Type “police officer ambush” into an internet search engine and you will find numerous stories about a drastic increase in the number of police officers being ambushed. The Washington Post reports that police ambushes are at a 10-year high, USA Today has written that ambush-style murders of police officers are up 167 percent, and there are similar reports from NBC and Fox News.
On July 7, 2016, a sniper opened fire on police officers in Dallas, Texas. The shooter shot 12 officers and killed five of them before being killed himself. On May 25, 2013, a pre-meditated ambush attack took the life of Officer Jason Ellis as he stopped on a freeway off-ramp to clear a large branch from the roadway. Understanding how these ambushes occurred and the end results of each scenario can help officers and their agencies understand how to better prepare for, and perhaps prevent, these attacks.
Data on This Trend
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recently conducted a study on the trend of ambush-style murders of police officers. That study broke down many of the components of the ambushes and we can learn several important lessons from the data. Law enforcement agencies should be aware of this growing trend as to better prepare their officers for what has become a more realistic outcome than we would like to admit.
Body armor: The IACP’s study confirmed that there is an increasing proportion of police murders that are classified as ambushes. Other relevant data include that 53% of ambushed officers who were wearing body armor survived the attack and 68% of ambushed officers that returned fire survived. Long gone are the days of being a “cowboy” and not wearing body armor: It seems that most officers understand how much more likely they are to survive being shot if they wear body armor. There are also many departments across the country that have mandated their officers wear body armor while on-duty. Body armor is one area where it seems that both officer and agency agree on how best to keep cops alive.
Partners: Other statistics from the study bring a whole different category of officer safety to the discussion. The IACP found that 82% of the ambushed officers were alone at the time of the attack, 55% of them were working in a one-officer patrol vehicle, and only 10% were working in a two-officer patrol vehicle. Smaller percentages involved officers on foot patrol or off-duty. The data from the IACP show a statistically significant difference between officers who are alone and in one-officer patrol cars being attacked at a higher rate than officers in two-officer patrol teams. The debate over the costs and benefits of one- or two-officer patrol cars has been heard for years but police ambushes add a new dimension to that argument.
The main argument for one-officer patrol teams has consistently centered on the ideas that one-officer patrol cars are more effective and provide better coverage. In theory, more patrol cars out on the streets can cover a larger geographical area and increase response times. The argument for two-officer patrol cars has focused on officer safety: Your backup is right next to you all the time.
Two-officer cars also use half the patrol fleet and may decrease costs from gasoline or wear-and-tear on vehicles. There are numerous factors that go into a police agency being able to deploy two-officer patrol cars, to include: the size of the agency, the number of officers on duty, the number of patrol vehicles available, and the location of the agency. Each agency’s policies and standard operating procedure should also be considered in this debate.
Backup: Both police agencies I have worked for taught officers to always wait for their backup. Even if the officer is working in a one-officer patrol vehicle they are taught to wait until their backup arrives to intervene in any situation, officer safety being paramount. Of course there will be situations where a single officer chooses not to wait for backup and that decision is ultimately up to the individual. The increasing trend in officer ambushes and the study from the IACP have added a new factor to the debates about officer safety.
There are a few lessons from the data that are certain: Police officers have a better chance of surviving an ambush if they wear body armor, return fire, and are not working alone. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether that means waiting for a backup officer to arrive or having backup in the seat next to you but the increasing threat of ambush should play a role in that decision. I have seen agencies respond to threats of violence against officers or frequent ambushes across the country by putting officers in two-officer cars. Over time the agency slowly returns to working in one-officer patrols.