Book Review

Newhall-Shooting-Book-184x300Newhall Shooting:
A Tactical Analysis
By Mike Wood
Gun Digest Books
ISBN: 978-1-4402-4099-7
Price: $27.99
Paperback: 6 x 9, 252 pages

Reviewed by Gila Hayes

Shooting students have long been taught the dangers of habituating range procedures that would surface during a defensive shooting by examples from the deaths of four California Highway Patrol officers at Newhall, CA in 1970. The principles were valid, but were the examples factual? Mike Wood, author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis, asserts that the facts disprove the myth. Still, to paraphrase, if we don’t learn from others’ past errors, we may suffer from making them ourselves and this updated study is full of lessons. Writing the book’s forward, Network Advisory Board member Massad Ayoob calls Newhall Shooting “the best and most comprehensive analysis of the incident yet,” noting that it “reminds us that the keys to surviving violent encounters must be in place long before they occur.”

What can be learned from a crime that took place over forty years ago? Although the deaths at Newhall were thoroughly investigated in 1970, Wood believes 40 years of survival tactics development clarifies why the officers were overwhelmed. He explains that the April 5,1970 murders stood for nearly 40 years as the “deadliest law enforcement shooting in history to date.” Given the magnitude of the loss, he was determined that the reasons Officers George Alleyn, Walter Frago, Roger Gore and James Pence lost their lives be tapped for lessons that could save others.

The events preceding the Newhall shootings and some of what actually occurred has not been widely discussed. Wood packs a lot of detail into his description of the clash between the four officers and two recently released convicts preparing for an armored car heist for which they had been test firing guns to establish their reliability.

Although they performed the high-risk car stop just as they had been trained, the first two officers on the scene were killed in less than two minutes of stopping their car. After firing their first shots from revolvers, the felons soon switched to a 12 gauge shotgun with which one officer was killed, while the other convict jammed one 1911-style .45 then grabbed a functioning 1911 to execute the final officer who was reloading.

This reload spawned one of the most enduring myths in firearms training: the report that the desperate officer carefully placed his empty brass cases in his pocket. “It is categorically false,” Wood emphasizes. Training changes followed that did indeed require ejecting empty cases to the ground, but this didn’t result from specific errors made at Newhall, he asserts. The myth and its subsequent training point was not without merit, he comments, although in the interest of accuracy we should acknowledge that Officer Pence did not pocket his spent brass.

What, then, can be blamed for the Newhall deaths? In the wake of the killings, CHP was fast to laude the quality of cadet training and blamed if anything, the men’s mistaken belief that nothing bad would happen to them. While CHP had some of the best police training of the day, the officers who died at Newhall entered service toward the end of an expansion that stretched the institution to its limits. Academy graduates vastly exceeded the numbers of experienced Field Training Officers who could help them transition from academics to street work.

Here, Wood draws an important and revealing comparison. The officers who died at Newhall had time in service ranging from 12 to 16 months, he writes. When graduated from training, they were mentored by relatively inexperience FTOs, one with a year’s street experience and another with two years on the job. In contrast, one of the murderers had been committing crimes for 21 years–since he was 13–and had killed at least two men. The other dodged an assault with a deadly weapon charge by joining the military, where he killed a fellow Marine. He later robbed banks, the sentence for which he had completed “less than nine months before the night Officers Gore and Frago pulled him over in Newhall,” Wood explains.