How to Survive an Ambush Attack
This piece was written by Robert King and published in the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement (IADLEST) newsletter, January 2023.
I write this article with great reverence, respect, and sadness, hoping that we, my brothers and sisters in blue, can better prepare ourselves to survive.
On Wednesday, October 12, 2022, at about 10:30 PM, Bristol Police responded to a domestic violence call between two brothers in Bristol, Connecticut. Sergeant Dustin DeMonte, 35, Officer Alex Hamzy, 34, and Officer Alec Iurato, 26, arrived on the scene and were ambushed.
Tragically, Sergeant DeMonte and Officer Hamzy were killed. Officer Iurato was shot but returned fire, killing the suspect. In news reports, state police officials indicated the call was an intentional act to lure officers to the scene. These officers responded heroically and selflessly in service to their community. Lt. Dustin Demonte and Sgt. Alex Hamzy were both promoted posthumously.
We must do everything we can to understand ambush attacks to increase survivability.
F.B.I.: Ambushes Among Leading Incidents in 2022 Law Enforcement Deaths
"Nearly 50 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the first three quarters of 2022, and ambushes were one of the leading circumstances in those incidents" (1), according to the F.B.I.'s preliminary report on line-of-duty deaths.
"The leading circumstances surrounding officers' (felonious) deaths included activities related to ambushes on officers, investigative/enforcement activity, unprovoked attacks on officers, and response to disorderly/disturbance calls," the report states. "The 10 ambush attacks in 2022 are a 100 percent increase compared to the 5 ambush attacks in the same time period in 2021." (2)
There are two kinds of ambush attacks:
Impromptu: sudden and planned attacks can occur in foot chases and vehicle pursuits.
Deliberate: a killer prepares the kill zone -- they decide on premeditated murder and decide when, where, and how -- usually a bogus call -- to lure us in.
Characteristics of an Ambush Attack
A long-established military tactic, ambushes are surprise attacks from a concealed position.
Lures officers into a trap so they can execute an assault
Element of surprise
Speed of action
Violence of action
Often employs, but is not limited to, a precision rifle
Killer uses the advantage of concealment with a line of fire
Lack of provocation
It avoids detection before the attack
Undermines our center of gravity
The Department of Defense defines 'center of gravity' as"the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act." Thus, the center of gravity is usually seen as the source of strength.
Preventing Ambush Attacks
Preventing an ambush attack begins long before we respond to the call. We must cultivate a prevention mindset, which has three critical elements:
Increasing our situational awareness
A paradigm shift in our thinking from reactive to proactive, getting "Left of Bang".
Concerning decision making, Brandon Webb, United States Navy SEAL, in his book, Mastering Fear, tells us we must first, before everything else, decide to decide. There is great power in a decision. "Mastering fear starts with a decision.You might think that big decisions, potentially life-altering decisions, arise out of courage.They don't. It's the other way around.The strength and the courage to keep going arise out of the decision.The decision comes first. (3) You have to decide to decide".(4) The body cannot go where the mind has never been.
Deciding to survive will be one of the most, if not the most, important decisions of your life. Once a decision of this magnitude is made, Webb says we have clarity, and from this clarity comes great strength.
Situational Awareness (S.A.)
"Awareness is the key to defeating any threat.(5) Your survival depends on a strategy, and that strategy requires awareness through education and understanding your environment, your options and developing a successful strategy to defeat a threat". (6) Situational awareness is simply elevating our levels of alertness, so we pay attention to the available information. When we are situationally aware, we are less likely to be surprised. When we are situationally aware, we have an alert mindset that results in better preparation.
Reactive to Proactive
In their book, Left of Bang, authors Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley speak to the importance of resolving to be proactive. Agencies must take proactive steps to train and prepare officers for the harsh reality of ambush attacks and how to prevent them. Further, Van Horne and Riley differentiate before the attack (left of bang) and after (right of bang).(7) Their research and writings aim to introduce ideas proven to prevent violence when possible. Left of Bang elevates the importance of recognizing pre-attack indicators to interrupt the plans of an ambush attacker. Ultimately, we want to be Left of Bang; one of our primary goals must be to prevent or interrupt an attack.
Actions to Survive
Before arrival, on arrival, during an attack, and post ambush–what steps can we take to increase survivability? The information below is not intended to be exhaustive. The hope is that practitioners in policing add insights from training, education, and experience to improve survivability.
Have a leader. Have a plan! Communicate, be flexible, don't assume, and correct mistakes.
Wear your body armor and be proficient with all your equipment.
Do not be in denial or be complacent.
Gather and evaluate call information before arrival.
Consider call location history.
Coordinate safe routes of arriving units.
Notify a supervisor if something is out of the ordinary.
If the information seems suspicious, trust your gut.
Take threats seriously.
Mindset: envision the end state; see yourself surviving.
Always have a tourniquet on your person.
Stop, look, and listen.
Arrive a distance from the call.
Identify and use cover and concealment on approach, catalog cover for possible edges if necessary.
Do not ignore the danger signs.
Be deliberate about how you present to the danger zone.
Remember that distance and time equal options.
Consider contacting the complainant to call them away from their cover or concealment.
Have a preprogrammed response for egress from the danger zone.
If pursuing someone on foot, do not run around uncleared corners.
Deploy patrol riles.
When attacked, we become reactive and temporarily lose the initiative , which we must regain. In his book, Sound Doctrine: A Tactical Primer, Los Angeles Sheriff's Department S.W.A.T. Commander Sid Heal defines initiative as "the freedom to think and act without being urged". Ambush attackers take the initiative from us. We must regain it.
During an ambush
Resolve to survive!
Get off the X and exit the danger zone.
Return fire when able to do so, consistent with policy, law, and case law.
We must have a visual target identified and a clear backstop.
If no cover is available, the best cover is well-placed fire on the threat.
Use distractions! If possible, divide a subject's attention.
If attacked during arrival, consider driving out of the attack.
Decide to survive.
If officers are injured and alive, we must formulate a hasty, exigent rescue of the downed officer.
Train to do an emergent officer down rescue, including the use of shields and vehicles.
When an ambush attack happens, call SWAT but understand their response time varies; officers must be able to survive before a tactical team's arrival.
If a solo officer or initial responding officer(s) is injured by gunfire, maintain radio discipline and stay off the radio. Instead, give the channel to the downed officer.
One individual must get on the radio and coach/support the downed officer(s).
Do a remote assessment of injured and down officers. Sometimes, tragically, officers will have injuries not compatible with life. But if a downed officer is alive, talk to them, coach them, and encourage them.
Coach injured officers on tactics to survive. Not surprisingly, shot officers go into overload,and they need our encouragement. We can be remote cover officers.
For example, "I know you're hit. Where are you? Are you behind cover? Can you safely improve your position by moving to cover? Are you taking rounds now? Do you know how many attackers?"
"Do you know where the rounds are coming from? Where are you hit? Do you have your tourniquet?"
"Apply your tourniquet."
Unfortunately, even the best prepared and trained individuals can't always prevent injury or death.(9) Injuries from gunfire are survivable! We need to strengthen our survival mindset and never give up. In addition we need equipment that is easily accessible. Many gunfire injuries result in death because we do not stop the bleeding. Every officer on the street must always have a tourniquet on their person; their life or a fellow officer's life may depend on it. "Uncontrolled bleeding is the number one cause of preventable death in trauma situations." (8)
Never Forget that Ambush Attacks can be Survived.
We can survive an ambush attack, but we must prepare. We must be mentally prepared every time we go on duty, from day one for a new officer or year 25 for a veteran officer. We must accept the reality that we may go on a call where the caller's sole intention is to ambush and kill us. We must not be complacent or in denial about this reality.
Twice as many officers were killed by ambush this year as last year. Unfortunately, ambush attacks are real and increasing.
Ambush attacks are an extremely narrow slice of all police-community encounters but have shown to be the deadliest interactions. We must study and learn everything we can about ambush attacks and train officers to survive from that body of knowledge. Unfortunately, not enough is being done. We must be proactive.
With increased violent crime in our communities, police officers are needed today more than ever. I respect, appreciate, and admire officers across our country and am committed to supporting them. Despite narratives to the contrary, officers are committed and dedicated to doing the right thing for the right reasons, even in the most dangerous and life-threatening situations.