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Hendon Publishing

Ambush Prevention: Develop Better Habits

Ambush! Whether premeditated or a flash decision, an unprovoked and sudden assault on your life is a real threat. According to the FBI, ambushes are the largest category of officer murders in the last 15 years. In the last three years, ambushes accounted for over 40 percent of the murders and resulted in hundreds wounded and hundreds more vest-saves or near-misses. 

To protect against ambush, many authorities provide laundry lists of suggested actions generally containing the admonition, “Complacency Kills.” We have been falsely taught that complacency is the bad attitude that kills cops. Instead, it is more how officers unconsciously evolve into their daily practices that contribute to being ambushed, injured and murdered. 

Complacency, or “a feeling of well-being or security, often while unaware of some potential danger,” is not an attitude, but the end result of habits. No one begins a career intending to be lax in their tactics. Complacent behavior begins with shortcuts, and everyone seems to take shortcuts. 

At first, you responded tactically to every call (especially if you had squared-away FTOs). Then came cutting corners because you saw experienced officers doing it. The message? “They weren’t killed, so I won’t be.” In some agencies, peer pressure negatively influences tactical behavior. “Why are you acting like this is a hot call? You scared?” More shortcutting results, and still you weren’t killed. After enough time this evolves into, “I haven’t been killed. I’m just that good.” Complacency, that habitual sense that because you have not been killed you are therefore “safe” sets in. However, luck is not a skill set. 

Complacency assumes a choice. It is not. It is a normalized habit. With luck comes the assumption that you are always sharp, attentive, on-the-top-of-your-game, and instantly capable of changing tactical gears. This is not police reality. You work when tired, sick, distracted, and are sometimes overwhelmed by dynamic situations. When faced with a suspect you didn’t know was willing or planning to kill you, tactical shortcutting is sometimes fatal.

Policing is more accurately described as a hazardous profession rather than a dangerous profession. The truth is that most calls involve no threat to your safety. Only a few may involve contacting someone who is willing to kill you. Problematically, we can only know who that is and if that call was “low-risk” at its conclusion. With 20/20 hindsight, who hasn’t thought, “Man, that was close. He could have killed me!”?

If your response to “high risk” calls requires dramatically changing your tactics, you may set yourself up during “low-risk” calls. Believing you can flip a switch and suddenly become a tactical ninja elite is magical thinking. Under stress, we fall back to our dominant tendencies or habits. 

Change your habits, and you change your response to every unknown or known threat, including ambush. If we substitute “low-risk” with the phrase, “unknown-risk,” how does that change your mindset? That change of orientation might change your routine tactical behavior—and your ambush prevention and response capabilities.

Ambush success results from managing time, giving the victim no ability to meaningfully react. 

While some ambushes are not survivable, most can be influenced by officer behavior. Good tactics give you an advantage of time and position. Time permits decision-making and response. 

Time allows orientation to a suspicious movement or a strange situation. This additional time to heed that tingling gut feeling and pause combined with superior positioning may foil that ambush. Habituating sound tactics, making tactical behavior your norm, decreases your vulnerability to assault—including ambush. 

Making tactical habituation your dominant response, and dropping that habit of shortcutting those proven safety principles, can save your life. It is only when you have a routine of habituating sound tactical behavior that the laundry lists of prevention and response strategies can work. Habits of being tactically sound create better survival odds than simple luck.


George T. Williams is the Director of Training for Cutting Edge Training and may be reached at

Published in Tactical Response, Nov/Dec 2013

Rating : 10.0

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Outstanding Reinforcement

Posted on : Jan 22 at 10:48 AM By Mark Pankow

How easy it is to fall into the 'lazy' way when you haven't been "bitten" over a number of years? "Practice doesn't make perfect, it makes habits." So this article is a great reminder that as officers it is imperative that we make or keep our habits sharp. Great article.

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