Questions of Preparedness: A Spring of Tragedy for Law Enforcement

This spring, tragedy struck the law-enforcement community in two major incidents – on opposite coasts.  In March, the Police Department of Oakland, California, was shaken by the slaying of Sergeants Mark Dunakin, Ervin Romans, and Daniel Sakai, and Officer John Hege, by a single assailant. The ambush murder – in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – a few weeks later of Police Officers Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle, and Paul Sciullo III was a historical first for that city. But multiple officer slayings usually are rare events.  

Nonetheless, with the Pittsburgh slayings coming so soon after the Oakland shootout, it is logical to ask whether the two mass murders represent a disturbing new trend – for which most if not all U.S. law-enforcement agencies are ill prepared.  A high-level examination of similar multiple officer slayings places the Pittsburgh and Oakland incidents in a slightly more understandable context.  According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, the Oakland and Pittsburgh incidents contributed to a 13 percent increase in the number of officers already killed this year.

Emerging from the loss of police officers in line-of-duty incidents are a few overdue opportunities to assess and adjust law-enforcement tactics, training, and procedures against a real operating environment.  Until this spring, the average length of time between nationally significant shooting situations has been anywhere from a few years to a full decade apart.   

However, each such incident can and should become a watershed event – and an opportunity, therefore, to seek additional improvements in law-enforcement training and operations.  For example, the Newhall shooting of 6 April 1970, in which four California Highway Patrolmen perished, became just such an event because it served as the foundation for new reality-based training and tactics when the nation’s law-enforcement community at large quickly focused on providing officers better tools and techniques to improve survivability.  Between Newhall and the next nationally noteworthy shooting, numerous law-enforcement agencies moved their tactics, training, and procedures several steps forward with the lessons learned from Newhall; the emergence of still relatively informal but increasingly effective information-sharing networks also helped.

Another Spring, Another Shootout The next nationally publicized event also occurred in the spring season (May 1980), in California again, when several police officers confronted five heavily armed and determined bank robbers.  Police training had clearly improved since Newhall, but the police officers were armed with .38 caliber revolvers and shotguns – but the robbers  were better armed (with semi-automatic pistols, rifles, and improvised explosives).  The May 1980 shootings, now better known as the Norco Shootout, led a number of additional police departments to rethink the option of having patrol rifles on the street rather than locked up in an armory somewhere.  

Six years later, in yet another bloody spring, south Miami erupted in a fusillade of gunfire as the FBI initiated the arrest of another team of bank robbers.  The 11 April 1986 shootout became a true watershed event in terms of lessons learned. Many law-enforcement agencies across the country finally retired the venerable revolver in favor of higher-capacity semi-automatic pistols. To meet the increased demand, the arms and ammunition industry developed a ballistic compromise between the 9mm and the .45 ACP that led to the .40 S&W used by most U.S. police agencies today.

The April 1986 tragedy, better known as the FBI Miami Shootout, also led to another national review of training and tactics and to the development and implementation of improved procedures to be followed in high-risk encounters.  The key learning points developed from the Miami Shootout led to major improvements in ballistics as well, and to greater emphasis on a survival mindset.

After Miami there also was less reluctance in the law-enforcement community to objectively studying the inter-dynamic confrontations between officers and assailants to distill other helpful lessons learned.  Many local and regionally significant incidents were systematically studied in detail, with the results used nationally to influence training and develop more effective procedural standards. With more and more police departments learning to look at their responsibilities from a more global perspective, western law-enforcement agencies began sharing lessons learned with greater frequency and clarity.  

The Waco Standoff & Political Repercussions The spring of 1993 ushered in an unusual type of tragic situation.  Just outside of Waco, Texas, federal and local law-enforcement personnel surrounded a well guarded compound in which heavily armed adults were living with other adults (unarmed) and a large number of children.  The resulting, and politically controversial, Waco Shootout that followed a 51-day standoff is now viewed, however, as an atypical incident.

In contrast, the February 1997 North Hollywood shootout represented an all-too-familiar situation – a bank robbery gone awry.  The robbers worked as a coordinated team, and their level of preparedness – in terms of weapons, protective equipment, and aggressive mindset – was unusual, but not totally unknown to law-enforcement personnel.  The North Hollywood shootout was similar in many ways to the Norco Shootout 17 years earlier.   

The two shooting incidents this spring are particularly disturbing, though, because each of them were single-assailant engagements in which initially responding and back-up officers were slain.  A disturbingly common thread among nearly all of these notorious shootings has been the aggressive mindset of the assailants involved.  Driven by a fierce determination not to return to prison, Lovelle Mixon, the Oakland shooter, killed four officers in two separate firefights before taking his own life. The Pittsburgh incident, although different in other ways, also involved a single assailant, Richard Poplawski, who prepared for and ambushed the officers responding to a domestic-disturbance call.

Improved Protection Becomes a Two-Way Street In both of this year’s incidents, the assailant’s speed and vicious aggressiveness contributed significantly to the lethal results. Speed and vicious aggression are, in fact, common assailant characteristics in many police officer slayings. Poplawski, though, apparently took several extra steps to prepare for the expected police response. As Mixon did in the North Hollywood shootout, Poplawski wore ballistic-protection garments that enabled him to continue fighting while apparently unfazed, mentally or physically, by police handgun rounds.

Another significant factor worth considering: When Poplawski finally ceased his deadly attack, the only wounds he had sustained, it was discovered, were to his legs. He himself, though, was obviously aiming at the heads of the officers responding, seeking to avoid their ballistic-protection gear.  Both Poplawski and Mixon shared the mindset of many other notorious police murderers – an intense desire to kill as many law-enforcement officers as possible, regardless of their own safety.  Rarely do police encounter this high a level of murderous determination.

The Oakland and Pittsburgh police departments initiated investigations to determine if any additional lessons can be learned from the two shootouts. It seems likely that both investigations will reveal at least some correlations with previous incidents.

With respect to training, the spring of 2009 should underscore the need for police officers and trainers to emphasize practical understanding and rapid recognition of the viciously determined assailant.  The rapid coordination of ad hoc teams of responding officers is essential to negate the advantages possessed by barricaded and viciously determined assailants.  Large-scale incidents such as those mentioned above often bring together officers from different agencies – where rapid on-scene coordination is obviously essential but also becomes even more challenging. 

In addition, as the Pittsburgh incident underscored, information sharing between sources on the scene – and through emergency dispatchers to responding officers – must be as complete and as timely as possible.  Both of this spring’s shooting incidents will yield some new lessons learned and lead to additional best-practices recommendations. Oakland in particular has experienced relatively high tensions in the past between police and the communities they work in – and protect. If nothing else, there are or should be some new opportunities for police agencies and communities to use the healing process to strengthen bonds and develop a new unity against the common threat of violence that confronts both.

Joseph W. Trindal

As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.



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