The Newhall gunfight: 50 years later
Every officer in uniform today is the beneficiary of the lessons taught to us by the Newhall officers
April 6, 2020, is the 50th anniversary of the California Highway Patrol’s loss of four officers in an extended gunfight in Newhall, California.
In the opening minutes of that day, Officers Roger Gore, Walter Frago, James Pence, and George Alleyn were slain by a pair of violent felons who then escaped from the scene.
Fifty years later, we’re still learning the lessons from that tragedy.
The Newhall gunfight was the worst day in the California Highway Patrol’s 41-year history, to date. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) had never lost so many officers in a single day, particularly at the hands of violent criminals. The staggering losses sent the CHP into mourning, and also served as the catalyst for the agency to comprehensively change its tactics, equipment, training and culture.
The effect was not limited to the CHP, however. This shocking gunfight was a watershed event in the history of American policing and prompted significant changes throughout law enforcement. Importantly, Newhall took the fledgling “officer survival” movement of the era and kicked it into high gear, inspiring critical advances in tactics, training and equipment that would dramatically improve officer safety, nationwide.
Four officers, four lessons
It is no exaggeration to state that every officer in uniform today is the beneficiary of the lessons that the Newhall officers taught us through their sacrifice. However, the impact of some of these lessons has begun to fade in the 50 years since the last shots were fired at Newhall, so it’s appropriate to review some of them, including the following:
1. The importance of good situational awareness
When Officers Gore and Frago approached the suspects’ vehicle after it stopped in the parking lot, the very young and inexperienced officers failed to take a number of important behavioral and situational cues into consideration.
The driver stopped his vehicle in an unusual place, which left the CHP cruiser trapped in a disadvantageous position in the middle of a narrow driveway that led into the parking lot. While the caller reported only a single man with a gun in the suspect vehicle, there were now two people clearly visible in the Pontiac, and neither of them were obeying Officer Gore’s repeated commands to exit the vehicle. When the driver finally complied with Gore’s third command, he had to be reminded several times to keep his hands in the air, while his passenger continued to be noncompliant and remain in the vehicle.
These were just some of the cues that, when considered together, indicated an increased level of resistance and danger from the suspects in the vehicle. Unfortunately, Officers Gore and Frago did not seem to recognize these warnings and change their tactics accordingly, which led them to commit errors that cost their lives.
An officer can be equipped with the best gear, understand the most advanced tactics and possess the highest level of skill at arms, but none of it matters if an officer lacks the situational awareness to read and understand the surrounding environment. You will never get the opportunity to use your superior tactics, training and weapons if you don’t see the threat coming, so pay attention to the important things and do your best to minimize distractions on duty.
2. The importance of good tactics
There was a host of tactical errors committed by the Newhall officers, which led to their deaths. A full study of these is beyond the scope of this article, but two are especially notable.
First was the failure of Officers Gore and Frago to wait for backup. For reasons we don’t understand, Officers Gore and Frago didn’t wait for Officers Pence and Alleyn to get there before they pulled the suspects out of the car, even though they were just a minute away. By acting with too much haste, the officers sacrificed the numerical advantage, cover and superior defensive position that could have tipped the odds in their favor. You can’t always control the clock in an encounter with suspects, but when you can set the pace of the contact, don’t rush it. The ghosts of Newhall urge you to take your time and do it right
A second critical mistake in Newhall was the breakdown of basic contact and cover procedures. Shortly after Officer Gore approached the vehicle to search the driver, Officer Frago left his position as the cover officer and moved forward to extract the noncompliant passenger. When he did so, the contact and cover relationship broke down, and both officers became more vulnerable to attack. It’s easy to get sucked into the action as the cover officer, and transition to a Contact role, but it’s critically important to “stay out of the hole” and provide the overwatch, and the guarantee of immediate consequences for the suspect, that’s the foundation of this tactic.
3. The importance of good training
In many ways, the Newhall officers were victims of their training.
By the standards of the day, the CHP had a comprehensive and professional training program. In an era when many new officers reported for duty without formal academy-style training, the CHP’s live-in, 16-week academy was considered one of the best in the nation, and their officers were respected as highly trained.
Yet, while the CHP had a strong program for the time, the training failed to prepare the officers for the real-world conditions they were likely to face in the field. The syllabus was unbalanced, and critical officer safety topics didn’t get enough attention. There was insufficient time for cadets to learn and practice critical skills and tactics so that they were internalized. Some training—like the firearms training—lacked context and realism, which guaranteed that the skills and techniques would not be resistant to the effects of stress.
Sadly, many of today’s law enforcement training programs could be described the same way. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit there are still deficiencies in many law enforcement training programs that need to be corrected to ensure our officers are ready to perform critical skills in dynamic, stressful situations. Shamefully, in many places, training programs are more about limiting agency liability than they are about getting officers ready for the street.
The Newhall experience showed the critical importance of robust, dynamic, context-driven training. It also reminds us that 50 years later, we still have a lot of work to do in that regard.
4. The influence of culture on officer safety
The Newhall-era CHP was preoccupied with public relations, to the extent that officer safety was sometimes sacrificed in the pursuit of public approval.
Officers who approached a vehicle with their hand on or near their holstered weapon during a suspicious or risky stop were censured by the department when unhappy citizens (some of whom just wanted to “get even” for receiving a citation) complained. Indeed, officers of the era often felt that the CHP unfairly punished officers as a way of appeasing the public and preserving their valued “Officer Friendly” image. The lack of support from their chain of command made many officers hesitant to take reasonable safety precautions that might lead to a complaint and days off without pay.
The Newhall-era CHP was also hypersensitive about issuing long guns to their officers because they feared the guns would make officers look too militaristic and upset the public. Indeed, by the time of Newhall, CHP officers had only had access to shotguns for a handful of years, and the department’s highly restrictive policies discouraged officers from using them, even when the circumstances warranted it as a reasonable precaution.
These cultural influences undoubtedly influenced the behavior of Officers Gore and Frago when they made the stop that night and left them more vulnerable to the violent ambush that followed. It’s believed that Officer Frago, for instance, may not have loaded the chamber of his shotgun before approaching the suspect’s vehicle, because Newhall-era policies had conditioned him not to.
Today we’re in jeopardy of recreating those conditions as governments and police agencies rush to adopt practices and policies that have sacrificed officer and public safety to court public approval.
Cops are being pressured to ignore minor assaults on them as “harmless pranks.” Officers have been deprived of effective tools and tactics because they were deemed controversial. Our police have become policy-bound to expose themselves and the public to additional danger when encountering certain types of suspects, such as those armed with edged weapons, or threatening suicide. In other locales, additional layers and restrictions have been added to use of force policies that make it increasingly difficult for officers to make good decisions in fast-breaking situations, and encourage hesitation that could prove to be deadly for the officer or public.
The Newhall officers were handicapped by the culture in their agency and lost their lives, in part, because it left them more vulnerable to the threat posed by the felons. Part of their legacy is a reminder to avoid recreating those same conditions for a new generation of officers, and that’s a very timely lesson indeed for agency and civic leaders to contemplate in the current environment.
The wheel turns
The guns of Newhall have been silent for 50 years, and the location where four brave officers lost their lives in that vicious battle bears no trace of their sacrifice today. To most residents of the area, the Newhall gunfight is long-forgotten history.
This cannot be the case for those of us in the law enforcement profession. We are duty-bound to remember the slain officers and heed the lessons they fought and died to teach us because they are as relevant today as they were in the moments immediately after the gun smoke cleared.
We ignore them at our peril.