Bushwhacked, dry-gulched, ambushed, waylaid — whatever you want to call it, law enforcement officers are being attacked and killed while seated in their patrol vehicles. The Officer Down Memorial Page lists 146 police deaths in the line of duty in 2016, and 16 of those centered on ambush-style killings, matching 2014 as the deadliest year for such attacks, according to USA Today.

There are essentially two types of ambushes befalling police officers: carefully planned and spur-of-the-moment. Fortunately, carefully planned ambushes on police officers are rare. Having been involved in the planning and execution of ambushes in Vietnam, I can attest to the fact that the likelihood of surviving one is slim to none.

The unplanned ambush can be sudden and deadly with little, if any, forewarning. Officers have been shot and killed while seated in their patrol unit writing a report or doing other required paperwork. Officers have been attacked in their vehicles while waiting in line at a fast food drive-thru or by simply driving down the street on routine patrol.

A police officer should never drive a marked police car without wearing soft body armor. As accommodating as it may be, taking a marked car to the range or anywhere else while in civilian clothing without wearing soft body armor is a dangerous habit. Soft body armor has saved approximately 2,400 lives, and can only save yours if you're wearing it.

A marked patrol car or a uniformed officer can become a target at anytime and anywhere, requiring police officers to think tactically whenever on duty.

Tactical thinking

Tactical thinking simply means being prepared to evade a critical incident and defend your life with deadly force should it become necessary. As simple as that sounds, thinking tactically requires advanced tactical training.

Being attacked in or near vehicles presents several uncommon problems. Officers may not know where the fire is coming from, who is involved, weapon type, any possible escape routes, available cover, and they may not have the time to sort it all out.

The worst thing an officer can do in an ambush situation is hesitate and do nothing. If at all possible, either drive or back out of the attack area, stay low and use the bulk of the unit for cover. Patrol units can provide protection or become a trap, depending on the officer's training. The car's engine block, body, firewall and doors can provide protection against incoming fire.

For my personal knowledge, I have shot into and from inside several cars with handguns, rifles and shotguns. The knowledge I accumulated from this live-fire testing proved invaluable when training officers how to successfully engage targets when firing into and from inside automobiles.

The side glass provides little to no protection, and when hit by bullets, it will burst into hundreds of small flying sharp-edged projectiles unless the glass has been tinted. Aftermarket tinted glass will not burst when hit with bullets; it will stay in one piece and spider web, making it impossible to see through, and any additional hits will simply leave another hole. There is little if any bullet deformation, deflection or velocity loss when shooting through rear windows or side glass at 90 degrees.

The front windshields of automobiles are made of safety glass and are extremely destructive to small-arms projectiles. When penetrating safety glass, small-arms projectiles cause little damage, leaving a small hole and a few cracks around the hole. Bullet jackets will routinely separate from the core when fired into automobile safety glass and either deflect up or down.

Caliber and/or velocity had little bearing on the end result when fired through automobile safety glass. The slope of the windshield will deflect bullets up when firing from inside the unit, and will deflect them down when firing into a car.

The only bullets that always defeat safety glass and stay in one piece without jacket core separation are bonded bullets. The windshield will still cause a substantial loss in velocity along with bullet deformation and deflection. I have never seen jacket separation occur with bonded pistol or rifle bullets, but they do deflect and deform when penetrating safety glass.

The amount of bullet deflection and velocity loss is substantial at a close range. When fired into or from inside a car, bullets will deflect from 4 to 8 inches at a distance of approximately 8 feet. When firing from inside the unit through the windshield, aim low, as the bullet will be deflected up approximately eight inches after penetration.

While testing for the amount of bullet deflection, I also discovered a substantial loss of velocity when penetrating safety glass. The first round would not knock over a steel target that was calibrated to fall down with a centered hit from my 40-caliber duty pistol.

The reaction steel target was placed at the front bumper of the test unit facing the driver's seat. I found it necessary to fire two rounds through the same hole to knock the test target over. Selecting a different spot of the windshield to fire through resulted in the same first-round failure to knock over the test target.

When firing into a car through the windshield at an identified threat, aim high as the bullet will be deflected down roughly 4 inches between the windshield and the target. Again, it is necessary to fire at least two rounds through the same hole for maximum effect.

The shooting decision

If shooting from inside a vehicle becomes necessary, there are several factors the officer must consider, including:

  • the construction and angle of the windshield
  • bullet deflection after penetration
  • shattering glass
  • point of aim for effective hits
  • velocity loss
  • accessing the secured sidearm

The muzzle blast will force the shattered glass away from the shooter, reducing the possibility of being injured from flying glass. Using the car for cover and evasion are skills that officers must be taught and then allowed to practice.

Acquiring enough unserviceable vehicles with glass in them for each officer to practice from is a difficult task. However, teaching the officer what to expect when shooting through automobile glass and how to draw and fire from a seated position is not. A slide or video tape presentation of the instructor drawing and shooting through the glass while seated in a car will illustrate the effects of bullets penetrating automobile glass.

Teaching the officer to draw from a seated position without letting the muzzle cross any portion of his/her body can be accomplished with a chair. The techniques of accessing, withdrawing and presenting the pistol are uncomplicated and can be performed on any range.

Continue to Part 2