Blue Line

Unmasking the danger: Understanding and countering ambush-style attacks on law enforcement

April 15, 2024  By Rino Belcamino

Photo: Kali9/E+/Getty Images

Law enforcement officials in today’s environment face an ever-increasing malevolent threat in the form of ambush-style attacks. These attacks may take the form of a “luring/entrapment” ambush or an “opportunistic” ambush.

A luring attack is typically described as a premeditated attack in which a subject lures law enforcement to a particular fixed location to execute an attack.

An opportunistic/spontaneous ambush is an unprovoked attack without any long-term planning. This is typically a crime of opportunity and the subject usually decides to act as the officer moves into their area or where an officer may be preoccupied with other duties (i.e., investigating a traffic accident).

Countering an ambush takes a combined/actioned skill set on the part of the law enforcement officer. They need to be proficient in weapon skills, possess situational awareness, direct effective fire while in various positions, and be competent in reading and recognizing appropriate terrain that provides effective cover.


Here, I will re-examine a tactic that has been employed in SWAT operations against an armed criminal threat moving in a woodland environment and will apply it to various hostile critical incidents against a determined threat. This immediate action tactic is referred to as a “contact drill”. This aggressive, offensive tactic is employed to fight through a surprise ambush. It’s important to first understand basic ambush formations to be able to counter them. The idea is to flip and apply the speed, surprise and violence of action strategy against the attacker to penetrate their OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop process—creating an unstable decision-making arc for them. Producing this chaos in their thinking process may delay their decision-making while allowing the officer to take an action advantage.

Line and L-shape formations

In line formation, the criminal subject engages the ambush against the officer parallel to their route of movement. This parallel movement provides a direct killing zone (box) with supreme arcs of flanking fire to an unsuspecting target.

The L-shape formation typically involves more than one criminal subject. The long side of the ambush is parallel to the officer’s movement (kill zone) and delivers flanking fire. The short side of the criminal element is at the end of the route of movement and at a right angle to the kill zone. This delivers frontal fire that interlocks with the long parallel side establishing an overwhelming effective ambuscade.

It is important to maintain situational awareness in your environment at all times.

Employing contact drill to an ambush

The application of this immediate action drill is to reverse the subject’s advantage. Here, you will attempt to infiltrate their OODA Loop and stifle their decision-making process. The contact drill involves the swift reaction of the officer to a visual and/or physical contact of an armed, criminal ambush element. This tactic is typically used for a “near” ambush.

Step #1

Upon the initiation of the ambush, the officer should make themself “small” and seek available cover. This is why it is important to maintain situational awareness and hard wire cover, as well as emergency ingress and egress in your environment at all times. In a woodland environment, this may mean any kind of micro terrain undulations (earth features that will stop ballistic rounds).

An important note about cover is to understand that it will only be adequate if the criminal subject is stationary, and the nature of the cover is not prone to rubblization from repeated ballistic contacts. If the subject is mobile, this fixed cover position must be changed to adapt and not compromise the benefits of the position. Your adaptive movement has a second tactic of confusing your enemy where your fixed position is situated and returning fire.

Step #2

On contact, call out and attempt to identify the location of the ambush. Usually, if you are moving forward and contact is in front, this will be designated as 12 o’clock. One may also use terms such as contact front/rear, right or left. If in a group, spreading out will allow for superior angles of fire on the threat and will help to avoid natural obstacles and barriers to visual identification of the threat (i.e., trees, barriers, ground formation). The longer officers remain in a killing zone, the higher the probability of injury or death.

Step #3

Position your manpower in a line or parallel fashion. The immediate action then involves the integrated movement of your members towards the threat to overwhelm them. The actions should be in the form of a “leapfrog” configuration and the communications/actions may be as follows:

  • Call out “moving”. Do not move until you hear confirmation from your number two.
  • Partner yells out “covering”. You should move only when the cover fire is initiated at the armed threat.
  • Move to your next position. If another piece of available cover is near, move to it. If not, consider moving a shorter distance, using the three-second rule, and take up the same sequence.
  • Officers must consider movement in reaction to the required distance covered, terrain configuration and supply of ammunition. Consider select fire discipline, if possible.
  • Attempt to conduct flanking on the criminal element. This reverses the ambush to provide arrest or neutralization of the threat (i.e., Active Killer scenario).

Evacuation and reconciling position

An immediate action contact drill may be employed in reverse if the threat is at a “far contact” distance and the officer’s position is extremely vulnerable. The steps would be the same in a reverse bounding order with cover and move sequences. There needs to be clear communication in terms of key movement to identify terrain, cover or a rally point out of the kill zone of physical contact. At this point, officers could re-engage or garner a tactical reset.

Appropriate use

These tactics blend well into an urban setting application, especially with an active killer scenario. The main difference would be the descriptive environmental forms (i.e., cars, buildings, natural or made urban barriers).

Officers must determine when to appropriately deploy the contact drill. This assessment and determination will be based on a whole host of probabilities and could include, but are not limited to, the type of critical incident (i.e., hostile event), terrain and the ultimate decision-making factor: the scale of the priorities of life.

Sgt. Rino Belcamino is a 27-year veteran of the Thunder Bay Police Service. He spent 20 years as the Tactical Commander of the hostage rescue/SWAT team, as well as being the chief instructor. He is a Master Use of Force instructor, de-escalation instructor, a Master CEW instructor, and firearms instructor, as well as a subject matter expert in hostile events, anti-terrorism and operational and emergency planning. Currently, he is the NCO of the Training and Special Operations section.

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