The Newhall Incident: Failure, Adaptation and Success…Or Lost Opportunity? Published in the latest ITOA News

ITOA Summer Fall 2014

Officers Walt Frago, Roger Gore, George Alleyn, and James Pence all California Highway Patrolman who died on April 5th 1970 while conducting a traffic stop, all be it a car stop with known dangers. It was known at least one gun was brandished according to victim’s statements after an altercation on the highway. Bobby Augustus Davis and Jack Wright Twinning both violent career criminals recently released from prison and on this day were actively planning to commit a series of crimes. On this day the deadly mix of officers, offenders and circumstances would collide and leave 4 officers paying the ultimate sacrifice.

This law enforcement tragedy known as the NEWHALL INCIDENT is a piece of law enforcement history and as such has taught us many lessons. The Newhall Incident was the catalyst for OFFICER SURVIVAL TRAINING and supposedly a new respect for the adversary and what he is capable of when confronted by the police. We now know that criminals are not all poorly trained and police are not all “HIGHLY TRAINED PROFESSIONALS!”

Are we applying the lessons learned?

Carl von Clausewitz said; “Criticism exists only to recognize the truth, not to act as judge” In this essay I do not want to critique the circumstances. Much has been written on the topic, including the recently published book by Mike Wood “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis” which is the best analysis I have read. (Mike, 2012) Instead, what I would like to discuss in this piece is our level of readiness and what, if anything, have we learned and applied as it relates to officer survival nearly 45 years after this incident.

To do this we must ask some critical questions to open our orientation and to understand there are many options, and not one school solution. We police need to debate enthusiastically, tactics, training and education as this helps our profession build better, more effective and safer (not risk free) options.

Critical questions asked, thought about, synthesized, analyzed and answered help us get to the root causes police misfortunes like Newhall. We learn how to think fast and slow and will be more able to structure strategic and tactical issues in real time and adapting them as circumstances require. Collaboration on development and realization of solutions to the complex tactical dilemmas police face both technical and adaptive challenges. “We can’t just look at our present experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experience and the strategic world we live in.” (Osinga, 2007) What Col. John Boyd is getting at in the above quote; is we must always question ourselves and our methods. We must resist doctrine which all too often becomes dogma.

What critical questions do we need to answer to leverage the lessons learned from Newhall?

• Nearly forty-five years after Newhall most law enforcement agencies have settled for mere adequacy in individual and small-team skills, can we do better?
• Why is it police officers of all ranks often have little understanding of the reasons tasks were performed a particular way?
• Accountants study math, doctors and nurses study medicine, and weather forecasters study meteorology, so why don’t police tacticians study tactical science? While the problem is pervasive throughout the ranks, it is most acute at the command level, and while a strong emphasis is placed on physical ability and prowess with weapons, good tactics have saved more lives than good marksmanship! Why then is this shortcoming so pervasive? (Heal, 2012)
• Most cops on the street could recite these lessons learned from Newhall. BUT are they applying the lessons on the street?
• Police officers are overly reliant on process, not focused enough on results (true in training, but also in planning and leading). In complex situations, will people not need judgment skills to follow procedures effectively and to go beyond them when necessary?
• Most institutional training still has a mechanical, check-the-block feel and was focused on throughput. Meaning we focus on getting candidates through training no matter what instead of creating nurturing effective cops on the street. Why is most training governed by inputs (hours, ammo, etc.) rather than outcomes or results?
• There is still a pronounced tendency at all levels of law enforcement to control by rules—each problem seems to result in more rules (policies, regulations, directives, etc.) What about people and their experience and their ideas on how to better solve tactical dilemmas?
• Training methodology, combined with too many rules, has it stifled initiative having police in training…waiting to be told what to think and do instead of them learning how to think and do?
• Providing trainers outlines or scripts compensated for instructor inadequacies. This may have prevented failure in some, but it prevented excellence in many. Our training methods often are not in harmony with human nature and rarely required real problem solving and initiative.
• Why does police training provide little room for experimentation, and mistakes? A mistake is what we learn from. In preparing cops, should they be allowed to fail under pressure and learn and adapt from those lessons?
• Why is most training still today, focused on meeting minimum standards and avoiding failure, not on excellence and effectiveness on the street?
• Faulty assumptions about how humans make decisions condition cops to fail.
• Cops in training could succeed without understanding the why behind their decision and actions, is this not a major problem with today's training? Don’t cops need to know the why behind their decisions and actions? Shouldn’t they be able to explain their decisions and actions? Wouldn’t this ability to explain our decisions and actions fluidly make better cops? Better decision makers? Better Strategist? Better tacticians? Better problem solvers?

How must police training, shift?

Police training must shift from training officers how to apply solutions and enforce standards. To instead, teaching officers how to frame problems and solve them. This is called “adaptability” or in other words police, must be able to make “an effective change to an altered situation”. The main difference is our acceptance that we cannot predict all the types of problems our officers will have to solve. So we must train officers who can succeed in almost any situation. (Leland & Vandergriff, 2014)

The training methodology for doing this is “Adaptive Leader Methodology (ALM)” Analogous to shifting from industrial-age mass production by fairly narrow experts, to more individually tailored crafting by all-around artisans.

To put things in context, most police cultures developed in a fairly stable, predictable environment and are very good at teaching street officers how to respond to certain well-defined problems. Officer and Leader training focused on how to apply solutions and enforce standards—very effective as long as the situation was predictable. Over time, it fostered a culture of bureaucracy, rules, and engineered “best solutions” (Leland & Vandergriff, 2014)

Adaptive challenges like the one officers faced in The Newhall Incident, initially, there is no obvious answer to the question “What is going on here?” Trying to define the problem at hand is a contentious act in itself. (Heifetz, Linsky, & Grashow, 2009) In conflict there are chaos, uncertainty, disorder, and friction that confuse and slow the decision making cycle down. You cannot predict exactly what’s going to happen next, because there are things going on that you cannot see or hear for example; the numerous thoughts going through your adversaries mind: "I will do what I am asked," "I will not do what I am asked," "I will escape," "I will fight," "I will assault," "I will kill," "I will play dumb until...," "I will stab," "I will shoot," "he looks prepared I will comply," "he looks complacent I will not comply," etc. Will the subjects cooperate, or not? Managing this uncertainty requires courage, tenacity, and an experimental mind-set: you try things out, see what happens, and make changes accordingly. (Heifetz, Linsky, & Grashow, 2009)

Adaptation and Success requires thinking leaders leading thinking officers

Police officer training must now focus on identifying the problem and solving it using the tools available. Policing must accept less standardization, more focus on achieving desired outcomes that requires:

• Ask more questions rather than issuing more directives.
• Leader judgment must replace detailed rules.
• ALL TRAINING must be designed to include decision-making and develop judgment.
• Law enforcement Leader training is the most important part, but by itself it is insufficient.
• Use real problems as the basis for training (LESSONS LEARNED FROM POLICE HISTORY).
• Generally start with the particular rather than the abstract theory. Let them solve the problem first then teach them theory. Yes it’s backwards BUT IT WORKS!
• Focus on the why not just, the, what and how.
• All teaching must combine doing with explaining and student understanding; all training requires employing skills to solve problems.
• Standardize by outcomes, not by inputs or processes—allow both teachers and students the opportunity to try new approaches—minimize controls.
• Create an environment in which it’s ok to make mistakes—penalize only failure to think or failure to try.
• Constant feedback is essential—and must be acted upon.
• Assess what’s important rather than what’s easy to measure.
• Align incentives. What’s rewarded? What’s penalized?
• Cross-share what’s worked and what hasn’t at all levels.

Are current training methods, making cops effective on the street in dangerous dynamic encounters?

Trainers don’t tell people how to solve a problem, instead allow cops in training to take ownership through discovery. Let them try it themselves. Let each individual do as much of it (SKILLS BEING DEVELOPED) himself as he’s capable of. Indeed make sure they understand the theory…sometime in the process and yes mastery of the basics is crucial to survival and winning on the street. Use the 70/30 principle, 70% of time on mastering basics; ~30% of time on applying them, incorporating problem solving. Begin with no stress, and then add increased difficulty as the student officer gains in capability.

There are numerous lessons from our history we must focus our efforts on. While at the same time understand that when dealing with people, complexity is always part of the equation. So we must train to a level of effectiveness that allows for full spectrum police officers to deliver full spectrum responses.

Honor the Fallen by APPLYING lessons learned

CHP actually used the word “Newhall” as an acronym identifying lessons learned to remember during traffic stops. I believe they are worth every police officers time. Not a checklist but as tactical options based on the unfolding conditions and interactions of offender, officer and circumstances.

  • N-Never approach a danger situation until you are adequately prepared and supported.
  • E-Evaluate the offense and determine if you might just be dealing with something more dangerous than it looks.
  • W-Wait for backup.
  • H-Have a plan (in other words, don’t just wade into a situation without planning every move).
  • A-Always maintain the advantage over the opponent.
  • L-Look for the unusual.
  • L-Leave the scene when in doubt.

The Pathways of misfortune from the Newhall Incident have been written and talked about for 45 years now. Yet still today many of those killed in the line of duty perish from the same mistakes being repeated again and again. There are three basic kinds of failure say Elliot Cohen and John Gooch; in their book “Military Misfortunes” failure to learn, failure to anticipate, and failure to adapt. Each has its own characteristics and consequences, as well as its own parallels in the world of everyday life. (Cohen, 1990, 2012) We must absorb these readily available lessons at all levels, in our strategy, operations and, tactics as they play out in the moral, mental and physical dimensions of conflict. Anything less means we have lost an opportunity to learn and apply the lessons and hence fail to eliminate the pathways to more misfortune.

“Fools say that they learn from experience. I prefer to learn by other people’s experience.” ~Bismarck

  • Bibliography
    Cohen, E. A. (1990, 2012). Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War [Kindle Edition]. New York, NY: Free Press .
  • Coram, R. (2002). Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War [Kindle Edition]. New York NY: Little, Brown and Company .
  • Heal, C. S. (2012). Field Command [Kindle Edition]. Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Books .
  • Heifetz, R. A., Linsky, M., & Grashow, A. (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World [Kindle Edition]. Boston, Ma: Harvard Business Review Press.
  • Leland, F. T., & Vandergriff, D. E. (2014). Adaptive Leadership Handbook Innovative Ways to Teach and develop Your People. North Attleboro Ma: Adaptive Leader LLC (January 7, 2014).
  • McKenna, B. (2008). Officer Down Lessons From The Streets. Gilroy Ca: Bookstand Publishing .
  • Mike, W. (2012). Newhall Shooting A Tactical Analysis . Iola, WI : Gun Digest.
  • Osinga, F. P. (2007). Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (Strategy and History) [Kindle Edition]. Routledge.