Counter-ambush tactics for patrol officers

Editor’s Note: One month ago today, three Pittsburgh, Pa. police officers were killed in an ambush. In the immediate aftermath of that tragedy we asked Lt. Dan Marcou, PoliceOne’s lead columnist on issues related to SWAT, to provide our members with some reminders on counter-ambush tactics for patrol officers. We present Dan’s analysis in an effort to honor the memories of all fallen officers, and hope that by taking a few moments here to consider some of things that can help officers stay safe in the event of an ambush, we pay particular tribute to Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle, and Paul Sciullo II.

On November 12 Sheriff Robert Maxwell, a decorated army combat veteran, was shot and killed when he was ambushed by two men. One evaded capture and the second suspect was tried and acquitted. You did not see this in the papers. That’s because this all-but-forgotten tragedy occurred 211 years ago in 1797.

Officers have been killed and wounded from ambush since the beginning of our national sojourn. It is reasonable to ask, “How does one prepare for the unexpected?” The answer is, “Expect it!”

Proactive training along with “when/then” thinking are valuable tools for preparing for such an attack.

General Precautions on Calls
It is always better to surprise rather than to be surprised. Get used to being unpredictable, while patrolling, and when you respond to and clear from calls. Scan the area thoroughly. Use lights and low light to your advantage and try to always be aware of “them” before “they” are aware of you.

Two points of advice that were given out in the academy that too often are disregarded as the “routine” mentality sets in are, “Do not park in front of the address,” and “Do not stand in front of doors upon making contact.”

Get as much information as possible from dispatch on the history of the call location and or suspect and possibility of weapons. If you want to anticipate what someone might do in the future, find out what that someone has done in the past.

Two more examples of academy advice that should be followed to ensure safe and happy retirements are: “Treat all alarms as real until they are proven false and treat all unknown problem calls with extreme caution.”

Ambush in the Open
You can save your life by knowing how to use the terrain to your advantage. Drawing and moving laterally to cover is (and should be) a response that is regularly practiced.

Dropping to prone can be an option. Sometimes a rolling landscape can serve as natural cover. Buildings, ditches, culverts, power poles, mail boxes, mounded landscaping, and vehicles, including engine blocks and wheel hubs can give officers temporary sanctuary and time to think, “What next?

The curb and gutter can serve as cover, where nothing else is available. Lie flat and parallel, to use a curb to its full potential and then suck it all in. Anytime you find natural cover, while someone is shooting at you, keep the cover between you and the shooter and become the shape of the cover. Do not leave anything valuable hanging out.

When returning fire, come out from different locations each time you fire. This is critical. Do not allow the shooter to await and time your next appearance.

To prepare for an ambush maintain a high level of fitness. It increases your mobility, when you truly need to be mobile. Remember if you have to relocate quickly, avoid running backwards. It is slow and there is a high probability you will fall. When covering a great distance add a sporadic serpentine movement to avoid being hit.

After Shots Are Fired
When someone suddenly begins shooting at you, move to cover, draw, acquire the threat, and stop the threat. Even though it sounds as if this is described as a one two three maneuver, you should be doing these all in one motion. Scan for threats, breath, and think! You are alive...keep it that way. Finish the fight on your terms.

As soon as practical, communicate your condition, your situation, and the location of the suspect to dispatchers and other officers. Reload if needed and/or acquire a long gun if possible and practical. You are best-suited to determine the avenue for approach, and positioning for responding units to minimize casualties and maximize the possibility of apprehension. Convey this intelligence along with the number of suspects and if possible the weapon(s).

Squad Ambush
Considering the amount of time an officer spends in their squad it is important to do some serious “when/then,” thinking about this. Some officers keep their driver’s seat clear to allow for the option of going prone across the seats, opening the passenger door and then kicking their feet against the driver’s door to roll out of the passenger side door.

If you are seated in your squad, when ambushed you need to decide what is best to do and do it, NOW! There are many options, but they will be more readily available to you if you have practiced such an incident or at least imagined the options in advance.

One option could be to lean below the dash and straight line back out of the kill zone. You might decide it is best to drive forward or in reverse with a serpentine to remove yourself from the kill zone. These maneuvers are practiced often, during emergency vehicle operations training. Next time you are out on the emergency vehicle operation course, give these exercises some context and imagine you are being shot at and the maneuvers are to save your life.

The suspect may have positioned himself directly in front of you, while taking aim. Death or great bodily harm is imminent. One option here is to turn your squad car into a 3,000-pound bullet.

What if the ambush comes while you are seated in your squad and your only option is acquire and fire your service weapon. Have you ever practiced removing your seat belt and drawing your weapon from behind the steering wheel?

To enhance training opportunity and practice this safely for an eventuality you might face, buy yourself a red training gun replica of your duty weapon and train. They are a very inexpensive investment in your future. Engrave your name on it. Now practice undoing your seat belt, shift your knees away from your weapon to make room and draw the red gun. Aim the weapon toward an imaginary threat to the front. With your red gun, squeeze the trigger at least twice, when justified to account for bullet path deviation caused by the glass.

Now practice the same maneuver, but aim at an imaginary threat to the right. Repeat the procedure to the left and behind.

You can use the red gun to enhance drawing and moving to cover also. You can practice drawing moving right, drawing moving left, drawing and addressing a sudden assault from behind, drawing form a seated position in your squad and drawing while wounded. Also practice drawing and advancing on the suspect while firing. Sometimes it may be the only option.

While you are at it practice drawing and moving to prone. To do this, draw your weapon and point it toward the suspect while reaching for the ground with the opposite hand. After finding the ground, lower yourself to prone.

The seated drawing drill can be done in a chair to simulate a possible ambush at a restaurant. When going to a restaurant on duty or off, consider being seated in a position that allows visibility and mobility. Don’t get hemmed in by someone in the corner of a booth. You want to be able to scan the area, move and access your weapon.

Why? Can you say “Luby’s?”

After Being Shot
What if you are shot and you know it. Think positive. Pain is an indicator of life and can be an incredible motivator. Tell yourself, “I am shot, but I will survive.” Communicate your condition and location to dispatch. Put pressure on your wound. If there is a way to elevate your lower extremities without causing more injury, do so. Position your head to keep your airway open in the event that you lose consciousness. Communicate the situation and your injuries to first responding officers.

If you are shot and down, consider changing location. Watch for the suspect to approach. A suspect may approach to finish a downed officer. Remember suspect’s start fights police officers finish them. Put pressure on your wounds and finish the fight. Do not give in to the seductress that is death. Picture those special loves in your life that you do everything for and decide to go home to them.

There are products in most squad cars that facilitate the quick clotting of wounds. Learn how to use them, before you need to use them. If applicable and available use them or direct another officer to use them.

Remind yourself over and over again, “Most people, who are shot, survive. I will survive. I am going home after this shift!”

Never Give Up!
Years ago, there was a Motorola police training movie where Sergeant George Arthur of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was speaking at the end of the movie. He had been in a ferocious physical fight and gun battle with two suspects after he and his partner were ambushed. They both were wounded, but they fought back, killing both assailants. He became a trainer after the incident and always emphasized the need to prepare mentally and physically before the battle.

He ended the tape with this message that should be every officer’s mantra. When the fight is brought to you, “Never give up! Never give up! NEVER WHILE YOU’RE OUT THERE GIVE UP!”

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