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Back to Archives | Back to February 2014 Contents 

Officer Safety Corner: Protecting Officers from Ambush Attacks: Key Insights from Law Enforcement Executives

By Angie De Groot, Research Analyst, CNA Institute for Public Research, Safety and Security Division; and George Fachner, Research Analyst, CNA Institute for Public Research, Safety and Security Division

In 2011, the number of officers feloniously killed in the line of duty reached 68, the second highest figure on record, representing a 70 percent increase from a low point of 42 just two years prior.1 Although the most recent figures from the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) program show that the number of officers feloniously killed in the line of duty decreased considerably in 2012 to 48, officer safety remains a long-standing and motivating concern of law enforcement agencies across the United States.2

Among the officers feloniously killed since 1990, there appears to be a growing trend of ambushes. In 1993, for instance, ambushing was used by assailants in 5 percent of felonious deaths of U.S. law enforcement. In the past five years (2008–2012), however, ambushes have made up 15 to 32 percent of felonious police deaths.3

The nature of police work means law enforcement officers across the United States are in harm’s way every day. Some criminals will target officers for violence in an effort to escape coercion, arrest, or imprisonment. In the most extreme circumstances, officers may be targeted simply for being police.

At the 120th Annual IACP Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, CNA and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) held three focus group sessions with senior-level law enforcement practitioners, both active and retired, to gain insight from the field about ambushes. Seventeen officials participated in the sessions, representing a wide spectrum of law enforcement agencies. During the sessions, participants explored a variety of ambush topics, including how law enforcement agencies define, prepare for, protect against, respond to, and recover from ambush attacks. A number of themes emerged from these conversations.

What constitutes an ambush assault is not cut and dry. There is no universally accepted definition of “ambush” across U.S. law enforcement agencies. Some participants favored a restrictive definition of ambush—what they referred to as the “classic” ambush. The classic ambush is where an officer is drawn in by a suspect who has plotted to murder the officer in a surprise attack. The LEOKA data collection program refers to these as “entrapment and premeditated” ambush incidents. Another ambush scenario is classified by the FBI as a “spontaneous” and “unprovoked” attack. Although all participants agreed with the classification of the classic ambush scenarios, some participants questioned whether “spontaneous” ambushes should be classified as ambushes. Some participants considered these to be crimes of opportunity or “sudden assaults.” Despite the challenge of defining the term “ambush,” participants agreed that every ambush involves some degree of planning and the element of surprise.

Tactical training presents an opportunity to prepare officers for ambushes. Many participants described tactical or reality-based training as the premier training tools to prepare officers for ambushes. According to focus group participants, current training does not typically focus on ambushes but on general officer safety skills, such as administering first aid, which are relevant in ambush situations. At least one participant shared that his department recently included an ambush scenario as part of required annual training. Others noted that ambushes are often mentioned during recruit academy, but recruits are not trained specifically for them. Although there was no general consensus on whether ambush-specific training or tactical training with implications for ambush scenarios was a better approach, participants generally agreed that more training related to the subject was needed. The biggest barriers to initiating such training are resources and a lack of in-house expertise.

Law enforcement officials have divergent perspectives on the appropriateness of encouraging a military mind-set and initiating military-style training as a way to enhance officer safety. Focus group participants highlighted the dual mission of law enforcement professionals as peace officers who must form good relationships with the communities they serve, but who also may need to take aggressive action to enforce the law. Participants made a number of observations that supported the notion that there is a military-law enforcement nexus with respect to ambushes and critical incident response. Some participants believed that it made sense for law enforcement to borrow some military training techniques to prepare their officers. Other participants were reluctant to endorse the use of military-style training. They noted that officers cannot approach all car stops, for example, the way a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan would. This could be detrimental to community relations and alarm community members. Many of the law enforcement officials agreed that preparing for ambushes is as much about officers’ mind-sets as it is their tactical training. Remaining vigilant and avoiding complacency are the law enforcement mantras when it comes to officer safety; however, officers need to balance vigilance with being servants and protectors of the community.

Savvy intelligence operations can help keep officers safe. Many participants believed that gathering intelligence on individuals and groups known to advocate or initiate violence, especially against authorities, is essential to protecting officers from attacks. These individuals and groups may have documented interactions with law enforcement and criminal histories. The sharing of information between law enforcement agencies and corrections agencies (e.g., parole and probation) was noted as a proactive tool in preventing ambush attacks.

Officers should be trained in self-aid and given the appropriate tools. Training in self-aid was generally believed by the focus group participants to be particularly important for ambush incidents. For this training to be worthwhile, however, officers need to be supplied with potentially life-saving supplies such as hemorrhage control items (e.g., tourniquets). One participant remarked that some law enforcement agencies are implementing programs to ensure that their officers have the proper equipment and training to administer self-aid during a critical incident, but it’s not clear if this mentality is prevalent in agencies across the United States.

The law enforcement community can learn from reconstructing and analyzing past incidents. There was a general consensus that case studies of critical incidents are the best learning tools law enforcement has. Many participants expressed disappointment in the current state of knowledge available to them in periodicals, journals, and news bulletins with respect to critical incidents and actionable lessons learned. One official noted that many after-action reports are produced internally but never published or disseminated to the larger public safety community.

The focus groups helped provide some insight on the key issues the law enforcement community needs to address to maximize officer safety in the event of an ambush attack. Understanding the ambush phenomenon is essential to making command-level decisions on training, operations, and the commitment of other resources to this issue. Focus group participants tended to think that a great deal of what law enforcement currently does to address officer safety and tactical decision making is applicable and ideally transferrable to ambush incidents and extreme violence against the police.

How agencies train officers to apply officer safety and tactical decision-making skills to situations of extreme violence, however, is not clear. There remains a critical dearth of knowledge and resources currently available to law enforcement to deal with the issue of ambushes and officer safety in critical incidents. Current efforts to promote officer safety and wellness should do more to disseminate resources widely and penetrate the field. Agencies need access to or expertise in specialized training that they can adapt for their own use. Lastly, the law enforcement community needs to better share information regarding critical incidents so that agencies can learn from each other and then act on their own initiative to protect officers.

To coordinate, ask questions, or share your thoughts on this project, please contact the Principal Investigator, George Fachner at, or IACP Project Manager for Officer Safety and Wellness Initiatives, Ian Hamilton at ♦

1 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), Uniform Crime Reports, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA), 2011, (accessed December 17, 2013).
2U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), Uniform Crime Reports, LEOKA, 2012, (accessed December 17, 2013).
3U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS), Uniform Crime Reports, LEOKA, 1990; LEOKA, 1993; LEOKA, 2008; LEOKA, 2009; LEOKA, 2010; LEOKA, 2011; and LEOKA 2012.

This project is supported by Cooperative Agreement 2011-CK-WXK036 awarded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions contained herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. References to specific agencies, companies, products, or services should not be considered an endorsement by the author(s) or the U.S. Department of Justice. Rather, the references are illustrations to supplement discussion of the issues.

Please cite as:

Angie De Groot and George Fachner, “Protecting Officers from Ambush Attacks: Key Insights from Law Enforcement Executives,” Officer Safety Corner, The Police Chief 81 (February 2014): 10–11.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 2, February 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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