Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Great Gunfights That Changed the Rules Episode I - Newhall

Fast and Hard - You can NEVER give up the initiative
One thing you can always count on people to do is fight. And very often, they resort to using weapons, and the fights get a lot deadlier. In modern times, the peak expression of individual combat is the gunfight. Now, there are a number of different kinds of gunfights, but outside of a war zone, most of them tend to be between armed criminals and law enforcement, for no other reason than that combination brings together armed individuals with opposing goals and strong incentives. Because the goal of the criminal faction is (usually) to escape, a lot of these events are less interesting because they take place as part of a car chase.

The ultimate manifestation of the gunfight is two heavily armed factions fighting at eyeball ranges. These are fast, furious, terrifying and it is rare that any participant escapes unwounded. They are a test of weapons and tactics, to be sure, but ultimately they are a test of courage and will. Often it is the side that refuses to retreat, the side that stays on the attack, that wins the day. And it should never be overlooked that he who shoots first has the upper hand.

For law enforcement, institutional doctrine isn't something that changes readily. Rather, procedures evolve as the result of lessons learned on the streets. And in the modern era, law enforcement doctrine has had to face some very hard truths about what's on the other side of a 'Black Swan' event. How street cops go into a routine contact determines to a large degree how they are going to come out when that contact suddenly becomes anything but routine. In the last fifty years, there have been a few events that forced law enforcement as a profession to examine their institutional doctrines, and think about using rigorous training to make certain street cops would handle these events in the same way every time, with an eye to surviving a few seconds of blood and fire.

In the modern era, there were three gunfights that had a profound impact, not just on law enforcement doctrine, but on society as a whole. Newhall was where the police learned that they needed to develop effective, rational, repeatable policies and procedures for things like traffic stops and field interviews. Later, Miami was where they learned that handguns are not terribly effective firearms, so it was a worthwhile effort to at least make sure the handguns law enforcement personnel did carry were the most effective possible. And then, in North Hollywood, the world discovered the true nature of living in a second amendment world, and nothing was ever the same after that.

On the evening of April 11, 1970, Bobby Davis was driving in Newhall, just north of Los Angeles in Southern California. Shortly after dark, he was involved in a traffic altercation, and was confronted by people whose car he nearly hit. Faced with superior numbers, Bobby didn't hesitate. A career criminal, he was always armed, and he pulled his revolver, backed down his would-be attackers and drove away. The aggrieved parties were unsatisfied with this outcome, so they called the police. Meanwhile, Bobby Davis picked up his friend, fellow lifelong violent criminal Jack Twinning. Just before midnight they were pulled over by rookie California Highway Patrol officers Officers Walt Frago and Robert Gore. Initially Twinning and Davis were cooperative, with Davis getting out of the drivers side of the vehicle and approaching Officer Gore at the rear of the car. As Officer Frago approached the passenger side with his shotgun muzzle high, Twinning exited the vehicle and shot him twice with a .357 magnum revolver, and the fight was on. Gore fired on Twinning with his service revolver, in the heat of the moment (apparently) forgetting all about Bobby Davis. Davis stepped quickly behind and to Gore's left, pulled his .38 Smith from his waistband and fired two rounds point blank into his head.

In a few seconds, the first phase of the gunfight was over. By seizing the initiative and acting with overwhelming force, Davis and Twinning had killed the two officers and sustained no wounds of their own. In order to leverage their advantage, they needed to escape the area immediately. But CHP doctrine was to dispatch a cover unit when another unit initiated a felony stop. And before the newly minted killers could get in their car, that second CHP unit arrived on the scene.

The backup CHP unit, containing CHP officers George Alleyn and James Pence, pulled into the parking lot where the traffic stop had occurred, and that's where a simple, violent ambush turned to tactical chaos. Both Davis and Twinning fired on the CHP cruiser, quickly emptying their revolvers. That should have been the end of the fight, but the career criminals had been planning an armored car robbery, and had been collecting weapons. The back seat of their Pontiac was a veritable arsenal. It's worth mentioning that most gunfighters don't have an endless supply of loaded weapons, but it is tactically more efficient to switch weapons than it is to reload a gun run dry. If there was one thing that would determine the outcome of this fight, that might be it.

With their revolvers empty, the felons dove back in there car - not to escape, but rather to re-arm. Twinning emerged from the passenger side with a .45 auto, while Davis came up with a short barreled shotgun. Twinning's .45 jammed after a single round, and he dove back in the car for another. Meanwhile, Officer Alleyn came out of the CHP car with the issue Remington 870 12 gauge pump shotgun, and began excitedly firing at the Pontiac. He fired so fast that he actually ejected a live round. But even so, Twinning was struck with a single pellet of 00 buckshot, in his forehead. It failed to penetrate his skull, and was nothing more than a superficial injury. When his shotgun was empty, Officer Alleyn dropped it, drew his .357 service revolver and continued firing, this time at Davis. Davis returned fire with his shotgun, killing Alleyn while sustaining no wounds of his own.

At this point an ex-Marine by the name of Gary Kness happened to be driving by. In the glare of the CHP headlights, in the gunsmoke and with the bodies down, it was clear that there was a desperate fight underway. Kness stopped his car and waded in. He ran over and grabbed Officer Alleyn, who was dying on the asphalt, and tried to drag him to cover. He couldn't move him, and he looked up and saw Davis toss away the now empty shotgun. Still operating on the principle that a fresh gun is faster than a reloaded gun, Davis grabbed the shotgun dropped by Frago, but didn't realize there was a live round in the chamber. He couldn't work the action, as it was locked on a live round, and he ended up accidently firing that round into the air. Confused and frustrated, Davis tossed the shotgun aside and pulled Frago's service .357 from his holster.

While this was going on, Pence exited the CHP car, and from the other side of the vehicle fired six rounds of .357 at Twinning, missing with every one. Twinning, whether he was a better shot or just luckier we'll never know, fired back with his fresh .45 and hit Pence in the chest and both legs. Pence dropped to the ground, and started to reload his revolver.

Now, reloading a revolver can be slow and difficult, depending on training and equipment. In 1970, the CHP issued what was called a 'drop box' that was worn on the officer's Sam Brown belt rig. A drop box was simply a leather box that held a stack of .357 rounds, retained to the belt by velcro. The officer would pull the box away from the belt, it would pivot from the bottom and the six rounds would drop into his hand. The good news is that they would all be oriented in the same direction, the bad news was that they still had to be indexed and loaded one at a time.

While Officer Pence struggled to reload his sidearm, Gary Kness was still trying to find a way to get into the fight. He grabbed the shotgun that had been dropped by Alleyn, but quickly discovered it was empty. Davis began firing at Kness with Frago's revolver, and Kness quickly returned fire with Alleyn's .357. The rounds pounded into the Pontiac, and a fragment hit Davis in the chest, but it didn't slow him down. In the chaos, with Pence wounded and trying to reload, Twinning moved around the CHP car and killed Pence with two shots to the head. Kness ran out of ammunition and retreated across the parking lot to a drainage ditch, just as a third CHP unit arrived at the now bloody scene. A few rounds were exchanged and Davis and Twinning grabbed the officers weapons and ran off into the darkness on foot.

The outcome was banal, anticlimactic. Davis was arrested, sentenced to death, and ultimately killed himself in his cell in 2009. Twinning was trapped in a house with hostages shortly after the gunfight, and killed himself rather than being arrested.

150 seconds. 60 rounds expended across three cars in a restaurant parking lot. Eyeball range, muzzle flash, the sound of bullets hitting metal and meat, and the gasps and moans of the dying. This was the lesson that had to be learned the hard way - it almost never happens, but when it does it's too fast and too chaotic to think your way through. You need to already know what to do tactically, and you need to have a minimally functional set of equipment. None of the CHP officers were wearing ballistic vests - that would change as the quality and usability of body armor improved. The CHP would continue to issue .357 revolvers, but they would issue .38 special ammunition - the blast and recoil of the magnum rounds were hard for the Officers to control. Hitting the target with lighter rounds was deemed to be better than missing with high power magnum rounds. And finally, that dropbox was quickly replaced with the ubiquitous HKS speedloader, giving an officer a chance to quickly reload his revolver, even in the dark in the midst of a gunfight.

But the primary lesson law enforcement slowly had to accept after Newhall was that the police NEVER want to have an even fight. Two on two when you don't know who you're dealing with is bad doctrine. If Alleyn and Frago had just waited until the second CHP car arrived, and dealt with Davis and Twinning in such a way as to prevent them from being able to fight, the situation would have turned out differently. Today, doctrine around traffic stops makes it much harder - not impossible, mind you, just much harder - to take the initiative and ambush the police. And just about everything you see them do has its roots in that bloody night in Newhall.

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