At least one of the officers was an accomplished marksman by the standards of their day, but little focus on actually drawing from their duty gear and reloading under fighting conditions, to name only a few issues that today would be considered deficits, combined with tactical errors made during the ambush, and these could not be overcome by superb bull’s-eye targets turned in during training. Wood describes the firearms training at the CHP academy as “rudimentary and ill suited to prepare them for a real gunfight.”

The California Highway Patrol determinedly pursued the image of sharply uniformed, helpful officers, enforcing traffic safety to the exclusion of what he describes as the “grittier law enforcement roles.” Supervisors reprimanded officers who put a hand on their gun peremptorily. Shotguns, seen as too aggressive, had been provided for officers only seven years before the Newhall murders and then only one shotgun for about every ten officers. The shotgun actions were sealed so an officer could not chamber a round without breaking the seal and subsequently having to report why. Wood describes a culture in which aggressive responses were unacceptable.

Although he reviews shooting skills and equipment deficiencies like having to reload out of dump pouches, the psychological preparation of the felons to kill compared to the officers’ lack of preparation is defined as the deciding factor. Ambushed unexpectedly, the first two officers on the scene were so poorly prepared that they were unable to ever assert control. Plunged into a life and death struggle, the officers fought two hardened killers while concurrently “battling for control of their own bodies,” Wood relates sadly.

What effect did the officers’ deaths have on policing? Wood asks. CHP quickly changed the way officers conduct high risk car stops, no longer sending an officer forward to the suspects’ car, which had become a “killing zone” at Newhall, a change in agency culture resulting in greater latitude in how officers approached suspects, and changes in their field training procedures.

Applicable to private armed citizens, and taught in modern armed defense tactics, is the lesson to use the available time to evaluate the threat, not rush in if backup is available soon enough, and a host of reality-based live fire training changes, including use of speed loaders instead of dump pouches, better shotgun training, training with duty ammunition and out of daily-use holsters, dumping expended brass cases on the ground, use of realistic targets, weak-hand and one-handed shooting, reloading, night shooting and clearing malfunctions, Wood accounts.

The watershed event of the Newhall shootings, Wood writes, launched the officer survival movement that today continues to fuel law enforcement survival training, and those principles trickle down to private citizens, improving our tactics, too. Officer survival became the topic of many a magazine, journal, book and recorded work. For-profit training facilities sprang up to fill in gaps left by agency training, he notes.

Has it made a difference? Wood cites CHP tactics at the 2010 Oakland shootout, a conflagration lasting 17 minutes in which a shooter fired nearly 200 rounds from rifles, shotguns and handguns yet only two officers were treated for wounds from glass fragments and none were killed. Yes, it is getting better, he concludes. Still, low hit ratios in actual armed encounters suggest that firearms training still has a long way to go, and Wood cites a swing of the politically correct pendulum back toward limiting officer use of force through a variety of regulations. This is a contentious subject owing to the need to protect citizen rights weighed against very real threats to law enforcement.

Performance will probably lag until more realistic training, including simulations that trigger body alarm reactions can be accessed by all officers, Wood suggests, quoting the Red Baron who observed that a fighter pilot’s survival chances rose dramatically after he had survived ten aerial battles. Simulation training, more than qualification shoots, is the path to real change and implementing the lessons of the Newhall shooting, Wood concludes.

[End of Article.
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