Article updated on April 6, 2018.
In the opening minutes of April 6, 1970, a thick cloud of gunsmoke hung in the air above the parking lot of a Standard gas station in Newhall, California. As the echo of screeching tires and a final volley of gunshots faded away, the fluorescent lighting of the service station shone down upon the bodies of three slain highway patrolmen and a fourth who would be dead within a half hour.
The “Newhall Incident” was the worst murder of law enforcement officers of that era. In the years that immediately followed, tactics, training and equipment would be scrutinized to see how they contributed to the loss and critical changes would be implemented.
The four officers slain at Newhall were youngsters. The most senior officer present had but 20 months on the job – the most junior, only 12. All of them had been raised in an agency culture that placed a premium on public relations at the sake of officer safety.
Putting Officers in Danger
In the California Highway Patrol of 1970, officers were routinely punished by their chain of command for “sins” that might harm the public’s favorable view of the agency. When the indignant recipient of a ticket lied about an officer’s “unprofessional” behavior, overzealous superiors sometimes punished the officer without verifying the claims.
When a patrolman made a solo approach to a carload of suspiciously-acting people with his hand near his holstered weapon, he ran the risk of getting days off without pay for his “aggressiveness.”
It took the patrol almost 40 years to issue shotguns, because the agency believed officers with long guns appeared “too martial” and might scare the public. When they were finally authorized, they were “sealed” with an empty chamber by placing a paper seal around the barrel and forend which would break if the action was racked.
An officer who found it necessary to load his gun and break the seal was required by policy to justify it to a sergeant and document his reasons in a written report as the sergeant unloaded the gun and applied a new seal. Inevitably, the policy (and irritated sergeants) discouraged officers from accessing this vital piece of safety equipment, even when the tactical circumstances demanded it.
It’s impossible to measure the influence of this culture on the actions of the Newhall officers, but it’s undeniable that they served in an agency that conditioned officers to avoid offending the public and second guess their every action, lest they be accused of unwarranted aggression. Could this have affected the Newhall officers’ mindset, tactics, or “officer presence?” Were the hardened predators they stopped that night emboldened to resist when they detected this vulnerability in their armor?
To its great credit, the California Highway Patrol made giant strides to improve their officer safety culture in the days which followed Newhall. Many other agencies throughout the nation followed suit, because Newhall was a wakeup call for more than just the CHP – it was the birth of the profession’s “officer survival” movement, which influenced every agency in America.
The Ghosts of Newhall
Fast forward four-plus decades and the ghosts of Newhall are rising to haunt us again.
As the widespread negativity directed towards LE drives a wedge between the public and the police who serve them, a legion of intimidated police chiefs, sheriffs and civic leaders are getting pressured to make changes in department policies, tactics, training, equipment and culture.
In doing so, police departments risk a return to the culture that may have contributed to the deaths of the Newhall officers. In 2015, LAPD decided to celebrate and award officers who potentially place themselves, their fellow officers, and the public at risk by refraining from using force when it was otherwise justified.
The “Preservation of Life” award will occupy a space previously reserved only for the Medal of Valor, the department’s top honor. Such an action seemingly indicates a tacit acceptance of the fiction that officers use unnecessary force too frequently, and need a “carrot” to encourage better behavior. It’s also likely a signal of coming policy changes, because an award for “good behavior” today can easily morph into penalties for officers who act otherwise in the future.
In San Francisco in 2016, the chief dictated a shift in tactics and policies intended to reduce officer-involved shootings by a stunning 80 percent, as if he somehow believes that four out of every five are unwarranted and avoidable. Under the revisions, officers are prohibited from shooting at moving vehicles, even though officers are regularly killed and injured in vehicular assaults each year.
Tactics for dealing with suspects armed with edged weapons have been radically revised by people who apparently don’t understand the dynamics and realities of these situations, as officers are now expected to engage these suspects with soon-to-be-issued gloves and long batons — countering deadly force with less-lethal tools.
In a page straight out of the Newhall playbook, pointing a gun at a suspect will now be considered a “use of force” that requires a written report by the officer and mandatory supervisor intervention. Welcome to the modern day “shotgun seal,” San Francisco.
Officers George Alleyn, Walt Frago, Roger Gore and James Pence gave their lives in a Newhall parking lot in 1970 to teach us – among other things – that we cannot allow politics to take priority over officer and public safety. Today’s law enforcement and civic leaders would be wise to heed that lesson, before ill-conceived changes lead to more police funerals.