the ability to remain alert to both a suspect/location and to environmental threats is the key to ambush prevention. Here are some key steps to follow:

  • Provide surveillance training to your team.
  • Ask yourself if the target location is hostile to police.
  • Maintain ready access to your firearm and radio.
  • Blend in (vehicles, clothing, etc.).
  • No vehicle idling
  • Conduct regular radio checks
  • Ask yourself what you are going to do if compromised/challenged.

Hostile surveillance detection plan

A planned ambush begins with hostile surveillance of the target. The target of the ambush doesn’t know which phase of the hostile surveillance/ambush plan they are in. Just as when you are conducting surveillance – when off-duty and on the way to and from work – we need to remain alert for hostile surveillance.

A hostile surveillance detection plan includes multiple routes to and from work with pre-determined locations that allow for the detection of hostile surveillance. If you detect hostile surveillance, break contact and move to a safe location (for example, the closest police substation) and immediately communicate the situation to units that can assist you. Teach your family and loved ones how to do the same as the hostile surveillance/ambush threat also extends to your loved ones.

Stay ready and prepared for contact.

Complete the box below to download this resource for review during roll call and in-service training.

Lawrence Lujan is an active field lieutenant with 32 years of service and a graduate of the FBI NA - 274. His operational experience has a nexus in special team tactics and techniques (gang investigation and enforcement, SWAT, active shooter response, mobile field force, mountain rescue and anti-burglary teams). His experience and background extend to leadership development, firearms instruction, operational tactics and international training (Korea and El Salvador), as well as deployments to Colombia and Honduras.