Ambush Project: Study of Police Ambush Data from 1990-2012

Ambush Project: Study of Police Ambush Data  from 1990-2012

Executive Summary. Conflict between police and their communities manifest itself in many ways. Perhaps the most profound type of conflict is one that involves physical violence between the police and members of the public. Such conflict causes distrust, strains police-community relations, and raises concerns about police legitimacy. Past research has extensively covered police use of force, including detailed case studies and the influence of various factors, including case law, administrative protocol, and the characteristics of the involved parties. However, research on violence against the police has been less prevalent. Even less prevalent has been research on one type of assault on the police, ambush attacks.

IACP, in partnership with CNA, is seeking to fill this void in research on ambushes of police and use the knowledge gained to inform policy, training, and operational practices in U.S. police departments. The project team will review existing research and literature on the topic, analyze data sets of assaults on police officers, present the research review and data analysis to a series of focus groups comprised of leading practitioners and academics specializing in officer safety, and produce and disseminate reports, guides, and other materials based on research, analysis, and focus group findings to the field. The project team will produce and contribute to:

·         The first comprehensive analysis of data on ambush attacks on the police

·         A series of practitioner-focused, downloadable materials summarizing project findings

·         Informative articles in IACP’s Police Chief Magazine

·         Policy guidelines for preventing and protecting against ambush attacks

·         Ambush Fact Sheet

Ambush Fact Sheet

This report, developed based on findings from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) in the Line of Duty data collection program, provides a comprehensive look at the nature of ambush attacks perpetrated against law enforcement officers in the United States since 1990. It defines classifications of ambush attacks, incident trends, and overviews of agency, victim, and perpetrator data, weapons used in ambushes, and survivability and clearance rates.

A February 2014 Officer Safety Corner Column in Police Chief Magazine, developed based on findings from a series of focus groups with law enforcement executives convened at the 120th Annual IACP Conference in Philadelphia in October 2013, also provides more insight into the oft-neglected and overlooked topic of ambushes against law enforcement officers.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police



This report was developed as part of an initiative with CNA, the Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to build knowledge on the topic of ambush assaults against law enforcement. This oft-neglected topic has garnered increased attention in recent years, as officer safety has come to the forefront of many criminal justice discussions. In 2011, the U.S. Attorney General acknowledged the many initiatives making an impact on officer safety and pledged that more work was needed, including the identification of tactics and protocols to protect officers from ambush-style assaults. In response, CNA, IACP, and COPS have initiated long-overdue foundational research on ambush assaults against law enforcement. The report presents descriptive findings from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) in the Line of Duty data collection program. Two datasets are used: an incident-level supplemental dataset of serious injurious and fatal assaults against police; and an agency-level dataset that captures all assaults—non-injurious, injurious, and fatal—per agency.


Generally, four factors have come define an ambush assault:

  • Element of surprise
  • Concealment of the assailant, their intentions, or weapon
  • Suddenness of the attack
  • A lack of provocation

Ambushes are classified in two ways:

  • Entrapment ambushes are premeditated. This sort of attack is what many police consider to be the “traditional” ambush, where the offender lures an unsuspecting officer into a location to execute an attack.
  • Spontaneous ambushes are unprovoked attacks without long-term planning. These types of attacks are often considered “crimes of opportunity.” The assailant makes the decision at the time of the officer’s approach and surprises the officer with an unprovoked assault.


In 1991, the nation saw a total of 526 ambush attacks against law enforcement, including fatal and nonfatal incidents, which is the highest number in the past 25 years. That number declined precipitously through the 1990s and leveled off through the early and mid-2000s. Since 2000, the average annual number of ambushes is around 215. There was a recent uptick in incidents from 2008 through 2010, and more recently in 2012.


Since 1990, 1,219 law enforcement officers have been murdered. Annual figures vary considerably, whereas the annual average is about 55. From 2008 to 2011, the number of officers murdered increased from its lowest figure in two decades (40) to the second highest in that time period (68), representing a 70 percent increase. In 2012, murders of the police declined considerably.

An increasing proportion of police murders have been classified as ambushes. Between 1990 and 2000, police murders that were attributable to ambush assaults was about 12 percent; from 2001 to 2012, that figure was 21 percent.


The Pacific, South Atlantic, and Middle Atlantic Regions of the United States have had the greatest number of ambush assaults, with over 750 each. New England has had the fewest— less than 250— in this time period.

When accounting for the total number of agencies, we see that the trends change little. The Pacific Region has the greatest average annual number of ambushes per 1,000 agencies, with over 15. New England remains as the least prevalent location for ambushes, with fewer than 6 per 1,000 agencies per year.


The profile of an ambushed officer is a 38-year-old male with 11 years on the job and an average build. Because of the diversity of law enforcement agencies and command structures in the United States, their ranks range widely. Yet from what is reported, we know that these officers are most likely to be patrol officers (38%), deputy sheriffs (17%), or sergeants (15%). The vast majority (82%) of officers are alone at the time of the ambush. More than half (55%) were assigned to one officer patrol vehicles at the time of the assault. About 12 percent were on foot patrol, and 10 percent were in two-officer vehicles. The rest were detectives, undercover, on special assignment, or off-duty.


The assailants in ambush incidents are 30-years-old, on average. Three-quarters of the assailants have a criminal record. A sizable minority (40%) have a violent criminal record. More than a quarter are under judicial supervision at the time of the assault. Close to one in four have some sort of prior relationship with the officer in the incident, including personal interactions and previous arrests. The vast majority (83%) of assailants acted alone. Nine percent of the time, there are two assailants. In 8 percent of ambush incidents, there are 3 or more assailants.


Overall, firearms have been the weapon most commonly used by assailants in ambush attacks. However, a significant proportion of assailants use only their hands as weapons. Knives and other sharp objects are the least frequently used weapon. Interestingly, a substantial proportion of ambush assaults are carried out using “other” deadly weapons, which include anything from a blunt object to a motor vehicle. Over time, the proportion of ambushes in which hands were the assailant’s weapon has increased, whereas the proportion of firearms as weapons has generally decreased. In 2012, hands and firearms were used almost equally to carry out ambush assaults.


Entrapment ambushes have been more fatal. Of the officers involved in an entrapment ambush, 41 percent survived, compared to 49 percent in spontaneous attacks. The overall survival rate for ambush assaults is about 46 percent.

Officers who were wearing protective body armor survived 53 percent of the time, compared to 30 percent who were not. Officers who took cover and officers who returned fire were also much more likely to survive than those who did not.


Clearance rates for both assaults and ambushes have increased over time; however, ambush clearance rates remain considerably lower than assault clearance rates. In 1990, ambushes were cleared in just 49 percent of cases; this increased to 83 percent by 2011.

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