October 14, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Confronting Ambush Attacks Against Police

• On October 12, two Boston police officers were critically wounded by a gunman armed with a tactical shotgun and wearing body armor in an apparent ambush attack.

• The incident came just days after a gunman in Palm Springs, CA, killed two officers and wounded a third in a targeted attack against police.

• U.S. law enforcement officer deaths due to gunfire are up 57% in 2016; since the early 2000s, an increasing proportion of officers feloniously killed in the line of duty have been the result of unprovoked ambush attacks.

• The increasing prevalence of ambush attacks against police significantly complicates efforts to bridge the growing divide between police and the communities they serve.


As law enforcement agencies across the country grapple with the fallout of recent high-profile officer-involved shooting incidents, they are also working to confront the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of unprovoked attacks against police officers. On October 12, two veteran Boston police officers were critically wounded while responding to a call for a domestic disturbance by a suspect wearing body armor and wielding a tactical shotgun. Less than a week earlier on October 8, a separate gunman wearing body armor and armed with a semiautomatic rifle intentionally targeted and ambushed police officers in Palm Springs, CA, killing two officers and wounding a third. Both incidents come in the wake of two high-profile July 2016 ambushes against police officers in Dallas, TX, and Baton Rouge, LA, which killed five officers and three officers, respectively.

While the ongoing public debate regarding the use of force by police has brought increased attention to recent ambush attacks against police officers, such incidents are not a new phenomenon. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), there were 526 ambush attacks against law enforcement in 1991—the highest number in the past 25 years. From 2000-2012, the average number of ambushes against police officers per year was 215. While this is a significant decrease from the numbers seen in the early 1990s, a 2013 IACP report noted that fatal ambush attacks against officers had risen significantly in recent years. According to the report, between the years 1990-2000, ambush assaults accounted for 12% of police officers killed in the line of duty; from 2001-2012, that number had jumped to 21%. The report also noted that while 36% of ambushes involved the use of a firearm, 35% of ambush attacks against police were committed with hands only. Another 26% of ambush attacks against officers were committed with ‘Other’ weapons—such as motor vehicles or other blunt objects—demonstrating the wide variety of threats that officers must be prepared to confront. The IACP study indicated that the survivability rate for officers encountering an unprovoked ambush attack was less than 50%—highlighting the fact that while these incidents occur with relatively low frequency, the highly unpredictable and deadly nature of their occurrence make them extremely high-risk events for all police officers.

While law enforcement is widely understood to be a dangerous profession, some of those calling for police reform point to the fact that the number of officers feloniously killed per year is relatively low. According to data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), over the past five years, an average of approximately 50 police officers have been feloniously killed annually. However, this number does not paint the entire picture. According to statistics from the FBI’s annual Uniformed Crime Report (UCR) from 2004-2013, an average of 57,346 police officers were violently assaulted in the line of duty annually. Of those, an average of 15,375 officers sustained injuries as a result of the assault. In 2014, the FBI’s UCR indicated that 30.4% of officers who were attacked with hands, fists, or feet sustained injuries. Any one of these assaults has the potential to turn deadly if the officer is overcome or incapacitated by the attacker.

In 2016, law enforcement agencies have seen a surge of violence directed towards police. To date in 2016, police officer deaths as a result of gunfire are up 57% from 2015; the NLEOMF mid-year law enforcement officer fatalities report—released in July—indicated almost half of officer deaths from gunfire in 2016 were the result of ambush-style attacks. As the aftermath of several tragic police-involved shootings of black men has clearly demonstrated, there is a very real need for serious discussions about the role of law enforcement in America, and how to bridge the growing divide between police and the communities they serve—particularly in minority communities with persistent tensions with law enforcement. Proponents of police reform—as well as all Americans—are absolutely justified in demanding accountability and transparency amongst law enforcement. But discussions over the issue of police use of force must take into account the full scope of the dangers officers face. While the annual number of officer fatalities has remained relatively stable over the past decade, the possibility of unprovoked, violent attacks against law enforcement are an increasingly common reality police officers across the country face every day.


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