12 lessons from the FBI Miami shootout

12 lessons from the FBI Miami shootout

On April 11, 1986, FBI Special Agent Ed Mireles and seven of his fellow agents fought against two heavily armed felons in a desperate battle in an unincorporated part of Miami, Florida. The five-minute gunfight resulted in the deaths of both felons and two agents and left another three agents – including Mireles – clinging to life with serious injuries.

The “FBI Miami shootout” was a watershed event for American police that’s perhaps best known for its influence on the development of better ammunition for law enforcement. Yet there are many other important lessons to learn from the fight. At a recent presentation for armed citizens and law enforcement, Mireles shared some from his personal experience with the group that included the following:

1. The importance of good communications

The felons recognized they were being followed by the FBI and tried to evade them by making a series of turns during the vehicle chase prior to the shooting. As they attempted to keep up, the agents in the lead car became task saturated with monitoring the suspects’ actions, evaluating the terrain and formulating a takedown plan. As a result, the agents were unable to provide timely updates on the location of the pursuit.

When the chase abruptly terminated in a vehicle crash and the gunfight began, responding FBI and Metro-Dade PD units didn’t know where to find their brothers, and it took several valuable minutes for them to locate the scene. Sadly, they arrived too late to have an influence on the outcome of the fight.

The experience highlights the importance of transmitting timely information and lends support to the tactic of transferring communication responsibilities to the #2 unit in a pursuit, to relieve the workload on #1.

2. The importance of gun safety

We talk a lot about gun safety during training, but your safety habits are no less important in a gunfight. At one point during the firefight, Mireles realized his Remington 870 shotgun was pointing at a brother agent’s back as he ran up to his position to reinforce it. Recognizing the danger, he raised his barrel skywards to avoid muzzling his partner and was almost simultaneously shot in the arm and head by a .223 caliber rifle. Mireles’ awareness of the safety violation saved two lives that day, because the bullet that would have torn into his heart was stopped by the bones in his just-raised left arm, and the agent he had accidentally covered with his weapon was saved from being shot by the involuntary trigger press that might have followed after Mireles was shot in the chest.

3. Physiological effects

Mireles experienced a range of physiological effects during the pursuit and gunfight. The stress of the incident caused temporal distortion, giving Mireles the sense that things were happening in slow motion. Mireles also experienced auditory effects, with some sounds muffled (gunshots), some amplified (distracting sounds from the environment, like birds chirping), and some completely masked (the warning shouts from fellow agents). He also experienced visual effects like tunnel vision. If an officer is forewarned about these common effects, then they are less likely to be distracting or disturbing when experienced during an emergency. This “inoculation effect” makes it important to address these phenomena in training.

4. The importance of target identification

Although Mireles had his badge displayed in the middle of his chest, the plain clothes worn by him and his fellow agents made it more difficult for responding patrol officers from Metro-Dade PD to identify the agents as law enforcement. The danger of a “blue-on-blue” shooting spiked dramatically when the felons attempted to escape in an FBI car with its blue light flashing on the dash, because an outsider could have easily assumed they were officers under attack, not cop killers stealing a police car. By the grace of God and the discipline of the responding patrol officers, no shots were fired at friendlies, but it could have been very different.

Circumstances can make it extremely difficult for officers to identify friend and foe in the chaos of an engagement, but every officer must know that they have positively identified their target as a threat before pulling the trigger. No officer wants to shoot an innocent citizen or officer by mistake.

5. Never give up

Mireles was gravely wounded during the fight, but never gave up. Even as he lay in a daze after being shot in the head and having his arm destroyed by rifle fire, he still maintained situational awareness, tracked the location of the felons and kept his weapon oriented toward the likely threat. Despite life-threatening injuries, he managed to move offensively and terminate the lethal threat, while fighting off an overwhelming desire to surrender to the fatigue that was overcoming his body and mind. Mireles said that he “raged against the dying of the light,” and through sheer will was able to stop the cop killers from injuring more agents and getting away. His actions demonstrate the power of a no-surrender mindset and serve as a model for all of us to follow.

6. The importance of Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (TECC)

Agent Mireles’ arm was turned inside out by the rifle bullet that almost separated it from his body. The massive bleeding from his arm and his head wound almost killed him and made him lapse in and out of consciousness. The gunfight happened before the advent of TECC knowledge, procedures and training, and the lifesaving acceptance of tourniquets as a first line of defense against hemorrhage. Had Mireles been trained and equipped to self-apply a tourniquet, it’s likely he wouldn’t have come so close to death and wouldn’t have struggled to maintain consciousness in the middle of the gunfight. His experience provides a critical lesson for today’s officers to take advantage of TECC training opportunities, and to carry a suitable individual first aid kit (IFAK) on duty. It also illustrates the frequency of hand and arm injuries in gunfights and warns us to be ready for single-hand shooting and weapon manipulations.

7. Improvise, adapt, overcome

In addition to not giving up, Mireles demonstrated the importance of flexible and creative thinking under stress. With one arm hopelessly damaged, Mireles had to find a way to operate his pump-action shotgun single-handed, so he could stop the deadly threat. Keeping his head, he devised a way to fire and reload the shotgun by resting it on the bumper of a car and reloading it with the gun braced between his knees. The technique “came to him” in the moment due to a superior mindset that was focused on problem solving and getting the job done, no matter the difficulty. Mireles focused on what he could do, instead of what he couldn’t, and he prevailed.

8. The importance of good tactics

Despite his severe injuries, Mireles made effective use of cover as he engaged the felons with his shotgun from a prone and sitting position. He worked the angles and calculated where he needed to aim on the felons’ escape car to prevent his buckshot from getting deflected by the compound angles of the windshield. When he made his last-ditch charge of the felon’s position to finally end the fight, he utilized available cover and concealment as he approached, enhancing his chances for success. His focus on using sound tactics helped him prevail.

9. Front sight focus

In some corners of the law enforcement training world, there’s a belief that stress-induced physiological changes make it impossible to focus on your front sight in a gunfight. That may happen for some officers experiencing high levels of sympathetic nervous system arousal, but it wasn’t Ed Mireles’ experience. While the combined effects of bleeding out and survival stress induced a strong case of tunnel vision in the closing moments of the gunfight, his sight picture was nice and clear as it moved between the faces of the two felons and steered his bullets true to stop the threat. A hard-front sight focus is important when precision fire is required, and many officers have reported achieving this in gunfights and making good hits. An officer who is experiencing a strong physiological response to stress may have a hard time moving from a target focus to a front sight focus, but if he can gain his composure, it will enhance his ability to use his sights and deliver shots with precision, as Mireles did.

10. Power of habits

After Mireles fired the final shots of the firefight, he was approached by fellow agent Ron Risner who told him the fight was over and directed him to secure his handgun. Although Mireles was under significant stress and hovering on the edge of bleeding out, he holstered his revolver as directed. Later, it was discovered that he had reflexively secured the thumb break on the holster. Mireles did this unconsciously as an automatic habit that was the byproduct of disciplined training. Under stress, we revert to our habits – make sure you program good ones into your brain.

11. the Importance of family

In many ways, Mireles’ battle was just beginning after the last shots were fired. His arm was terribly damaged, and it took a heroic effort to save it. He faced years of surgeries and rehabilitation. Mireles points out that his wife, Liz, and his soon-to-be-born children were key to his successful recovery. They kept him going with their support and love – including a few doses of tough love when needed – and tended to his physical and emotional wounds. It’s easy for our families to get ignored in the shuffle of police work, and Mireles’ experience demonstrates the critical importance of caring for this most precious resource.

12. PTSD and healing

Mireles’ honest discussion of his fight with PTSD and survivor guilt provides important clues for officers who might be struggling with these issues. Mireles reports that discussing the shooting – and its lasting emotional and physical effects – with the other agents who were there was a great help. Talking with trusted peers allowed him to understand that the emotions and physical reactions he was experiencing were a normal response to an abnormal event. Talking things over with the other agents also helped him to understand how his actions fit into the larger picture, since there was no formal group debriefing for the agents to allow them to piece it all together. This comprehensive understanding helped to answer questions and erase nagging doubts.

Mireles reported that he and his fellow agents felt a sense of survivor guilt and questioned whether they could have done something different or better that would have changed the outcome and saved their friends. It took years before Mireles was finally able to “forgive himself,” accept the fact that he had done all that was humanly possible and realize that his lost friends would understand that. Once again, Mireles credits the support of his family and peers for helping him to eventually come to this peace.

Mireles notes that it’s important to remember that PTSD can cast a wide net. The agents who were too late to the scene to help were significantly impacted by the event and felt tremendous guilt for not being there. The dispatchers who heard the terror unfold on the radio and felt powerless to stop it also battled with significant emotional distress. An event like this firefight sends out ripples in the pond that travel far, and officers and agency leaders need to account for this and provide help to all those affected – not just the direct participants.

Much more to learn

There are many more important lessons to learn from this pivotal experience, and I encourage you to get a copy of Mireles' excellent new book, FBI Miami Firefight, which discusses them in detail. PoliceOne readers should also monitor Mireles’ website for information about upcoming presentations and appearances because he’s a gifted speaker with a vitally important message.

Mireles and his fellow agents performed extraordinarily well in a dynamic, dangerous and difficult fight. Their courage, tenacity and fighting spirit is a powerful example for all who wear the badge, and I’m grateful to help share the lessons from their experience. I thank SA (Ret.) Ed Mireles and his wife Liz (also a retired FBI Special Agent) for sharing their powerful story with us here at PoliceOne.

God bless you all and be safe out there.