12 Mar 14

“Habit with him was all the test of truth
‘It must be right. I’ve done it from my youth!’”

George Crabbe

Hard lessons!

The CA Highway Patrol “Newhall Incident” of 6 Apr 1970 turned out to be a watershed event in American police culture and, more than any other single officer-fatality instance, represented the beginning of the “Officer Survival” crusade among American police. Four CHP Officers, Frago, Gore, Alleyn, and Pence, were murdered during the same traffic-stop, all within just a few minutes! Of the two perpetrators, one (Twinning) committed suicide when surrounded by police the following day. The second (Davis) was captured, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He committed suicide in prison in 2009.

As in poker, luck always insists in playing a role! During the Newhall incident, a single 00 buckshot pellet, fired at Twinning by Officer Alleyn from his department-issued Remington 870 shotgun, creased Twinning’s scalp, leaving blood all over the rear seat of the suspect vehicle. The wound, as it turns out, was superficial and had scant effect on Twinning’s ability to keep fighting. Had Twinning turned his head only slightly an instant before the discharge of the shotgun, and that single buckshot pellet entered Twinning’s cranium just two centimeters lower, it probably would have produced an instantly-fatal wound. But, it was not to be!

I remember the event well, as I was on active duty and living in CA at the time (San Clemente), and, shortly thereafter, I too became a police officer (in WI), and was significantly influenced by the “Officer Survival” mentality that was then sweeping through our profession. I paid attention, and it may have saved my life!

The earlier “Onion Field” event of 9 Mar 1963, involving two LAPD officers, I also remember well. I was a senior in high school at the time, but I already saw my future in this profession, ultimately as a warrior/scholar.

A frightening replay of the Onion Field event took place fifteen years later, on 22 Dec 78, again in CA. No one wrote a novel about this one, and it is thus scarcely known about today. This was the infamous execution-style murder of CHP Officers Blecher and Freeman. It occurred during an early-morning traffic-stop. Officer Blecher was found in his vehicle, handcuffed, with a single, fatal bullet wound to the back of his head. His partner, Officer Freeman, was shot multiple times, from the back. Details and sequences remain unclear, as the single suspect, Luis V Rodriguez, at the time nineteen, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, has, to this day, never talked about the event. He remains in prison in CA.

Today, a section of I80, known as Yolo Causeway, is designated “The Blecher-Freeman Memorial Causeway,” in honor of the two murdered officers.

The foregoing are only three of countless fatal incidents that could be cited. Grieving departments make changes (usually long-overdue) as they see necessary, but old habits and ways of doing things, and looking at things, are not updated easily, nor without plenty of institutional push-back. It seems these terrible events are always necessary to provide the catalyst!

We got speed-loaders for our revolvers and ultimately modern, high-capacity, autoloading pistols. We got shotguns in the cab-portion of our vehicles, ultimately replaced with military rifles. We got rid of cross-draw holsters and swivel-holsters, and the routine carrying of concealed, back-up pistols became accepted practice for patrol officers. We now all use expanding, high-performance pistol ammunition, a great leap forward in stopping effect. We’re now all wearing lapel cameras, Tasers, and body-armor, which has saved many lives. Small, high-intensity flashlights are now also standard equipment.

Departments, particularly big ones, still struggle with alcoholism and other drug-use problems among its members, but, at least today, we no longer routinely cover it up, leaving the officer to contend with the problem alone. Mandatory treatment programs are in place, and a developing addiction to ethyl alcohol, or other life-destroying drug, now doesn’t always mean the officer ultimately loses his job, or disgraces himself and his department.

Training, particularly safety training in shooting and combatives, is much improved. We now have scenario-based training and video simulators to add realism. Yes, it is still far from perfect, but still a significant improvement over the situation in 1971, when I started in this business. It hasn’t been that long. Has it?

As we thus prepare ourselves for relentlessly increasing levels of violence, one often-heard complaint is “the militarization of American police.” Barracks hats, ties, shoulder-straps, low-quarter shoes, six-shot revolvers, leather belts and holsters, and pump-shotguns have given way to baseball caps, boots, high-capacity autoloading pistols, synthetic belts and holsters, gloves, and military rifles. Longarms are no longer hidden in the trunks of patrol vehicles. They’re in the cab-portion in order to facilitate quick access, or they’re actually worn by patrol officers constantly, via one-point, or two-point slings. Many point-out that today’s police patrolman looks more like a Spec-Ops Operator than a civilian police officer.

I’m not sure what to do about that, other than patiently educate the public that this is the way it is going to be from now on. We’re never going back to “the way it was!” It is a legitimate concern, but a departmental obsession with “uniform appearance” is one of the things that has been repeatedly identified as an officer-safety issue.

So, police managers and executives need to never lose sight of whom we are and the Cause we serve, but equipment, uniforms, tactics, procedures, SOPs, et al all need to be flexible, constantly evaluated, and revised as necessary. Requisite updates, no matter how painful, can no longer wait years for implementation, lest another “Newhall” has to come along to jog us out of our false lethargy and naive self-satisfaction!