Rushing into High-Risk Situations:
The Roger Gore, Walter Frago, George Alleyn, James Pence Incident
DESCRIPTION OF INCIDENT
The dark highway wound its way down from the shadowy desert ridge, far from the suburbs where Jack Tidwell and his wife Pamela lived. The couple was heading home after a long family reunion, and it was already past 11:00. Pamela had fallen asleep in the seat beside him, and Jack—lulled by the serenity of the cool April air and steady drone of the Volkswagen’s tiny engine—longed for a nap as well, but he had to work in the morning and they were still almost two hours from home.
Without warning, an oncoming car whipped into a U-turn, crossed the median, and cut into the lane right in front of them. Jack braked hard and swerved out of the way, anger boiling up inside him as his wife, jarred awake by the sudden movement, gasped in fear. He fell in behind the car, a large red Pontiac two door, and started flashing his high beams while Pam wrote down the license number. The Pontiac soon slowed, and then started to ease over onto the shoulder. Jack asked Pam to roll down her window. She protested mildly, but did as he asked as he pulled up alongside. He leaned over toward the other driver—a rather mild looking young man—and, in a voice cracking with anger, told him what he thought of him. After threatening to kick the man’s ass, he added that he was going to call the highway patrol. The response he got was nothing like what he had expected. Grinning insolently, the other driver poked the ugly muzzle of a snub-nosed .38 out the window at him. “OK,” he growled, “just try it!”
As Pam screamed in terror and begged the man not to shoot,Jack’s anger turned to fear. Still, he held back panic as his mind raced for something to do. The glare of headlights in his rearview mirror caught his eye, and gave him an idea. “That’s a cop car behind us,” he announced.
The other driver glanced back nervously, and then dismissed the Tidwells with a jerk of the gun’s barrel. Before the gunman could uncover the ruse, Jack jammed the accelerator to the floor, pushing the little four cylinder engine to its limit as he sped away. Amazingly, the Pontiac didn’t follow. The area was sparsely populated, and it took about 15 minutes of tense driving before the couple spotted a service station. Jack stopped there, called the highway patrol, reported the incident, and gave a description of the Pontiac and its license number.
The Tidwells’ fear of being followed had been unfounded. The red Pontiac was still miles behind them. Its driver, a 27-year-old parolee named Bobby Davis, whose youthful, clean-cut appearance belied his violent past, had wanted to go after them but he didn’t have time. The careless U-turn that had precipitated the brief confrontation had been caused by his haste and frustration as he searched for his partner Jack Twining along the desolate highway.
Twining, like Davis, was on parole for robbery, but he, being older and even more hot-tempered than Davis, had a longer record. At 35, his trouble with the law spanned 20 years and included at least one charge of assaulting an officer with a deadly weapon. Davis and Twining were planning an armored car robbery, and needed explosives with which to blow the vehicle’s doors open after murdering its occupants. Davis had dropped Twining off near a construction site so the older man could case the site for explosives. They had intended to communicate with walkie-talkies, but the radios had malfunctioned. Davis had been unable to find Twining, and had been turning around to continue the search when he had encountered the Tidwells.
Not long afterward, Davis found Twining and picked him up. “Where you been?” Twining asked as he slid a 4-inch S&W Model 28 .357 Magnum out from under his sweatshirt and laid it in the seat next to him.
Davis explained what had happened, and, concerned that the couple may have called the police, suggested that they ditch their cache of guns. Besides the S&W Bodyguard Davis had pointed at the Tidwells, now stuffed in his waistband, and Twining’s .357, the men had 10 other guns in the car. In the trunk were four more handguns and three rifles. None of the weapons in the trunk would play any role in the events to follow, but there were three more guns in the back seat and two of them would be used with brutal effect.
Meanwhile, Highway Patrolmen Roger Gore and Walter Frago were in a good position to intercept the Pontiac carrying the two heavily armed ex-cons. The two officers, both 23, were partners and had been close friends since attending the academy together 18 months earlier. Both were married with young children (Gore had one and Frago had two), dedicated, and hard working.
Reports of subjects brandishing firearms were rather common in the area. Hunters frequented this part of the state and there were a lot of remote places where plinkersdid target shooting. More serious incidents of motorists pulling guns on each other also sometimes occurred, but shots were rarely fired and brandishing a firearm was only a misdemeanor in this state. Still, hotheads displaying firearms posed a danger to the public, and the officers were eager to find the vehicle. They set up along the suspect’s likely route of travel and waited.
Sixteen minutes later, their efforts paid off. A red Pontiac cruised past them, and the license number matched. As they fell in behind the vehicle, they could see it was a clean, conservative-looking two door, now occupied by two men, both of whom were relatively clean cut—hardly the look of dangerous criminals.
Frago—riding shotgun—picked up the mic and told the dispatcher they were behind the wanted red Pontiac. Before he could ask for backup, he heard Highway Patrolmen James “Skip” Pence call in that he and his partner, George “Mike” Alleyn,were just south of their location and en route to assist. Like Gore and Frago, Pence and Alleyn were youthful and relatively inexperienced. Both were 24 years old with less than two years on the job. Also, like the first two officers, both were married with young families (each with two children under the age of three). Unlike Gore and Frago, however, they had only known each other since becoming partners just a few months earlier. Nevertheless, they had become close friends and worked well together.
Gore and Frago were approaching an exit, and decided to stop the Pontiac on the off ramp. Frago called Pence and Alleyn, advised them of their intended location for the stop, and asked them to stand by there.Alleyn responded immediately by advising that he and Pence were waiting near the exit.
Frago activated the semi-marked car’s single red light, but the Pontiac didn’t stop right away. Instead, it turned right at the bottom of the ramp, continued a couple of hundred feet to the next cross street, and made another right. Frago radioed Pence and Alleyn about the change of location, then quickly updated it again as the Pontiac pulled into a crowded truck stopand stopped just inside the driveway to the parking lot.
Gore followed, and stopped at an angle about two car lengths behind the Pontiac and several feet to its right. With Alleyn’s words, “We’ll be there in a minute!” crackling from the radio, Gore jumped from the driver’s seat, took cover behind the door, and leveled his.357 Magnum Colt Python at the Pontiac. At the same time, Frago grabbed the Remington 870 from its rack, racked a round into the chamber as he stepped quickly out of the car, and moved up to the right-front fender.
“Step out of the car!” Gore commanded, but neither of the men in the Pontiac budged. Gore repeated the command two more times before the driver’s door swung open and Bobby Davis stepped out. Now following Gore’s orders, he moved to the rear of the Pontiac and assumed the classic frisk position—feet spread wide, body leaning forward and hands on the trunk lid. Twining was still in the front seat, making no effort to move.
Both officers moved forward, Gore on the left and Frago on the right. Gore stopped behind Davis and began to frisk him as Frago moved up to the right side of the car and stopped just behind the passenger door. A load of 00 buckshot rested in the chamber of Frago’s shotgun, but he held it in only one hand—his right—with its butt against his hip and muzzle pointed skyward. Twining was still sitting behind the closed passenger door. Frago reached for the door handle with his left hand.
Without warning, the door flung open and Twining pivoted out to his left, spinning to face Frago in a crouch. The bulky .357 glistened in his right hand as he whipped it up into firing position. “Hold it!” Frago cried as he started to bring the shotgun down to fire, but it was too little, too late. A ball of flame boomed from the magnum, then another. Both slugs tore into Officer Frago’s left side; one blasting through his left lung, aorta and right lung before exiting the right side of his back, and the other slicing through his left lung and lodging in his spine. He stumbled backward and toppled to the pavement. He was dead within seconds.
Officer Gore, his attention now riveted on the horrifying sight on the other side of the Pontiac, turned to face his partner’s murderer, his own .357 whipping up into firing position and spouting lead. Twining was already shooting back, but neither man’s bullets found their mark. Twining’s bullets—now being discharged under the pressure of return fire—were jerked low into the side of the car while Gore’s two shots went wide.
But this momentary diversion was all Davis needed to launch an attack against the distracted officer. He ducked away from Gore, snatched the short-barreled .38 from his waistband, turned and fired two shots point blank into the unsuspecting officer’s left torso. One slug ripped through Gore’s stomach and plowed into his spleen. The other tore through his left lung and buried itself in his spine. He slumped to the pavement, dead almost before he hit the ground.
Pence and Alleyn had been close behind; close enough to hear the shots and put out a shots fired, officer needs help call as they rolled up on the scene. It had been less than a minute since Gore and Frago had initiated the stop.
Pence whipped into the parking lot and braked to a stop just to the left of the firstpatrol car. Dodging a hail of lead from the pair of cop killers, both officers abandoned their cruiser and ran to cover. Alleyn had time to grab the shotgun, and he racked in a round as he ran to the rear of Gore and Frago’s car. He maneuvered around to the other side of the cruiser and up to its open passenger door. In the meantime, Pence had immediately drawn his Colt Python and taken up a position at the left-rear corner of his own cruiser.
Davis and Twining, now out of ammo, dove into the back seat of the Pontiac for the guns lying there—two Colt .45 semiautomatics and a sawed-off 12 gauge pump shotgun. Twining grabbed one of the .45s and Davis snatched up the sawed-off. They came back out of the car, guns blazing under return fire from the two officers. Twining’s .45 jammed after the first shot, so he threw it back into the car, climbed inside again, and grabbed the other .45. As he did so, a load of buckshot from Alleyn’s 12 gauge tore through the Pontiac’s back window, showering glass through its interior. One of the pellets struck Twining squarely in the center of his forehead, but the window glass had absorbed most of its energy. It tore his flesh but failed to penetrate or break any bone. Nevertheless, it hurt enough to enrage Twining, who crawled across the back seat, exited the driver’s side, and opened fire on Officer Pence.
Davis, who had been firing at Pence with the sawed-off shotgun, now focused on Alleyn. Alleyn, having accidentally ejected one live round, had fired the other three into the rear of the Pontiac. He quickly tossed the empty shotgun aside, drew his .357 S&W Model 19, and backpedaled to the right-rear of the cruiser, the magnum blazing. Alleyn managed to fire four shots before a blast from Davis’ shotgun tore into his upper chest and face. He slumped against the trunk as he struggled to stay on his feet. An instant later, a second load of buckshot crashed into his chest. Reflexively, his muscles tensed with the impact, causing him to discharge another round, sending the bullet harmlessly through the back window of the patrol car. Alleyn’s knees buckled and he tumbled off to his right, landing on the pavement to the right of the car. Still alive, but mortally wounded, he would not survive the ride to the hospital.
A new figure now appeared on the scene. Gary Kness, a local man on his way to work, had witnessed the last few moments of the bloody drama as he drove toward the parking lot’s entrance. Rather than drive by the death scene and out of harm’s way, he braked to a stop and ran to the aid of Officer Alleyn. The fallen officer looked terribly vulnerable where he lay, and Kness refused to let him suffer further harm. He grabbed Alleyn by the gun belt and tried to drag him to shelter behind the patrol car, but the officer was too heavy and Kness could see Davis standing by the Pontiac, shotgun in hands. After firing his own shotgun dry, Davis had picked up Frago’s. Apparently confused by the fact that there was already a round in the chamber—the one Frago had racked in but never fired—he struggled to activate the slide. A moment later, the 12-gauge suddenly boomed into the air. Startled and angry, Davis threw the 870 down, bent over Frago’s still form, and yanked the dead officer’s .38 caliber Colt Officer’s Model from its holster.
In response, Kness picked up Alleyn’s shotgun and tried to fire it at Davis, but a sickening click told him the gun was empty. By this time, Davis had risen back up into a shooting crouch with Frago’s .38. He opened fire as Kness dropped the impotent shotgun and picked up Alleyn’s handgun. Holding the revolver in both hands, Kness brought it up to eye level, cocked the hammer, took aim on Davis and squeezed the trigger. The magnum cracked, sending the bullet a bit wide to the left, but not without effect. After ricocheting off the side of the patrol car, a large fragment plowed into Davis’ upper chest. It wasn’t a serious wound, but Davis winced and began to retreat. Kness cocked the gun and pulled the trigger again, but a hollow click made it clear that the .357 was also empty. Kness’ courageous actions managed to rescue Alleyn from further attack, but the bloodshed was continuing off to his left.
Pence, still at the left-rear of his patrol unit, had been exchanging fire with Twining and losing the fight. Now seriously wounded, he was frantically trying to reload. Although the exact sequence of events cannot be determined, slugs from Twining’s .45 had slammed into Pence’s chest and both legs, shattering the bone in one. He had fought back valiantly until, after dropping the hammer on three spent cartridges, he realized the magnum was empty. Desperately, he squatted down for cover. After managing to dump six fresh rounds into his hand from the pouch on his belt, he fumbled in the shadowy darkness with fingers made unwieldy from stress, and clumsily fed them into the cylinder. He was inserting the last round when he sensed movement along the left side of his cruiser. As he raised his head and turned to look, he saw Twining there, thrusting the deadly .45 over the trunk lid into his face. “Got you now, motherf__ker!” the man growled as the large auto boomed in his hand. It was the last thing Skip Pence ever heard—the heavy bullet crashed through his skull just above the left eye and burrowed deep into his brain.
A third highway patrol unit came screeching onto the scene just a moment too late to lessen the carnage. Officers Ed Holmes and Richard Robinson leaped out, guns drawn and spoiling for a fight. There was brief exchange of gunfire, but the two cop killers had had enough. Twining, his .45 now empty, snatched up Frago’s shotgun and Gore’s revolver, and ran back to the Pontiac. Davis, who was still carrying Frago’s nearly empty revolver, was already behind the wheel. He fired up the engine as Twining dove into the passenger seat. Davis slammed the transmission into drive andgunned it, sending the big Pontiac screeching across the parking lot as one last bullet blew the remaining glass out of the back window. A moment later they reached the other side of the lot, where they found themselves boxed in with no exit and no way to turn back without confronting the two officers again. Both men abandoned the car, and fled into the darkness. The pair immediately split up and went their separate ways as officers poured into the area to close off their escape routes.
About 3½ hours later, Davis came across a pickup truck/camper with a man sleeping inside. He needed a vehicle to make his escape, but when he tried to steal the pickup the occupant, who was armed with an old low velocity .38 S&W caliber revolver, put up a fight. During the short gunfight that followed, Davis fired the last round from Frago’s revolver and was slightly wounded in the shoulder. Still, he managed to convince the man to come out of the camper by threatening to blow it up by firing a round into its gas tank. When the man stepped outside, Davis severely pistol whipped him and stole the camper, but his brutality bought him only a little extra time. Minutes later, he was stopped by two sheriff’s deputies and surrendered without a fight.
Less than an hour after Davis’ capture, Twining took a man and his family hostage inside their home, but not before the man’s wife got to a phone and called the police. Later, after the house was surrounded by officers of the Highway Patrol and sheriff’s office, the woman escaped with the couple’s teenage son, leaving Twining with her husband as his only hostage. By that time, hostage negotiations had begun. It was then that Twining made a chilling comment that spoke volumes about his mindset. When asked what had happened at the truck stop, he coolly remarked, “They stopped us. We were ready; they weren’t. One of them got real careless, so I wasted him.”
As the early morning hours dragged on, Twining eventually released the homeowner but refused to surrender. When it became obvious that further negotiations would be futile, officers dispersed tear gas into the residence and stormed inside. As they entered, Twining pressed the muzzle of Frago’s shotgun up under his chin and pulled the trigger. The officers, thinking they were under fire and in no mood to take any chances, opened fire, riddling his lifeless body with bullets.
The bloodshed had finally ended, but four young highway patrol officers lay dead and many more lives would be forever changed.
Gary Kness was later honored by the Highway Patrol for going to the aid of Officer Alleyn. Although his valiant efforts had proven futile, he had acted with selfless courage and compassion.
Bobby Davis was convicted of four counts of capital murder and sentenced to die in the gas chamber, but the state’s death penalty was later declared unconstitutional, so his death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment without parole. He recently died of an apparent suicide while still serving time in his state’s highest security prison.
DISCUSSION & ANALYSIS
This tragedy remains one of the darkest days in the history of American law enforcement. In terms of loss of life, it is the bloodiest armed confrontation involving uniformed American officers during the 20thcentury. But it occurred well over 40 years ago. As such, it has been largely forgotten by the newer generation of American police officers.This only adds to the tragedy. These four fine officers should never be forgotten. The terrible price they paid should be enough to burn their sacrifice into our memories forever. But there is another, perhaps even more important reason, to remember: The way they died has a great deal to teach us about officer safety. In its aftermath the Newhall Incident, as this massacre came to be known1, jarred many in law enforcement out of their complacency and launched the modern officer survival movement. Even more significant, however, is the distressing fact that many of the lessons from Newhall have yet to sink in. Officers are still making many of the same mistakes—thankfully with less frequency—but they are making them nonetheless.
The most obvious of these is the tendency to rush ahead into high-risk situations. Though every officer knows better, many still rush forward without giving enough thought to the possible fatal consequences of their actions. The following analysiswill address this point in greater detail, as well as a number of other key lessons from this incident—lessons that can save lives. We owe it to these four courageous officers, and all our other fellow officers as well, to learn as much as we can from this incident. Before you read the analysis, however, review the following discussion questions and work through your own answers.
TELL US ABOUT IT!
The Police Marksman intends to run an “Officer Down” article by Brian McKenna every few months. In order to obtain incidents that provide clear and relevant case studies, we would like to draw from our largest available resource—you, the reader. If you have, or can obtain, factual information on actual incidents you think we can use, please contact Brian at:
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1. Cases of motorists brandishing weapons were common in the area at the time this tragedy occurred. Should such considerations be a reason to discount the risks involved in dealing with armed criminals? Should the fact that this crime is only a misdemeanor in many venues have any bearing on the way it is handled?Discuss any other danger signs associated with this case.
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2. What might have caused Officers Gore and Frago to rush their approach after having initially taken cover beside their vehicle? Discuss reasons why officers tend to rush into high-risk situations. What can be done to alleviate this problem?
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3. This incident occurred long before the development of modern high-risk traffic stop tactics, but it is still common to see hazardous stops handled with a similar lack of proper tactics. Why does this happen, and what can be done about it?
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4. Besides the loss of cover, what additional hazards were created when the officers advanced up to the suspects’ vehicle instead of bringing the suspects back to them?
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5. How did the way in which Officer Frago handled his shotgun affect his ability to respond to Twining’s attack? What is the best way to deploy the shotgun when needed?
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6. Discuss the proper use of Contact and Cover.
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7. What do the suspects’ actions tell us about the way cop killers think?
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8. Officers Pence and Alleyn stopped next to the first patrol unit when they arrived on the scene. What other options did they have to deal with this situation more safely?Do you agree that your first priority when aiding a downed officer is to eliminate or drive off his attacker(s)? Why?
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9. What were the shortcomings of the barricade techniques used by Officers Pence and Alleyn? What are the most effective techniques for shooting from behind a vehicle?
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10. Would it have helped if the officers had been armed with semiautomatic pistols instead of revolvers? What if they had been carrying backup guns?
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11. Discuss the issues related to firearms training in this case.
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The fact that Davis and Twining were being stopped for a weapons violation was more than enough reason to be cautious. It is interesting to note, however, that it has often been speculated that Gore and Frago used low-profile tactics because brandishing a firearm was only a misdemeanor in their venue. Apparently, this line of thinking was rather common then, but few officers today would agree with this assessment. If Newhall has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that any weapons offense, whether a misdemeanor or felony, is particularly dangerous.
Similarly, we have to keep in mind that even minor offenses not involving weapons can and do kill officers with frightening regularity. Every encounter has the some potential to turn deadly, so we must continually assess the situation and scan for danger signs. In this case, at least three significant danger signs stand out. The first was Davis’ refusal to stop as soon as expected. Any time a motorist keeps going after we signal him to stop we must never assume that he is only looking for a safe place to pull over. It is much safer to assume that he may be delaying while planningan attack, accessing a weapon, searching for a spot that gives him some sort of tactical advantage, etc.
The second danger sign was Davis and Twining’s initial refusal to exit the car. Again, there may be various tactical reasons for an assailant to do this, and we must assume that he is planning something until we determine otherwise. Closely associated with this danger sign was the third one, which is the fact that Twining ignored the officers even after Davis complied with their orders, and then just sat there as Frago approached. Inactivity under such circumstances is a particularly serious danger sign and must be regarded with a great deal of suspicion. Officers Gore and Frago either did not pick up on these danger signs, or failed to act on them. Unfortunately, such failures are still common among police officers. We must strive to combat complacency by making it a habit to continually assess every situation for danger, no matter how benign it may appear to be, and not hesitate to take precautions when necessary.
Return to Question 1
Rushing ahead is probably the single greatest killer of police officers during known high-risk situations. Most likely, it also played a key role in Gore and Frago’s most fateful decision. After initially staying behind cover and ordering the suspects out of the car, they quickly abandoned this position of relative safety to move in closer. This action put them in a much more vulnerable position and quickly led to the bloodbath that followed. As is so often the case, this simple but significant mental error led to a number of serious tactical mistakes.Sadly, it is very likely that Davis and Twining would have surrendered without a fight if Gore and Frago had waited just one short minute longer for backup, and then taken the time to remove them from the car in a controlled manner. Considering Davis and Twining’s streetwise instincts and cool, calculating approach to the shooting, we can be reasonably certain they would have understood the consequences of trying to take on four officers in good tactical positions. Even if they had been foolish enough to attack under such circumstances, the outcome would very likely have been much different.
One of the most puzzling aspects of this case is why Gore and Frago, with Pence and Alleyn so close, didn’t wait for them before committing themselves to approaching the Pontiac. While we will never know for sure, it is important to note that there was little training in officer safety or tactics at that time, which may well have affected their approach. Even more likely, however, is that they acted out of overconfidence. They were young officers who had confidence in their ability to work together as a team, and who had very little experience dealing with noncompliant suspects, much less hardened predators like Davis and Twining. Adding to this problem may have been the fact that they were in a two man unit. For the most part, two man units tend to be safer than solo ones, especially when the officers have the proper mindset and have developed well-coordinated tactics with clearly defined areas of responsibility. They do, however, have one drawback. With time, the officers may come to rely so much on one another that they begin to think they don’t need to wait for more backup. Like any other tactical advantage, the benefits of a two man unit can be negated if the officers ignore basic officer safety principles, such as the timely and proper use of backup.
Return to Question 2
High-Risk Stop Tactics
In all fairness to the four officers it this case, it is important to note that the tactics they used during the traffic stop were pretty well standard procedures. High-risk traffic stop tactics were not well formulated or taught, and officers were largely left to their own in how to handle them.
But things are different now. Officers are far better trained in every aspect of officer safety, tactics and firearms, and this tragedy was the catalyst for many of thesepositive changes. Today, every officer should know the basics of how to conduct a high risk stop safely, but even the best tactics are useless if we don’t use them. Yet, sad to say, it is very common for officers to abandon felony stop tactics in their rush to take dangerous offenders into custody. Most commonly, they swarm the suspects, guns drawn, with little or no regard for crossfire concerns. Another common mistake is to simply rush the suspect vehicle, grab the offender, and throw him to the ground without waiting for backup, often with little regard for the possibility that he may be armed. There are a number of different tactics available for handling high risk stops, some better than others, but the basic ingredients for handling them safely are:
• Wait for backup before initiating the stop.
• If you must stop the vehicle before backup is on the scene (or if new developments during an unknown risk stop create the need for high risk tactics), don’t attempt to do too much. Take cover with your weapon drawn, order the suspects not to move, and wait. Under some circumstances, you may want to order the occupants to raise their hands and place them on their heads, or direct them into some other controlled position, but that is as far as it should go. Don’t try to remove the occupants until sufficient help is on the scene and in proper position.
• Maintain cover with your gun in the low ready position.
• After backup arrives use a controlled, well-managed procedure for removing the occupant, one at a time.
• Bring the occupants back to you.
• Maintain control at all times.
• Never rush. Time is on your side; use it to your advantage.
Return to Question 3
Entering an Area Controlled by the Suspect(s)
Considering the kind and amount of officer safety training available at the time, Gore and Frago handled the stop pretty much according to the book. Most likely, they felt like they had a fair degree of control over the situation, when in fact they did not. By leaving cover and penetrating deep into a Hot Zone occupied by two unsecured suspects, they violated one of the cardinal rules of officer safety, a rule that many officers still regularly ignore: Don’t go to them; have them come to you.This mistake was compounded in two ways when Officer Frago moved up next to the Pontiac to confront Twining. First, it left both officers dangerously exposed with nowhere to go for cover. Second, by splitting them up, it negated their ability to take any kind of coordinated action.
Moreover, since neither officer had established any actual control over Twining, he was free to move at will. Worse yet, his hands were completely hidden from view. As a result, Officer Frago didn’t see the attack coming until it was too late, which opened the floodgates for the bloodbath that followed.
A much safer tactic is to take cover and order the suspects to come back to you one at a time. This draws them out into the open while you stay securely behind cover, establishes a strong command presence, and keeps the suspects mentally off balance. They must now focus on what you are telling them to do, which disrupts their thought processes and forces them to rethink any plans they may have had to attack you. In addition, ordering them to come to you has the advantage of splitting them up and disrupting their ability to communicate with one another, which severely limits their ability to launch a coordinated attack.
Return to Question 4
Proper Use of the Shotgun
The manner in which Officer Frago deployed his shotgun also contributed to his inability to effectively respond to Twining’s attack. The shotgun is a very intimidating and effective weapon, but only if it is used properly. Like any long gun, it is a bit cumbersome at close range, and it is particularly ineffective when held muzzle-up at the hip. Twining obviously knew this, and he was too streetwise to be intimidated by the mere presence of a weapon that could not be used effectively against him.
If Officer Frago had held his shotgun—or his revolver for that matter—in the low ready position, he might have been able to get a shot off before Twining did or at least before Twining could turn on Gore. Better yet, it probably would have discouraged Twining from attacking in the first place. By Twining’s own cold-blooded admission, he shot Officer Frago because Frago “got careless.” A man who is that cool and calculating about murder would probably have thought twice about attacking a cop who was obviously ready to shoot back.
Because of its large size and more limited maneuverability, the shotgun is generally better suited for use as a cover weapon. When the shotgun is used in this way, the cover officer can stay far enough back to keep its muzzle at the low ready so it can be quickly brought into action if needed. This also avoids the problem of forcing the officer into a position in which he must employ the weapon with just one hand while the other is used for another task, as happened with such tragic results when Officer Frago reached out to open Twining’s door.
Return to Question 5
Contact and Cover
When Officers Gore and Frago split up with each one focusing on a different suspect, they could no longer provide effective cover for one another. This enabled Twining to launch a surprise attack against Frago while Gore had his attention focused on Davis. Then, as Gore instinctively turned his attention on Twining, Davis was free to attack him without interference. Gore and Frago had inadvertently divided their forces, and Davis and Twining used surprise and distraction to capitalize on this oversight with brutal effectiveness. Most violent street offenders have the instincts and street savvy to use opportunities like this to their advantage, and will not hesitate to do so.
The best defense against this threat is to practice Contact and Cover. Contact and Cover assigns specific responsibilities to each officer so they can work together effectively as a team. The contact officer handles everything that requires contact with the suspect(s), including interviews, searches and arrests. At the same time, the cover officer stays back and monitors the situation from a distance, preferably from a position of cover. He remains in the background, and does not become involved in the encounter unless his partner gets into trouble or he perceives some other threat. This tactic keeps the cover officer from becoming distracted through direct involvement with the suspect(s). As a result, he can maintain a broad view of the entire scene as he focuses exclusively on the task of providing cover. Moreover, he can maintain a more objectively assessment of the situation, unhampered by anger or any of the other emotions that can enter into a street encounter and cloud judgment. Finally, practicing Contact and Cover may well discourage resistance by sending a clear message to the suspects that the officers are well prepared to deal with any threat.
This is not meant to imply that the use of Contact and Coveralone would necessarily have enabled Gore and Frago to safely approach Davis and Twining without backup. Contact and Cover is an essential officer safety tactic, and its use here would have greatly improved their chances of winning the encounter, but they knew they were dealing with at least one armed suspect. Two officers may not be enough under such circumstances, no matter how well they are deployed. Extra backup adds an important additional measure of safety, as does the use of proper felony stop tactics. Officers should make use of every tactical advantage available to them when confronting any armed suspect.
Return to Question 6
Cop Killer Mindset
This incident offers a prime example of the way many cop killers think. Acting on predator like instincts, Davis and Twining quickly assessed Gore and Frago as possible targets, immediately sensed their vulnerability, and promptly took advantage of it. The idea of being identified obviously didn’t seem to bother them either, because they willingly attacked the officers in a well-lit parking lot with some 30 witnesses looking on. People who are willing to kill police officers generally don’t worry much about long-term consequences. When they see something standing in the way of their immediate goals, like an officer who is about to take away their freedom, they often act solely on impulse and take the first opportunity to eliminate the obstacle. These people possess a potential for violence that far exceeds that of the ordinary street criminal we deal with every day. Even though we rarely encounter such individuals, the potential is always there. We cannot afford to let our guard down, cut corners when it comes to tactics, or be anything less than fully prepared at all times.
Return to Question 7
Stopping in the Hot Zone
Officers Pence and Alleyn were thrust into a very dangerous situation as soon as they arrived on the scene. They showed admirable courage by stopping where they did and rushing into the fight, but the results were as catastrophic as they were valiant. Despite the great urgency of the situation, it wasn’t necessary for them to abandon good tactics or rush their approach. In retrospect, it would have been much safer—and more effective—to have cut their lights, sped past the scene, and stopped a short distance down the road where they could exit their car more safely. From that position, they could have paused briefly to decide on their next move, moved to an advantageous position of their own choosing, and opened fire on the cop killers from there. Faced with such a counterattack, it is very likely Davis and Twining would have fled the area, especially when Holmes and Robinson arrived a few moments later to add their firepower to the fight.
The idea is to exit the Hot Zone, not permanently but long enough to make a plan; then deploy for a counterattack and/or the rescue of anyone who is inside the Hot Zone. Remember, when another officer is down, your first responsibility is to stay in the fight so you can achieve your ultimate goal—to eliminate or at least drive away the attacker. Only then can you properly focus on getting the downed officer the medical help he needs.
It isn’t surprising that Officers Pence and Alleyn reacted as they did. They were under incredible stress and the mind tends to think in a simple, inflexible manner under such pressure. Something must be done to precondition the mind to react properly in a crisis like this, which is why forethought, preplanning and training are so important. Every officer should give at least some serious thought to how he would handle such a situation, and also consider incorporating his thoughts into a mental imagery2 scenario. Officer safety training should also include tactics, preferably reinforced with reality-based scenarios, for going to the aid of downed officers.
Return to Question 8
Vehicles as Cover
Although Pence and Alleyn took cover, they received all but one of their wounds while shooting from behind the cover of their patrol cars (Officer Pence’s fatal head wound being the only exception). This was not because the car bodies failed to stop incoming rounds, but because of the way they used their vehicles for cover. For the most part, Pence and Alleyn stood or squatted behind the patrol cars and shot over the vehicles, which left their upper bodies dangerously exposed (the most commonly used technique at the time). A far superior technique is to kneel or squat low and fire around one corner of the vehicle, leaving just the gun and a small portion of the side of your head exposed. Moreover, this position provides even greater protection when quick peeks and/or frequent changes of location are also employed.
Unfortunately, officers without proper training still commonly stand when firing from behind vehicles. Most likely, this is because standing is a more comfortable position while affording greater freedom of movement and a wider field of view, which makes it feel more natural under stress. By contrast, the technique discussed above is rather awkward, unnatural, and confining. It is also considerably more tiring, and is a harder position from which to shoot accurately. Consequently, officers must practice it until they become familiar, comfortable and proficient with it. Training in proper techniques for shooting from behind cars as well as other common items of cover is an essential component of any realistic firearms training program.
Return to Question 9
Considering the number of shots fired at Newhall (15 by the officers and 25 by their assailants), it would seem that firepower was an important factor in the outcome. In fact, it was but not to as large a degree as it might seem. Officer Frago never fired a shot, Gore only fired twice, and Alleyn’s revolver still held two unfired rounds when he went down. Only Pence was forced to reload, but that fact proved fatal. If he had been armed with a semiautomatic pistol, there is a reasonably good chance that he would have delivered a telling hit to Twining before the need to reload arose. Even if he had been forced to reload, he almost certainly would have been able to do so quickly enough to open fire on Twining when Twining advanced on him. Although not as serious a factor as some of the others in this case, it is worth noting that Officer Pence would very likely have survived if he had been carrying an autoloader.
On the other hand, it should be pointed out that a semiautomatic is not the only thing that would have helped Pence counter Twining’s attack. Speedloaders (which were issued by his agency not long after Newhall) would probably have enabled him to reload rapidly enough to fight back, and a backup gun would have eliminated the need to reload at all. Backup guns can be lifesavers in a wide variety of very dangerous situations, including disarmings, loss of the primary weapon, and serious malfunctions, as well as after your primary weapon runs dry. No officer should work the street without one.
Return to Question 10
Firearms Training Issues
Several important training points can be gleaned from an analysis of this tragedy. In addition to those already mentioned (the need for training in high-risk traffic stop tactics, barricade shooting from behind cars, and officer down rescues), this case highlights some important issues related to firearms training.
In Officer Pence’s case for instance, he was killed just an instant before he finished reloading his revolver. By loading just one or two rounds into the cylinder instead of all six, he would have had at least one live round to use against Twining. Though not an ideal solution, this would have given him a fighting chance. However, it requires a lot of mental flexibility to come up with creative solutions to unexpected problems, and mental flexibility is in short supply under extreme stress of armed combat. Without training, most officers would do exactly what Pence did, and reload all six as dictated by their training.Furthermore, unless they positioned the cylinder properly before closing it, it is likely they would have to pull the trigger more than once before the gun discharged. This can be distracting, and can lead to fear and even panic over the belief that the weapon is malfunctioning. When training officers to use this technique, it is important to make sure they know how to correctly position the cylinder, and are fully aware that they might have to pull the trigger several times before the hammer lands on a live round.3
Granted, this skill isn’t needed when carrying a semiautomatic, but many officers still carry revolvers as backup and off-duty weapons. In that case, knowing what to do when rushed to load revolvers can save your life.
But an even more criticalpoint to consider here is the importance of training our officers to deal with a variety of real-world problems. Malfunction drills, quick reloads, drawing and shooting with the support hand, weapon retention, and close-range firearms training are prime examples.
Also, despite the fact that Gore, Alleyn and Pence were carrying .357 magnums, there is no record they ever trained with anything but .38 target loads. This was a very common practice at the time, as was the fact that officers were routinely trained to shoot one-handed from a rigid Olympic-style shooting position. These factors may well have played a part in the officers’ failure to score any significant hits. It is one of the legacies of Newhall that many departments re-examined their firearms training in its aftermath, and made it more street relevant. Sadly, however, a good number of police agencies still routinely use cheaper target-grade ammunition, and many have not yet moved beyond the standard qualification course as their only range training. Some never learn.
Return to Question 11
Concealable body armor was not available to patrol officers when this tragedy occurred, but it is today. Officers Gore and Frago would almost certainly have lived if they had been wearing body armor. Besides saving their own lives, this would have given them a good chance to stop Davis and Twining before Pence and Alleyn were drawn into the bloodbath. Alleyn might also have survived his wounds, and Pence may have been able to reload more quickly if he had not been so seriously wounded by the bullet to his chest. Still, many officers fail to avail themselves of this lifesaving piece of equipment. By doing so, they not only put themselves in much greater jeopardy, but they also jeopardize the lives of their fellow officers and citizens who are counting on them.
. Take any crime involving the use or possession of weapons seriously, regardless of whether they are felonies or misdemeanors or how common such incidents may be.
.Never rush into dangerous situations. Take your time.
. Practice appropriate tactics when conducting high-risk stops.
. Avoid entering areas under the control of suspects; instead, order them to come to you.
. Deploy the shotgun properly. Failure to do so will often negate its effectiveness.
. Always use Contact and Cover when working with a backup officer.
. Don’t stop in the Hot Zone. Proceed through it and then stop at a safe location before deploying to counterattack.
. When aiding a downed officer, your first priority is to eliminate or drive off his attacker.
. Proper technique is important when shooting from behind a vehicle for cover, but practice is needed to properly develop this skill. Firearms training must include realistic vehicle barricade shooting techniques.
. Firearms training must be geared to the real world in order to be truly effective in preparing officers to win on the streets.
. Body armor is essential not only to the safety of the officer wearing it, but to the safety of his fellow officers and citizens as well.
1. The incident was so named because it occurred in the unincorporated city of Newhall, Calif.
2. For those who may be unfamiliar with this term, mental imagery is a mental exercise in which the officer gets into a relaxed state and then imagines becoming involved in a lethal encounter in great detail, fights back, and, most importantly, wins. It can also be used to describe other, less formal ways of conducting mental crisis rehearsals.
3. The Newhall incident is the shooting in which it has often been said that one of the officers (Officer Pence) was found with empty cartridge cases in his pants pocket because he had been trained to put them there instead of dumping them on the ground. This rumor has since been disproven;4 nevertheless, it is worth remembering that bad habits formed on the range and during other training can lead to tragic consequences. Great care must be taken in what we teach our officers, because, as we know all too well, the training we give them will guide their actions under the stress of actual combat on the street.
4. Ayoob, M. “The Ayoob Files: More Info on Newhall,”American Handgunner. (Nov/Dec, 2012), pp. 88-89.
5. This article originally appeared the Nov/Dec, 2003 issue of The Police Marksman, and later as Chapter 3 of Brian’s book, Officer Down: Lessons from the Streets. The analysis was updated with new information for the new Police Marksman.
Brian McKenna is a retired lieutenant from the Hazelwood (MO) Police Department, where he served in patrol, traffic, mobile reserve and training. He is a 32-year police veteran, with a strong background in police training at both the recruit and in-service levels, and served his department as lead firearms instructor as well as in various other training functions. He is a state-certified police instructor, and holds a Master’s Degree in human resource development. Brian is a member of ILEETA and IALEFI, writes extensively on officer safety topics, and trains police officers nationwide in mental preparation for armed encounters and other topic related to officer safety. He recently completed a book based upon this column, Officer Down: Lessons from the Streets, which is now available for purchase on his website. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.winningedgetraining.com