Fighting Back From Behind the Wheel
By Ken Hardesty
In the spring of 2013, our law enforcement agency was shown the need for valuable training first-hand, when we joined the ranks of countless agencies in an ever increasing trend—ambushing officers who are seated in patrol vehicles. While responding to assist in the investigation of multiple armed robberies, and a homicide he was not yet aware of, a uniformed patrol officer found himself being engaged while in the driver’s seat of his vehicle. The two suspects responsible for the string of armed offenses immediately jumped from their vehicle, charged the officer, and aggressively attacked him while firing multiple handgun rounds into his vehicle. Although he sustained multiple hits to his vehicle, uniform, and personal gear—one of which permanently disabled his handgun—the involved officer was physically unhurt, and both suspects were apprehended. While being interviewed, the remorseless suspects were confidant they had assassinated the officer, and readily admitted to planning the hasty ambush.
Violence against officers is definitely on the rise. A recent check of the Officer Down Memorial Page (odmp.org) shows a total of 63 line-of-duty deaths nationwide. Included in that total are 26 deaths related to gunfire, a 44 percent increase over this time last year. Worse, ambushes continue to be among the most common means of attack, and many of those ambushes are perpetrated against officers seated in their vehicles.
Even though our agency had already begun to develop specific training for this type of scenario, this event not only solidified the need for basic skills in fighting in and around a vehicle, it helped to focus our priorities for that training. We quickly realized that in order for this training to be successful, we had to develop ingrained skill sets, and then begin to build upon them. Paramount among these skill sets was the need for officers to quickly diagnose their situation, and respond accordingly. During the dozens of presentations to just over 1,000 officers, we constantly reiterated that this type of training is only applicable in scenarios where the patrol vehicle is blocked, disabled, or otherwise unable to move. The ultimate priority is to escape the hot zone, and driving the vehicle ‘off the x’ should always be the first option. We strived to create a trained response when the unexpected occurs. To accomplish this, we focused on three key elements:
-Removing the Seatbelt
-Firing through the Windshield
-Exiting the Vehicle if Necessary
Seat Belt Removal
In order to safely and quickly exit the vehicle, we demonstrated two different methods of seat belt removal, and using inert training pistols and marked vehicles, had personnel try both methods and choose the one that most suited their needs. Our primary concern was reinforcing the idea that the seatbelt can and should be worn on duty, and if trained properly does not trap the officer inside the vehicle.
The Claw – This method involves using the thumb and forefinger of the hand opposite the belt buckle. Finding their way down the body to the buckle hasp, the seatbelt is released and pulled away from the body, allowing the officer to open the door and exit the vehicle. When the seatbelt is removed, the thumb and forefinger pull the belt away from the body, thereby clearing uniform items and obstacles.
The Napoleon – This method entails placing the back of the hand opposite the belt buckle inside the belt, with the palm facing the chest, and then using it to pull the belt slightly away from the chest. This movement is very similar to the way the support hand crosses the body as it comes up to support the gun hand during a common draw stroke. Then, as the left hand holds the belt away from the body, the right hand releases the buckle and the left arm straightens, causing the belt to swing away to the left and away from the officer’s uniform and duty belt, unimpeded. This is my personal favorite, as it mimics a skillset that has already been ingrained.
Returning Fire From Inside the Vehicle
Live fire training conducted in and around a vehicle should incorporate a drill that allows the participants to fire through the windshield. The dynamics involved, including concussion and glass fragments should be experienced in a sterile training environment. Obviously, safety precautions should be strictly adhered to, yet the benefit of this exposure far outweighs the consequences of not conducting the exercise. For the vast majority of students I have seen perform this skill for the first time, it is an eye-opening experience. The sound amplification, concussion of the round (especially for partner officers in close proximity), and the fine mist of glass fragments inside the vehicle provided a real-time experience. It far exceeds what a simple description can convey.
The main contributor to hesitation for officers is a lack of confidence in their skills. For those who have not been afforded this type of training, some may see the windshield as a barrier and hesitate to discharge rounds through it.
Thanks to modern technology, we have immediate access to countless videos depicting officers involved in deadly force encounters. A common theme under extreme stress is for officers to fully extend both arms while firing in a defensive posture. This is a byproduct of quality training, and not altogether negative when in open spaces. Inside a vehicle however, it may become troublesome. Depending on the size of the officer and the distance to the windshield, fully extending the arms could cause the muzzle of the handgun to strike the windshield, which could potentially push the gun out of battery. To combat this, one solution is to use the steering wheel as a guide. Training officers to place the back of the support hand against the steering wheel allows adequate offset for a pistol’s slide to function properly.
In a sterile experiment on the range, we removed a patrol vehicle windshield and mounted it to a large table with the approximate width of a vehicle hood. We then measured the distance from the windshield to the pushbars on a standard Ford Crown Victoria, and placed a target 3–4 feet beyond where the pushbars would be. Sitting at an angle and height similar to that of being seated in the driver’s seat, we fired three handgun calibers (i.e., 9mm, .40 and .45) through the windshield, striking the target. The disparity in point of aim, to point of impact was noticeable. Each of the rounds struck several inches high and to the right of the point of aim, with the .40 caliber round traveling almost 12 inches high and 6 inches to the right. This is worth mentioning to police officers, so they will have a basic understanding of the phenomenon. To easily convey this point, placing humanoid targets in front of the vehicle readily demonstrates the deflection of the rounds.
Exiting the Vehicle
Whether the officer immediately exits the vehicle to a position of cover, or, out of necessity, returns fire from inside the vehicle, the ultimate goal should be to separate themselves from the patrol vehicle. Despite being obvious as a target and cumbersome with its interior, a patrol vehicle does not lend options, and depending on the suspect’s weapon and round placement, a squad offers very little traditional cover.
We commonly see officers using vehicle doors as cover on felony car stops. To test this theory, we detached a police vehicle driver’s door and mounted it upright on a stand at the approximate height it would be if on the vehicle. We then fired several handgun, rifle and shotgun rounds through the door from various distances and angles. All of the rounds penetrated the door, striking the simulated interior of the vehicle (See figure 1). Even if certain portions of the vehicle are capable of withstanding round impacts, we know that the potential for penetration is there, and that should be enough to motivate movement to cover if at all available.
On the average, rounds striking metal commonly found on vehicle exteriors will deflect 12-20 degrees in an upward angle and continue in an upward path for a great distance. Having spent a great deal of time in and around firearms ranges over the last 20 years, I have been told multiple times that rounds striking hard surfaces will follow the path of least resistance and continue along the same plane as the object it strikes. However, after firing all calibers of rounds at and into vehicles from varying angles, and teaching Counter Vehicle Ambush to a myriad of audiences, we found the continuous 12–20 degree upward deflection to be more accurate (See figures 2 and 3).
In the event officers have no other options other than the vehicle for immediate concealment, we consistently train personnel to provide a standoff of approximately one arm’s length. This mitigates the chances of a deflected incoming round striking the upper portion of their body; as well as expands the peripheral vision of the involved officer.
Law enforcement training is always driven by trends. Unfortunately, one of the most current trends is to attack our on-duty personnel when they are at their most vulnerable—while behind the wheel. Do your best to place your people in these training scenarios before they encounter them in reality. Always strive for a trained response, not a startled reaction.
Be safe, brothers and sisters.
Ken Hardesty served seven years in the U.S. Marine Corps before deciding to pursue a career in law enforcement. He has served continuously for 16 years in large California agencies. His assignments include Detention, Patrol, Field Training Officer, Specialist Officer, Academy Recruit Training Officer, Basic Academy Coordinator and In-Service Training Officer. Ken is California POST certified to teach Firearms, Defensive Tactics, Chemical Agents, First Aid/CPR and Patrol Response to Active Shooter.
Additional certifications include, National Rifle Association Tactical Shooting Instructor, Surefire Low Light Instructor and PepperBall Instructor. He is a court-certified expert in Illegal Weapons, and serves as a subject matter expert for the State of California in the areas of Firearms and Chemical Agents. Ken is principal instructor for Spartan Concepts and Consulting a top-tier training firm dedicated to providing high quality firearms training and self-defense seminars to law enforcement, security professionals. Ken enjoys spending time with family and is the proud father of two.
- The “Claw” hand placement prior to releasing the seatbelt hasp. This has the same effect, yet does not resemble hand placement on a standard handgun draw stroke, as does the first technique.
- The Napoleon” hand placement prior to releasing the seatbelt hasp. The effect of this position is it pulls the seatbelt away from the officer’s gear and uniform.
- Figure 1: Bullet holes through a car door indicating how easily a car body can be penetrated by various rounds. Every round fired penetrated the door and struck the wooden planks shown here.
- Figure 2: Targets indicating upward deflection of rounds after striking the horizontal surface of a car body.