One year after Dallas: Remembering the fallen and lessons learned

In any ambush situation, know that you are better trained, better armed and better motivated than even the most hardened adversary


One year ago today – July 7, 2016 – a deranged murderer whose name does not merit mention ambushed and killed five law enforcement officers. Those LEOs were at the time protecting the First Amendment rights of people protesting against those very same police.

Sergeant Michael Smith, Senior Corporal Lorne Ahrens, Officer Michael Krol, Officer Patrick Zamarripa and Officer Brent Thompson were shot and killed in a sudden attack.

At least seven others were injured in the barrage of gunfire.

In this July 8, 2016 file photo, five red roses on the bronze medallion with another bouquet of flowers and a note in support of the Dallas Police Department are seen at The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
In this July 8, 2016 file photo, five red roses on the bronze medallion with another bouquet of flowers and a note in support of the Dallas Police Department are seen at The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

It was the deadliest day for American law enforcement since the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

The protesters those cops were protecting were kept safe – although some were injured, not a single civilian was killed. There are stories of responding officers putting their own bodies between the gunfire and the protestors, shielding them from the bullets.

A surge in ambush attacks

Just 10 days after that awful attack, East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Deputy Brad Garafola and Baton Rouge Police Department Officers Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald were murdered in an unprovoked ambush attack.

In addition to those incidents that made national headlines in 2016, fatal ambush attacks in that year took place in San Antonio, Texas, St. Louis, Missouri, and Sanibel, Florida. According to NLEOMF, police officers have also been shot and killed in ambush attacks in Salt Lake City, Utah, Danville, Ohio, Bel Air, Maryland, Prince William, Virginia, Landover, Maryland, Richmond, Virginia, and Palm Springs, California.

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the number of officers shot and killed in ambush attacks last year totaled more than 20 – the highest number since 1995. Ambushes were the leading circumstance of officer fatalities in firearms-related deaths in 2014; 44 officers have been killed in fatal ambush shootings since 2014.

Ambush attacks have resulted in multiple officer deaths in places like Lakewood, Washington, and Las Vegas, Nevada. We still mourn the 2010 ambush deaths of Officers Tony Wallace and Matt Tokuoka from Hoonah, Alaska, and the 2014 ambush murders of New York City Police Department Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

Most recently, we witnessed the ambush murder of Officer Miosotis Familia in New York City. Familia was shot in the head as she sat in a parked squad car.

Harden the target

The old adage “the best defense is a good offense” doesn’t necessarily work with this problem until something has actually cooked off. To begin, the best defense is an enhanced, more sophisticated defense (we will get to the other side of that coin in a moment).

We need to recognize that officers are more vulnerable to ambush attacks when their patrol vehicle is not moving. When stopped at intersections, officers are more likely to be looking at their in-car computer and not their surroundings.

The range of human vision is roughly 115 degrees from left to right and 40 degrees from top to bottom. Even if your head is on a swivel, by looking down even briefly at the MDT or your mobile phone you might miss something important.

Here are some things for you to consider about ambush attacks:

  • An ambush attack can happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone, so remember to do your when/then thinking throughout your patrol
  • Understand the difference between the types of ambush – unprovoked (impromptu) attack and deliberate (preplanned entrapment)
  • In an ambush attack – particularly one that is preplanned and deliberate – the likelihood you’ll be coming up against an assailant armed with a center-fire rifle increases dramatically
  • In a preplanned entrapment ambush, the assailant may have cached weapons and/or ammo in different places, and may dial 911 to lure officers into a kill zone
  • While an ambush is relatively easy to set up, many attacker(s) will be ill-prepared to repel an aggressive, well-executed counter ambush

This brings us to the other – the aggressive/offensive – side of the coin. It is perhaps the most important point: Officers must attack the ambush. When confronted in an ambush, the best path to prevailing is to become the aggressor. The prey must become the predator in order to survive.

In a recent Police1 column, Dick Fairburn outlined six common factors that will aid in defeating an ambush attack. Those elements are:

  • Ensuring the element of surprise
  • Doing constant when/then thinking (red team yourself and the terrain)
  • Paying attention to tiny details (such as baselines and anomalies)
  • Zero hesitation in taking aggressive action in response to an attack
  • Counterattacking the attack with overwhelming ferocity and force
  • De-escalation through superior firepower (it’s a good idea to have a rifle)

Conclusion

One year ago in Dallas, the gunman was ultimately killed by an EOD robot armed with an explosive device. But the robot was not the answer. It was the human hand (and brains) behind it that was the reason for victory.

In any ambush situation, know that you are better trained, better armed and better motivated than even the most hardened adversary.

Just ask Philadelphia Police Officer Jesse Hartnett who, in a sudden ambush in January 2016, was shot multiple times by an attacker who pledged loyalty to ISIS. Despite being struck by multiple rounds, Hartnett not only survived the attack, but he was able to get out of his vehicle, chase the suspect, return fire and wound his attacker.

Like Hartnett, remember that you are driven by good and the bad guys are driven by evil.

Train hard. Rely on that training. Believe in your ability to win. Fight on. In an ambush, you might be going through hell, but remember the words of Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

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