Tactics to prevent officer killings
Identifying lessons learned with the life-saving goal of preventing future LEO deaths
This feature is part of Police1's Digital Edition, "Officer Down! A Police1 Survival Guide." Download the guide here.
By Richard Wemmer and Charles Moorman
Thorough evaluation of critical policing incidents enables continuous improvement of police operations and response, which is essential to enhance the safety of both the public and officers.
This article analyzes the deaths of eight California law enforcement officers from felonious assaults in 2020 and 2021 to identify lessons learned with the life-saving goal of preventing future officer killings.
The FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) Program defines “feloniously killed” as an “incident type in which an officer, while engaged in or on account of the performance of their official duties, was fatally injured as a direct result of a willful and intentional act by an offender.” The officer deaths reviewed do not include accidents (aircraft or automobile), duty-related illnesses, fires, cardiac incidents, or other physical causes.
In 2020, 46 officers were feloniously killed nationwide, which was a decrease of two from the 48 killed in 2019. In 2021, the intentional killing of law enforcement officers spiked by an alarming 59% according to the FBI with 73 officers killed, the most nationwide officer deaths since 1995.
In 2020, two California officers died from a felonious assault, which was a decrease from six California officers killed in 2019. In 2021, six California officers died from felonious assaults.
The officers murdered in 2020 and 2021 were engaged in various law enforcement activities that escalated into armed responses and refusals to cooperate culminating in shots fired. Based on the circumstances described, supervisors and trainers should consider their current tactical options and response practices to the following to optimize officer safety:
- A barricaded person inside a vehicle
- Building entry and search
- Domestic violence
- Operations at a law enforcement facility
- Shots fired
- Vehicle pullovers and pursuits
California officer deaths from felonious assaults in 2020 & 2021
Thursday, April 23, 2020, San Diego
Officer Daniel Walters died of complications from a gunshot wound that occurred on Wednesday, November 12, 2003. Officer Walters and his partner had backed up another officer on a traffic stop for a car parked in a travel lane. Upon their arrival, the parked vehicle’s driver was standing nearby on the sidewalk. When the officers approached, the assailant shot Officer Walters once in the neck at zero to five feet. Officer Walters was 36 years old and had been a police officer for five years. After being shot, Officer Walters fell into a traffic lane and a passing vehicle struck him. The attacker had been previously involved in a domestic incident and was shot and killed by Officer Walter’s partner.
Saturday, June 6, 2020, Santa Cruz
Around 1:30 p.m., Santa Cruz sheriff’s deputies responded to a service call of a suspicious vehicle (van) parked off-road in the Santa Cruz mountains. The person reporting said he saw bomb-making materials and firearms in the van. The van’s driver left the area, was later observed and followed to a driveway in the Ben Lomond area. Shortly thereafter, deputies and a California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer were assaulted with gunfire and an improvised explosive device (IED). Santa Cruz Sheriff Sergeant Damon Gutzwiller, age 38 years, with 14 years at the Sheriff’s Office, was struck by gunfire and killed. Two other officers were also injured. After the assault and murder, the assailant, Steven Carrillo, age 32 years, an off-duty Air Force sergeant who was assigned to an elite Air Force security team, fled on foot and carjacked a vehicle. When located, he was shot and captured in a subsequent encounter with officers.
Ironically, Carrillo was the rifle shooter from the same van in the drive-by killing of a uniformed federal security officer in Oakland, on Friday, May 29, 2020, at a Black Lives Matter rally. Carrillo was affiliated with the extremist boogaloo movement, a loose network of anti-government and militia-style extremists.
Tuesday, January 19, 2021, Sacramento
Around 10 p.m., Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputies attempted a traffic stop that escalated into a vehicle pursuit ending in a crash at the CAL Expo and State Fairgrounds. Despite verbal police commands, the driver refused to exit his vehicle and his rear window was broken out with non-lethal force. A K-9 was sent into the vehicle, resulting in the K-9 being shot to death. Additional shots were fired and a second K-9 handler, Deputy Adam Gibson, age 31 years with six years of law enforcement experience, was killed. The assailant, a 40-year-old man with a record of crime, drug abuse and mental illness was shot and killed at the scene.
Monday, May 10, 2021, San Luis Obispo County
At 5:20 p.m., a regional Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT) in San Luis Obispo County was serving a stolen property search warrant at a second-story, corner residential apartment. After various verbal attempts directing the occupant to open the locked door, a forced entry was made. The first SWAT team member into the apartment, San Luis Obispo Police Department Detective Luca Benedetti, age 37 years with 12 years of law enforcement experience, was shot fatally at close range with a round of birdshot in the head. The assailant, a 37-year-old man with a record of mental illness, retrieved the fallen detective’s shoulder firearm and continued firing at team members. He subsequently took his own life with the fallen officer’s weapon.
Tuesday, May 11, 2021, Stockton
At 10:07 a.m., Stockton police officer Jimmy Inn, age 30 years with six years of law enforcement experience, responded to a domestic violence service call at a private residence. As he approached the front door, the assailant exited and killed the officer with a handgun. Subsequent shots were fired by responding officers with the assailant, age 30 years, being shot and killed while attempting to strangle his eight-year-old son in the front yard.
Monday, May 31, 2021, San Bernardino County
At 12:40 p.m. on Memorial Day, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Motorcycle Patrol Sergeant Domenic Vaca, age 43 years with 17 years of law enforcement experience, attempted a traffic stop. The vehicle involved was a street motorcycle being operated without a license plate, riding off-street in the desert near Yucca Valley. Following a vehicle pursuit, the driver stopped, waited for the deputies, and fatally shot the sergeant. The 29-year-old assailant was shot and killed by other deputies in an exchange of gunfire. He was a parolee with a felony criminal record.
Sunday, July 25, 2021, Kern County
At 3 p.m., Kern County Sheriff’s SWAT team member Deputy Phillip Campas, age 35 years with 10 years of law enforcement experience, was shot and killed while deployed at the scene of a Wasco residential house, shots-fired incident. Three hours later, the assailant exited onto the roof and was shot to death by other team members. The 41-year-old assailant had a criminal record of domestic violence, was under a current court restraining order, and earlier had killed his wife and two sons inside the private residence.
Tuesday, October 12, 2021, Fresno County
Fresno County Sheriff’s Deputy Toamalama Scanlan, age 46 years with 18 years of law enforcement experience, succumbed to complications from a gunshot wound to the head suffered on Tuesday, September 4, 2016, while assigned to jail duties. Deputy Scanlan and another deputy were armed with only TASERs. The deputies were shot in the jail lobby by a male assailant, Thong Vang, age 37 years, who was attempting to jump the visitation line. The assailant, high on methadone, was a convicted child molester on parole. He was sentenced in 2018 to 112 years in prison for the deadly assault. The other deputy eventually recovered.
Now we have reviewed the circumstances of the California officers murdered in 2020 and 2021, we will identify how law enforcement agencies can reduce risk factors for personnel through training, policies and procedures.
Complacency is law enforcement’s deadliest enemy. It can lead to civil litigation, community unrest, serious bodily injury and death. Complacency can occur in both experienced and inexperienced officers despite their ages. Field training officers and front-line supervisors, especially at the sergeant rank, must consistently monitor complacency and duty performance, including their own.
The average policing experience of the California officers killed in 2020 and 2021 was 12 service years with a range from six to 18 years. The average age was 37 years, ranging from 30 to 46 years. The assailants’ average age was 35 years, varying from 29 to 41 years. Continuous training is essential despite officers’ ages and tenure.
The FBI’s “The Assailant Study: Mindsets and Behaviors” report provides important information to incorporate into police training. Assailant commonalities in 53 incidents where 64 officers lost their lives include the desire to kill for political or social reasons and to remain free from jail or prison. Additionally, the killers of officers in this study had the following common characteristics:
- Prior criminal histories – 86%
- History of drug abuse – 60%
- Known to local police or sheriff departments – 56%
- History of domestic violence – 44%
- Mental health identified as a contributing factor – 40%
- Under the influence – 32%
- On probation or parole – 32%
- Presence of warrants – 26%
- Known gang affiliations – 24%
- Diagnosed mental health issues – 18%
VEHICLE PULLOVERS, PURSUITS
Due to the vehicle pursuits preceding the actual vehicle stops, the danger signs, red flags and risk signals were heightened in the Sacramento and San Bernardino incidents in 2021 described earlier. The question arises as to why the driver/occupant(s) is fleeing. Is there a criminal motive that exceeds the initial observation? Could there be contraband, drugs, a stolen vehicle, a vehicle carjacking, or a parolee with a concealed or disguised weapon, i.e., blunt object, edged weapon, explosive device, firearm, and or a personal weapon, who does not want to return to prison?
Officers must use caution when dealing with people inside a vehicle when a traffic, investigative, or high-risk stop is initiated. Officers should plan physical and verbal tactical options before starting an approach, exercise caution due to concealed hands, and consider hidden occupant(s) or vehicle areas not visible, such as a tinted window hatchback door, or trunk.
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BUILDING ENTRIES AND SEARCHES
Two felonious assaults involving county sheriff’s deputies occurred despite the advanced knowledge of a firearm, and the potential for deadly force being involved. Both law enforcement officers were SWAT team members with advanced tactical training who were exposed to deadly gunfire. Team debriefing and the supervisor review process are essential practices in enforcing safe and effective tactics.
A third county regional SWAT team member was shot while executing a stolen property search warrant during an announced forced entry. The use of a tactical analysis or a risk assessment matrix, including arrest and search warrant service and eviction operations, is essential to creating an applicable and safe operational plan, including location history and neighborhood review.
This is particularly true when assessing the person of interest’s background, i.e., criminal or mental health history potential for associates, friends, or relatives being present or nearby, and prior police contacts. When time permits, consider the use of a surveillance camera for recording a person’s ingress and egress. The possibility of contact outside a structure rather than an entry into an unknown environment provides tactical advantages. The use of electronic detection and entry devices should be reviewed and explored in arrest/warrant entry situations.
Powerful detection and entry tools are available to law enforcement to preclude personnel from placing themselves unnecessarily into a hazardous position. Such technology includes infrared heat signature-seeking devices and cameras mounted on armored mobile robotics. Financial costs can be lowered by sharing the resources on a county or regional basis.
INITIATED ACTIVITIES AND SERVICE CALLS
One deadly assault occurred in response to a domestic disturbance. The possibility of physical violence and the potential for the use of weapons is always present when responding to a private residence, especially where alcohol or drug abuse, arguments and child custody disputes are present.
Except for what a dispatcher can glean from the initial call and the location’s incident history, the responding field officer will have limited information when approaching an unknown environment. When the circumstances permit in these incidents, a single officer should wait for backup, use cover ideally away from the police vehicle, and gather intelligence at a safe distance from available sources before making entry or physical contact with the person(s) involved.
Communications personnel must receive training on gathering additional information to provide field personnel with tactical intelligence. Such details may dictate greater caution and the implementation of additional/different field tactics or resources. This training must include checking any available local, state, or federal databases or records systems.
Whenever there is a service call involving a subject with a background of mental illness, the responding officers must recognize that there is an increased risk of violent behavior and the potential to escalate use of force options. In these known cases, mental health or social services specialists can be invaluable.
Unless there is an imminent need to save lives, the time-honored practice of slowing down and not rushing in should be followed.
While the use of virtual training, videos and desk-top simulations of dangerous service calls are valuable and economical training tools, trainers should continue using reality-based training scenarios with noisemaking or paint-marking cartridges with safety-modified firearms. Officers involved in actual incidents where public and police lives were saved frequently acknowledge that their scenario training was likely the reason they survived.
Training costs of on-site field exercises can be lowered by offering such events on a regional basis with integrated multi-agency training sessions, particularly for smaller law enforcement departments, at fairgrounds, parks, or in less densely populated industrial areas. The feasibility of federal or state training grants for such training should be explored.
Law enforcement administrators and elected officials may be concerned about the costs of reenactments and field exercises. However, the cost of an agency losing an officer to a felonious assault that may have been prevented by training is in the millions of dollars to duplicate the application process, physically train and replace that valuable person, and make up the future years of service that the victim would have provided. A fallen officer’s agency may be understaffed for months until a replacement can be trained and put in the field, often incurring expensive overtime costs. Consider the additional cost to the law enforcement agency, the community, and the family of the fallen officer, not only in dollars but emotionally and psychologically. Cutting corners has no place in officer safety and field tactics training.
AMBUSH PREVENTION AND RESPONSE
Due to what seems to be an increasing number of officer ambushes, agencies must assess training practices. The simple response of exiting the kill zone must be supplemented with contemporary information and realistic firearm and scenario exercises. The following are areas for consideration:
- Pros and cons of driving through or toward, engaging with lethal force, or exiting the police vehicle.
- Use of a police vehicle against an immediate and lethal threat.
- Best police vehicle locations to use as cover.
- Result of a ricochet on bullet behavior.
- Gunfire outcome when fired through a police vehicle’s glass – back, front, or side.
- Firearm draw and exhibit from a seated position inside the vehicle.
- Firearm techniques when shooting from inside a police vehicle.
- Wrap around eye protection.
- Movement that might cause less body armor protection.
When conducting firearm training from inside a police vehicle, loaded firearms and live fire present significant safety challenges. This training can be replaced with noise or paint-marking cartridges from firearms that do not fire live ammunition.
Since 1970, the assaults and killings of hundreds of California law enforcement personnel have reinforced that field and safety tactics must be regularly addressed with all law enforcement personnel. Essential concepts include:
- Criminal behavior distraction techniques and control of the hands, fists and feet.
- Positions of advantage and disadvantage, remember cover plus distance equals a position of advantage.
- Benefits of cover versus concealment.
- Importance of communication, both verbal and non-verbal.
- Utilization of backup, air, K-9, supervisor, or specialized resources
- Reading the scene by taking the time to assess and analyze the situation, especially the behavior of people in and around the area.
- Directing the criminal(s) to a position of disadvantage, reducing the officers’ need to approach.
There is no substitute for using common sense and reacting to an officer’s intuitive knowledge. Following critical incidents, officers have cited the recognition of something unusual that caused them to react quickly and save a life.
Law enforcement station security
Police station security procedures, restricted access areas and site-hardening construction have improved in recent years. However, police stations continue to be an area of high-risk activity for personnel.
Nationwide, police facilities, unoccupied marked and unmarked police vehicles, and officers in and around their police stations have been attacked with explosives, firebombs and gunfire. This trend has been accompanied by anti-policing demonstrations at and near police buildings where destruction, injuries, vandalism and violence occurred. These incidents deserve further study to determine the lessons learned and steps to improve facility, public and officer safety.
Policing agencies should assess operational plans, policies and procedures involving law enforcement station security.
The greatest loss to our community and profession is a severe injury or death among those who protect and serve. Law enforcement leaders must continually examine current policing actions and determine areas of training and agency policies and procedures needing improvement.
About the authors
Richard Wemmer and Charles Moorman have accumulated over 95 years of California law enforcement experience. Starting in 1970, they pioneered research and studies of officers feloniously killed in California, beginning with the killings of four young California Highway Patrol Officers in Newhall, California on April 6, 1970. They have continued these studies to extrapolate lessons learned to improve decision-making skills, field tactics, officer safety, and training. Their research has covered over 400 murders of California officers, dating back to 1960, and resulted in dozens of studies published in law enforcement journals.