Officer Down: Exiting the Danger Zone

By Brian McKenna

Description of the Incident

Edward Naughton’s first thoughts after being shot were of his brother and his parents. Naughton’s older brother Jim, a fire-fighter, had been killed in the line-of-duty just 10 months earlier, and Edward worried about how his parents would take this news. Still, he wasn’t particularly concerned about his wounds because, despite the fact that he was bleeding profusely from his head, he had not lost consciousness. And although he had also been hit twice in the leg and once in the side, his leg wounds seemed superficial, and his vest had stopped the pellet to his side. His greatest comfort came from his confidence that Jim was watching over him…

The shooting had occurred as Naughton, a 34 year-old sergeant was preparing to stop a truck that had been reported as “possibly stolen” (the dispatcher had not yet confirmed the theft). He had spotted the truck about an hour and a half into an unusually busy afternoon shift. Sgt. Naughton had already handled several calls, in addition to assisting detectives with a rape investigation. Earlier that morning, officers in a county about 50 miles to the south had exchanged gunfire with a bank robbery suspect in two separate gunfights. No one had been hurt, but the suspect had escaped after running at least two roadblocks and stealing two different vehicles. That kind of action gets a cop’s attention, and in rural areas, 50 miles is just next door. While handling his calls, Naughton had kept an eye out for the bank robber.

When the description of the stolen pickup truck was broadcast, Naughton couldn’t help but wonder if it had been stolen by the suspect from the earlier robbery and shooting incidents. It had been spotted northbound on US 27, headed in Naughton’s direction, just a few miles from his current location. Naughton quickly cleared from the call he had been working and headed for 27, where he stopped his patrol car in a pull off and waited. He didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes, he spotted a northbound vehicle meeting the stolen truck’s description. Traffic was heavy, and Naughton had to wait until several other cars passed before he could pull onto the highway behind the pickup. The truck’s rear plate was obscured by a tinted cover, making it impossible to read, but he was reasonably sure he had the right vehicle. He advised the dispatcher of the situation, gave his location and direction of travel, requested backup, and continued to follow the pickup as several units from the nearby police department took the assist.

Naughton’s intent was to follow the truck until backup arrived, but his plan was disrupted when the vehicle turned onto a dead-end residential street. Naughton gave the dispatcher his new location and followed, feeling a bit uneasy about having to make the stop sooner than he’d expected and at a location not of his choosing. In fact, he still wasn’t sure if he had the right vehicle, or even if the vehicle they had been looking for was actually stolen. Although he had the vague impression that the truck might be connected with the earlier robbery and shootings, there was no real evidence to confirm his suspicions.

Then, without warning, the driver of the pickup made a move that added to Naughton’s uncertainty about the situation. He pulled into a long residential driveway to his left and casually drove toward the house as if he lived there. Naughton wondered if he was simply following someone home. He picked up his mic to update his location as he turned into the driveway behind the truck.

He was still slowing down when the truck stopped and its driver suddenly leaped out, a short-barreled pump shotgun in his right hand! The driver, Sam Rainey, was an unemployed eccentric who investigators later described as an adrenaline junkie. Although he had no record of arrests for violent crimes, he was, in fact, the robbery/shooting suspect Naughton had been looking for. Subsequent investigation also revealed that he had stolen the vehicle he had used in the bank robbery during a home invasion, and that he had prepared himself well for his crime spree. His shotgun, a Remington 870, had an extended magazine filled with 12-gauge 00-buck magnums and he was also carrying a backup 9mm pistol. He had a good supply of extra ammo for both weapons, and was wearing level III body armor.

Rainey ran straight for the corner of the house, where he stopped, raised the shotgun to his shoulder and pointed it at Naughton, who was trapped behind the wheel of his cruiser, less than 25 yards from his assailant. There was no time to waste. As soon as Naughton saw the shotgun, he jammed the brake pedal to the floor, while ducking down and shouting into the mic that his suspect was armed. Then, without hesitation, he slammed the gearshift into reverse. Naughton mashed down on the gas pedal and, steering by feel alone, backed away, his tires spinning as lead peppered his car. Most of the pellets battered the driver’s side of the windshield, and the others struck the window of the driver’s door, left-front fender and roof. All but one ricocheted off glass and metal, but the one that made it through blazed across the space where Naughton had been sitting just an instant before. Rainey fired three more shots as Naughton sped backward down the driveway and across the narrow residential street. Naughton felt the car hop as it reached the pavement and crossed over it, then a sudden drop as it left the road and slid over an embankment. An instant later, he felt a jolt as the car came to a sudden stop against the trunk of a small tree. The embankment had been steep, but wasn’t more than six or seven feet deep.

Not wanting to be stuck inside the car if his adversary came looking for him, Naughton quickly pushed the driver’s door open, rolled out and scrambled several feet away. He drew his .45 caliber Sig 220 and crouched there with the gun pointed toward the house. Several seconds passed and Naughton began to think that Rainey had fled the scene. Slowly, cautiously, he moved forward, up the embankment and onto the roadway. Rainey was nowhere to be seen. Naughton decided to call for a chopper to search for him, but before he could grab his walkie-talkie, an engine roared from behind the house. The sound was immediately followed by the big pickup truck lunging straight at him from between two trees. Naughton fired, followed a split second later by Rainey, the flash from the 870 coming from inside the cab near the center of the dash. Rainey was shooting from behind the wheel of the charging truck, through the windshield!

Naughton could feel four chunks of lead slam into him, seemingly one right after the other, although in reality, they all came from the same load of 00 buck. The first thudded into the Kevlar™ of his body armor, the second and third punched holes through his left thigh, and the fourth crashed into his forehead, snapping his head back and stunning him. Still, he held the Sig on target and kept firing until the slide locked back. By this time, under the barrage from Naughton’s .45, Rainey had swerved to his right and headed toward the highway. Still stunned, but recovering quickly, Naughton called in that he had been shot, gave Rainey’s direction of travel and ran back to the shelter of the embankment. After scrambling down it, he reloaded his pistol, dropped his gunbelt, stripped off his shirt and used it to stem the flow of blood gushing from his head.

Help was on the scene within minutes. Naughton was put in an ambulance to be taken to a waiting helicopter for transport to a trauma center about 30 miles away. But, he refused to leave. Earlier, while taking off his shirt, he had lost the bracelet he wore in memory of his brother, and didn’t want to leave without it. He had felt it slip from his wrist, but had been unable to find it in the thick underbrush in his stunned and bloodied condition. One of his assist officers offered to look for the bracelet. A short time later, he returned grinning – he’d found it. Naughton thanked the officer, slipped the bracelet back on and settled in the gurney for the trip to the chopper.

In the meantime, Rainey was continuing his fierce efforts to evade capture. Officer Curt Lawson spotted him on US 27 within minutes of the shooting and followed at a safe distance while awaiting backup. Rainey soon realized he was being followed and abruptly turned off the highway, cutting through an open field to a nearby subdivision, where Lawson lost sight of him. However, by this time the pickup was running poorly because of damage caused by Naughton’s return fire (one of the slugs had punched a hole through the radiator and cut a transmission cooling line). Rainey was forced to abandon the truck. Instead of fleeing on foot, he set up an ambush for his pursuer. Lawson would have to pass between two houses to get back onto the street. Rainey backtracked, waited at the corner of one of the houses and opened fire as the unsuspecting officer drove past. Although the attack came at close range, Lawson spotted Rainey at the last instant and was able to move out of the line-of-fire as the deadly cluster of lead zipped past his head. Rainey used the momentary confusion to scurry out of sight.

Before Lawson could locate him, Rainey fled to another house, stole a mini van from the garage and sped off across the same field from which he had come. This time, he was spotted by Officer Stan Olson. After a short stand-off with Olson, Rainey again tried the tactic of accelerating forward while firing through the windshield, but – as before – he turned and fled when met with return fire. Olson pursued, and was soon joined by several more officers. After a short chase, Rainey abandoned the mini van at a car wash and stole another car at gunpoint.

However, Rainey’s luck had run out. He started to cut through the parking lot of an adjacent service station, but a high curb stood in his path. As he tried to jump the curb, the car jerked to a stop and would go no further. He frantically tried to dislodge the vehicle, but gave up as a crowd of officers swarmed around him. Now cornered, he decided to end the stand off on his own terms. He pushed the driver’s door open, swung his feet out onto the pavement, pressed the muzzle of the shotgun to his chin and pulled the trigger.

Sgt. Naughton had been correct in his assessment of his head wound. The .33 caliber pellet had hit at an angle and glanced off, cutting a deep gouge in his scalp but not penetrating the skull. The two leg wounds had also been relatively minor, the pellets passing through cleanly without doing serious damage. The pellet that struck his body armor had caused nothing more than the typical deep bruising. Naughton was released from the hospital the next evening, and returned to full duty two weeks later. He is still serving as a patrol sergeant with the same department.


Sgt. Naughton wasted no time exiting the danger zone when Rainey initiated his first attack, an action that probably saved his life. This was no accident. It was the result of preplanning. Naughton knew the risk of attacks like this one, and he had long ago decided how he would deal with them. Although the idea of backing out of the danger zone is nothing new, it isn’t something you have time to stop and consider after the bullets start flying. Preplanning, even if it entails nothing more than a little forethought about how to handle a particular threat, slices away at lag time and dramatically speeds up your response.
It’s interesting to note that backing up was Naughton’s second choice for dealing with an attack of this nature – his first choice would have been to accelerate toward his assailant. Accelerating forward is often preferable to backing up, but it could not be used here because Rainey had taken cover at the corner of the house. Naughton immediately recognized this problem, and it didn’t delay his response because he’d considered it before and had a backup plan. Preplanning, including options for dealing with various possibilities will greatly increase your tactical flexibility.

Dangerous Assumptions
Sgt. Naughton feels that he let his guard down soon after spotting Rainey’s truck because of uncertainty about its status. He initially suspected that the truck was connected to the earlier robbery and shooting, but there was no solid evidence to link the two. Additionally, he didn’t yet have verification that the truck was stolen, and couldn’t even be sure he had the correct vehicle because the license plate was unreadable. Finally, when Rainey turned off the highway onto the side street and then into the driveway, Naughton began to think the truck belonged there.

In deadly contrast to this logical assumption, Rainey was actually luring Naughton into a trap. It was only because Naughton had anticipated such a threat and decided how to deal with it beforehand, that the ambush failed. Naughton feels that his belief that the truck was not stolen led him to follow Rainey straight up the driveway, where he came perilously close to being caught in the trap. It would have been safer for him to consider the possibility that Rainey was trying to control the location of the stop and adjust his tactics accordingly. For example, he could have stopped further back, angled his car to the left and taken up a position of cover next to it.

Later, after he had backed out of the danger zone and waited for Rainey to come after him, Naughton made another logical but dangerous assumption – he assumed that Rainey was probably no longer in position to attack him, and that he might even have left the area. This encouraged him to prematurely leave cover and move out into the open without knowing his assailant’s whereabouts. Although he could hardly have anticipated that Rainey would come charging at him in the truck, it was not yet safe to assume that the danger of further attack had reduced.

It is very important to resist assumptions that encourage you to let your guard down too quickly. Remain alert for danger signs and plan for the worst. It should be pointed out that this kind cautious approach doesn’t necessarily require a conspicuous shift to high-profile tactics. Often, only a subtle change is needed and sometimes nothing more than a heightened level of awareness and mental preparation is required. It pays to be aware of anything remotely suspicious and gear your approach accordingly.

Countering Sudden Stops
The ploy Rainey used to lure Sgt. Naughton into an ambush was a slight variation of one of the most common tactics employed by armed assailants during traffic stops and pursuits. The assailant brakes to a sudden stop, usually immediately after disappearing from view around a blind corner, and then quickly exits and opens fire as soon as the officer pulls up behind him. In this case, Rainey casually pulled into a driveway as if he belonged there and took cover beside the house. But, the tactical principle behind this action was the same: to lure the officer into a vulnerable position directly behind the suspect vehicle and attack before he could defend himself.

The most effective way to counter this threat is to duck down in your seat and exit the danger zone post haste. Often, the quickest and simplest way to do this is to stomp on the accelerator and speed past the suspect car or directly at your assailant. Besides getting you away from the danger zone, this action is likely to catch your assailant off guard, which could severely disrupt his tactical plan. Also, if you are able to drive directly toward him, the sudden aggression of your counterattack will probably force him to rush his shots, freeze up or dodge out of the way, giving you the chance to stop his attack by running him down. Once past him, keep going to a point of relative safety, stop with your car angled to the right so you can exit the driver’s side and take cover without directly exposing yourself to his gunfire.

Of course, there are times when you can’t accelerate forward because of passing traffic, an obstruction, or distance (greater distances give your assailant too much time to take aim and fire). Under such circumstances, it’s better to back out of the danger zone. One problem with this tactic is that you must come to a full stop before you shift the car into reverse to back up. All of this takes time. In addition, if you haven’t practiced shifting into reverse while ducking down in your seat, you may have trouble finding the reverse notch under stress, which can lead to confusion or panic. Another problem is that backing up can cause you to hit an unseen obstacle behind you. Still, it is an unexpected move that quickly creates distance from your opponent and expands your options when you can’t drive forward. It is a valuable option that is well worth working into your crisis rehearsals.

Another alternative is to draw and fire through the windshield of your vehicle. It takes practice to be able to execute this tactic proficiently, but it can be done. Junked cars with their windshields removed can be used as props to allow trainees to practice shooting from behind the wheel. In some cases, trainees can even practice shooting through the windshield. If an auto glass company can be found that is willing to provide salvaged windshields. They can be secured in place over the windshield opening with duct tape and replaced after each scenario (see “Anti-Ambush Drills” in the September/October, 2002 issue ofThe Police Marksman).1 This requires a large number of windshields and a co-ordinated effort on the part of the instructors, but it is a very effective way to teach an important officer safety skill.2 Since, it isn’t always possible to find the time and resources for this kind of training, you can omit live-fire and train with non-functioning training guns using any vehicle.

Use of Cover
After successfully exiting the danger zone, Sgt. Naughton left the cover of the embankment to hunt for his assailant. Although this action reflected admirable courage and commitment, it left him dangerously vulnerable to attack. He abandoned a position of relative safety to venture out into an open area controlled by his assailant. I’m not suggesting that he should have remained hunkered down behind cover until help arrived, because it was important to determine whether or not Rainey was still in the area and in position to attack arriving assist officers. However, he could have accomplished the same purpose at considerably less risk, by moving along the embankment to another location before peering over the top to look for Rainey. This would have enabled him to carefully scan the area from an unexpected location behind good cover.

Lateral movement to a more distant location would also have put Naughton in a better position to counter another common threat. Assailants often use the patrol car as a focal point when attacking an officer. If Rainey had used this tactic, Naughton would have been almost exactly where Rainey expected him to be when he emerged from behind the embankment. By moving further away from his patrol car, Naughton would have made himself more difficult to locate and he would have been in a better position to flank Rainey. As it turned out, Rainey didn’t try to advance on the patrol car, but he was probably watching for Naughton to climb up onto the roadway at almost the exact spot he appeared. This made it easier for him to locate Naughton and launch his second attack.

Interestingly, Sgt. Naughton did move away from his car, (he believes he did this subconsciously for the reason just mentioned) but he didn’t take the idea far enough. Instead of moving further down the embankment, he stopped just a few feet from the car and then returned to the road near the spot where he had left it. Most likely, this was due to the stress of combat. It is difficult to think creatively under stress and this was a tactical situation he had not considered before. This is yet another example of the importance of preplanning. We must learn as much as we can from incidents like this and use that knowledge to plan for similar threats in the future.

Keep in mind, solid flat surfaces including roads, create a serious risk from ricochet shots. Bullets do not bounce off of hard surfaces at the same angle as they strike them. Instead, they ricochet off at a flat, low angle and travel parallel to the surface. Depending upon several factors, the distance from the surface will vary, but it will seldom be more than eight inches. This phenomenon greatly increases the risk of taking a hit to the head when peeking around or firing from behind barricades with flat surfaces in front of them (e.g., trunk lid, hood, counter top, roadway, etc). Consequently, it is very important to keep your exposure to the absolute minimum. Stay as low as you can, use quick peeks, change positions often and use all of the cover and concealment available to you (in this case, vegetation along the side of the road could have been used for extra concealment).

Also, stay back from the barricade. Unless you are forced to get in close, doing so offers no advantages and its disadvantages are significant. Your speed and mobility are seriously hampered when pressed up against the back of a barricade, especially when trying to move with your weapon in the ready position. Worse, you can’t get your weapon into firing position without raising up high enough to get your arms over the top of the barricade. This exposes your entire upper chest, neck and head to incoming rounds, including those that ricochet off the surface in front of you. It is safer to step back far enough to keep your gun raised to eye level as you bob up and down, with only the muzzle and top half of your head popping up over the top of the barricade.

Once behind cover, it’s best to stay there unless there is a very good reason to leave. If, as in this case, you have to move in order to locate a suspect, make sure to gather as much intelligence as you can first. Don’t be in a hurry. Carefully look and listen as you scan for danger and consider your options before you move. Don’t leave cover until you’ve picked a specific destination. Choose another place of cover, or at least a position of concealment. Decide on the route you will take and get there quickly. Otherwise, the chances of being caught out in the open, as Sgt. Naughton was, are too great to justify the move.

Body Armor
Sgt. Naughton’s body armor stopped only one of the pellets that struck him, but that particular pellet would have been the most destructive of the four. The two wounds in his leg were neither disabling nor life threatening, and the one to his head, although bloody and unsettling, wasn’t serious. The pellet that struck his vest hit just below the left side of the rib cage. It would have penetrated his stomach and possibly his large intestine, liver and right kidney as well. Even if not fatal, this wound might have incapacitated him or significantly hampered his ability to fight back, thereby making him highly vulnerable to further attack. By staying on his feet and continuing to fire, Naughton convinced Rainey to flee instead of running him down and/or firing more shots. Sgt. Naughton’s body armor prevented serious injury and very likely saved his life as well.

Naughton’s department requires its officers to wear body armor. The wisdom of this policy cannot be overstated. A police officer’s first duty is to protect those he serves, and this is impossible if he is taken out of the fight. It is in the best interest of the community as well as the officer, to make him as hard a target as possible. Departmental policy should require all officers to wear body armor when on the street – no exceptions!

Suspect Mindset
Rainey was armed with a handgun as well as the 12 gauge shotgun, and had plenty of ammo for both guns. He was also wearing body armor and had installed steel armor behind the driver’s seat of the vehicle he’d used to commit the bank robbery, and had abandoned earlier. When it looked like he was about to be caught, Rainey coolly took the offensive by ambushing Naughton, and later used a similar tactic to attack Officer Lawson. He also had no trouble shooting through the windshield of his vehicle, something many people are reluctant to do. Rainey’s readiness to do so shows a high level of aggression and strongly suggests that he had practiced the technique. Subsequent investigation into his background revealed that he was quite familiar with firearms and had done a lot of target shooting. Rainey’s high level of preparation and aggression were all typical of the highly dangerous mindset of cop killers. With predatory instincts and cool ruthlessness, they plan ahead and don’t hesitate to take the offensive when the opportunity presents itself. Considering the mindset possessed by people like Rainey, we can’t afford to let our guard down or cut corners when it comes to preparation for combat.

Winning Mindset
As has already been mentioned, Sgt. Naughton made a point of thinking tactically and planning for various threats, but his winning attitude goes well beyond that. Like most officers with a winning mindset, he displayed courage, commitment and determination in the face of danger, and he refused to give up. Despite a head wound that initially appeared to be serious, he refused to panic or dwell on the injury. Instead, he focused on fighting back. Then, after driving his assailant away with return fire, he fought off fear caused by his head wound by reminding himself that it could not be too serious or he’d be unconscious. He then had the common sense to seek cover before tending to his wounds, and went about that task in a calm, deliberate manner. That done, he rearmed himself and waited for assistance. Sgt. Naughton’s quick and effective response to Rainey’s attack, and the manner in which he reacted to his wounds, serve as an inspiring example of what it takes to be a winner.

• Preplanning is an essential component of officer safety.
• Resist the urge to make dangerous assumptions.
• Be prepared to deal with sudden stops with effective countermeasures.
• Take full advantage of available cover.
• Take extra precaution to avoid ricochet shots.
• Stay behind cover if possible. If you must leave it, move quickly to a predetermined location.
• Always wear body armor.
• Prepare yourself physically, tactically and mentally to meet violent threats.
• Stay focused on fighting back regardless of your injuries.

About the Author
Brian McKenna, a 31-year police veteran, is a lieutenant with a midwestern police department, where he serves as a shift supervisor, lead firearms instructor and in-service training officer. He holds an MS in management and development of human resources, is a certified police instructor with teaching experience at both the academy and in-service level and is a member of ILEETA.

Jarvis, Matt. “Anti-Ambush Drills for Police Officers.” The Police Marksman. (September//October 2002), p. 20.

2 If the training includes live fire, the firearm must be presented on target in a manner that is unfamiliar to most officers, increasing the possibility of an accidental discharge or other mishap. Therefore, safety concerns demand that the technique must be thoroughly practiced with non-functioning weapons, followed with Simunition training before conducting live-fire exercises. Also be sure to wear safety glasses when shooting through glass.

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