Every now and then a story comes along that grabs your attention. The truly exceptional ones, the tales that resonate on several levels over the span of years, are a rarity. I want to share one that I first heard over twenty years ago, when I was a young man struggling through the process of becoming a police officer. Its lesson has implications well beyond law enforcement, but I’ll warn you now – it’s violent.
It is known as the Newhall Incident and it occurred in 1970 just outside of Los Angeles. The story begins with two career criminals, Jack Twinning and Bobby Davis, who were stopped by two California Highway Patrol Officers, Roger Frago and Walt Gore, for their role in a firearms incident earlier in the day.
The officers approached the car and searched Davis. Twinning then came out of the passenger seat firing, instantly killing Officer Frago. Officer Gore returned fire at Twinning but was killed when he turned his back to Davis. In seconds, two cops were killed.
Two more CHP officers, George Alleyn and James Pence, arrived at that moment to back up their colleagues. Twinning and Davis began firing, and the officers took cover behind their car to return fire. Officer Alleyn quickly emptied his shotgun, switched to his revolver and emptied this as well. He grazed Twinning with a round, but was shot and killed when Davis, knowing the officer was out of ammunition, advanced on him.
Officer Pence likewise emptied his CHP issued revolver without hitting a target. He was then struck three times and fell to the ground. Twinning and Davis continued to advance, having rearmed from their vehicle’s pre-loaded weapons cache. Pence, severely injured, was forced to reload his revolver one round at a time (CHP did not issue speed-loaders which could load all six revolver rounds simultaneously).
Just as Pence loaded the final round, Twinning came up from behind and shot him twice in the head. Investigators later found Pence’s rounds in his front pocket, a habit drilled into CHP officers at the shooting range. It was a training failure that may have cost him his life.
The rest of the story is mere epilogue: Twinning and Davis escaped; Twinning later killed himself while barricaded inside a house; Davis surrendered to police only after running out of ammunition at another traffic stop; he killed himself in prison three years ago.
The death of four police officers in a single violent encounter sent shock waves through the country and propelled major changes in law enforcement tactics and training, especially within the California Highway Patrol. Since then the Newhall Massacre, as it is now known, has been a mainstay of basic academy instruction. I have sat through at least four different training sessions involving this incident learning something new each time.
From a law enforcement standpoint the two basic lessons involve mindset and training. Twinning and Davis won this gun battle as a result of their aggressive advance towards their targets, twice resulting in point blank shootings. Their mobility and constant attack, a result of the numerous firearms at their disposal (which included the CHP officers’ weapons), were decisive. The CHP officers, none of whom were over 24 years of age or with more than 2 years of experience, relied on the tools and training provided by their agency. That unfortunately included taking a defensive stance and using reload methods unsuited for combat.
There is a wider lesson in the Newhall Massacre, the impact of which is only underscored by the shock value. This event serves as a reminder that the teachings of yesterday do not necessarily prepare us for today. It is a warning that continuing to perform the same task in the same way can be a prescription for failure. It exposes our most sacred mantra, “This is the way we’ve always done it,” as a false truth.
There is real value in such a message. Far beyond the realm of police work, there is a constant need to rethink our notions, preconceived or otherwise. Whether the topic is race, gender issues, politics or any other contentious issue, we can and should look to the past for example and guidance. But we need to recognize that the status quo of yesteryear is no longer in front of us – it is slipping past in the rearview mirror.
That is the lesson that has resonated for me. Since it came at the cost of the lives of four young men, I am passing it on in their honor.