Officer Down: The Legacy of Lakewood
The four Lakewood officers drifted into the coffee shop one at a time. The day had started out poorly when, at the beginning of the shift, most of the squad’s six officers had gotten into a brawl with an emotionally disturbed subject. Although no one had been seriously hurt, it was still a lousy way to begin a Sunday morning. After checking the subject into the hospital, the officers decided it was time for a coffee break. They’d picked this coffee shop because it was a favorite of officers from around the area, and its friendly, comfortable atmosphere made it a good place to take a break. In this environment, it’s unlikely that any of them felt any uneasiness as they came in from the gloomy, drizzling rain outside. But they were about to become the victims of the darkest single minute in the history of American law enforcement.
Sgt. Mark Renninger, the shift supervisor, was the first to enter the shop. He bought a coffee, turned around, and walked over to a spot near the center of the wall to his right, where he pulled two small tables together and sat down. Renninger, 39, was a 13-year veteran, SWAT team leader, well-respected SWAT instructor, husband and father of three. Officer Tina Griswold, who’d been slightly injured in the early-morning fight, was the second officer to come in and make a purchase. She was a youthful-looking 40-year-old with 14 years on the job. She’d served on SWAT with a former department and was married with two children. The next officer to come to the table was Officer Ronnie Owens. Big, strong, and athletic, he was 39 with 12 years experience, as well as the father of one daughter. Officer Greg Richards, a 42-year-old, eight-year veteran and married father of three, was the last to enter the store. Like the others, he was personable, dedicated and well trained.
A Killer in the Midst
Richards was still waiting at the service counter to make a purchase when Maurice Clemmons walked through the front door. Clemmons, wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt, was slightly below average in height but stocky in build. Although he had no history of any contacts with the Lakewood Police Department, he had a lengthy and violent arrest record, and had recently become increasingly more irrational, especially in his expressions of hatred for the police. Just three days before he had told family and friends that he wanted to kill some police officers. The following day he was seen with two guns as he continued his rant against the police.
Clemmons was on a hate-driven mission. One of the baristas behind the counter greeted him, but he made no reply as he walked past a couple sitting near the front door. Without a word, he kept walking straight, as if heading for the service counter. It was a path that went right past the tables where Renninger, Griswold and Owens sat.
The tables were located along the north wall in a tight corner formed by the junction of the main wall and a half wall perpendicular to it. Renninger, his laptop open in front of him, was seated in the corner with his back to the half wall, the north wall to his left, and his view of Clemmons’ approach largely blocked by the half wall. Griswold was in a more vulnerable position, facing the north wall with her back to the shop’s open area and entrance. Owens was seated across from her, facing the interior.1 He had the best view of the front door, but his open laptop was on the table in front of him, and the entrance was only a few yards away. Even walking at a normal pace, Clemmons covered the short distance within seconds, and was probably behind Griswold before Owens or anyone else noticed anything unusual about him.
With a speed exceeded only by his brutality, Clemmons launched his attack. As he spun to his left, a 9 mm Glock suddenly appeared in his hand, followed immediately by two thunderous gunshots in rapid succession. At this range, Clemmons couldn’t miss. The first round crashed into the back of Griswold’s head, and the second into the right side of Renninger’s, killing both unsuspecting officers instantly.
Though stunned by the unfathomable horror before him, Owens sprang into action. Amazingly, Clemmons’ gun had jammed with his second shot, creating a brief window of opportunity for the officer. With the ruthless cop killer temporarily out of action, Owens quickly closed the distance and went hands-on with him. Owens was big, strong and capable, but sadly, fate was not on his side. Before the luckless officer could gain control of him, Clemmons drew a backup gun—a .38 caliber revolver. Owens fought for his life as his assailant maneuvered the revolver into firing position, but his efforts were to no avail. It’s unknown how many rounds, if any, Clemmons managed to fire before one found its mark, but one struck Owens in the head, taking his life just as Renninger and Griswold had lost theirs only seconds before.
In the meantime, Richards had entered the awful scene with the same courage as Owens had shown. Charging through the gun smoke and horror toward the carnage, he had come to the aid of his fallen comrades even before Owens went down. He hadn’t been able to risk taking a shot at Clemmons earlier because of Owens’ close proximity to the man, but now he could. Drawing his Glock .40, he tried for a shot, but Clemmons turned on him with the fury of a madman and tried to bring the .38 into line for a shot of his own. Richards fought desperately to fend off the counterattack as he battled to get his Glock on target. Then, as thunderous gunfire from the revolver again filled the air in the tiny coffee shop, Richards managed to get off a shot, striking the cop killer in the abdomen. Unfortunately it was not a disabling wound. Clemmons barely flinched with the impact. The mortal battle continued, and Richards valiantly fought on. But then cruel fate turned against him just as it had the others. As he and Clemmons spilled through the front door, Clemmons somehow got control of the Glock, turned it on him and fired, once again delivering a fatal head shot.2
His bloody work now done, the hate-driven killer ran to his getaway vehicle a couple of blocks away, where a friend was waiting, and made his escape.
The manhunt that followed was gut-wrenching for the legions of officers who combed the Seattle area looking for Clemmons. Although it ended just 42 hours later when a courageous Seattle officer killed Clemmons in a brief, early morning gunfight, the tense hours leading up to that moment were fraught with frustration and anger. Many of Clemmons’ family and friends had done everything they could to help him evade capture, which only added to the heartache. However, some sense of justice finally prevailed as many of those who aided Clemmons were later convicted of various charges related to their interference with the investigation.
Thanks in large part to the overwhelming support of the citizens of Lakewood and the entire law enforcement community, the officers of the LPD have managed to recover remarkably well from their loss, and continue to serve the public with dedication and courage.3
Discussion & Analysis
Over the past half century, every generation of police officers has undergone a tragedy that, by the sheer brutality of its madness, rocks us back on our heels and makes us wonder what went wrong, but then leaves us with the gift of insight. The first and most prominent of these was the Newhall Incident, three minutes of sheer hell during a traffic stop in 1970 that left four California Highway Patrol officers dead on the parking lot of a rural truck stop. Then came the 1986 bloodbath in Miami, in which two FBI agents were killed and five others wounded in a gunfight with two psychopathic gunmen. This was followed by the hellacious 1997 North Hollywood firefight that left eleven LAPD officers and seven civilians wounded. After each of these tragedies, we grieved. Then we did the only thing that could to bring any meaning to the heartbreak—we learned from these incidents. We honestly examined what went wrong, and then made vital changes in training and tactics that have been saving police officer’s lives ever since. It may not have been an easy process, but the lessons learned had come at too high a price to ignore.
And now there’s Lakewood. More than Newhall or any of the other shootings just mentioned—or even the tragedies in Oakland, Pittsburg and elsewhere in recent years—Lakewood stands out as perhaps the most heartbreaking, in that the four officers were gunned down in a horrifyingly efficient ambush with precious little chance to defend themselves. But it also stands out above all the others because of what it can teach us about officer safety, especially with regard to training.
This isn’t meant to imply in any way that the LPD’s training officers failed to do their job properly. In fact, the Lakewood officers were highly trained by dedicated trainers who were well versed in today’s police training practices. But an honest analysis of this case reveals some serious weaknesses in contemporary training that limited their ability—and the ability of other officers in similar situations—to deal with the kinds of threats they faced. This is not to say that this tragedy would have been easy to prevent or mitigate. To the contrary, the officers were faced with incredible obstacles that would have been difficult for any officer to overcome. But that doesn’t mean we should just accept what happened in Lakewood as an unavoidable tragedy. Instead, we must honor these fine officers by rising to the challenge and finding answers.
But it won’t be easy. Since there were no surviving witnesses to the actual shooting, we will never know exactly what happened. Without such knowledge it isn’t possible to address any specific actions taken by any of the officers that may have affected the outcome. Nevertheless, we have a good enough understanding of the incident to identify the most likely reasons why Clemmons’ attack was so brutally effective, and how to help prevent similar tragedies in the future. For example, it’s clear that the officers were unable to detect the attack until it was too late. We’ll never know exactly why this happened, but there were probably some very good reasons for it—reasons that would be likely to cause other officers in similar situations to miss the danger signs as well. However, that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to increase our awareness of such threat or our ability to respond to them more quickly.
The analysis that accompanies this article will discuss ways that this can be done, as well as a number of other crucial learning points. These include lessons related to extreme close quarters armed attacks, ambushes during downtime, reluctance to use deadly force in questionable situations, application of deadly force when an innocent party may be at risk, weapon retention, suspect mindset and winning mindset.
These lessons can save lives, and we owe it to Sgt. Renninger, and Officers Griswold, Owens and Richards to learn as much as we can from them.
1. It’s natural to become complacent about routine, non-police related activities like dining at a restaurant, but this incident graphically demonstrates that even downtime can prove deadly. How can we raise our awareness of our surroundings under such circumstances?
2. We will never know if Clemmons displayed any pre-assault indicators as he entered the coffee shop and approached the officers, but most offenders who attack police officers do. Armed individuals also tend to display certain characteristics or behaviors indicative of the fact that they are armed. What are some of the indicators that a given subject may be dangerous? How important is it to be aware of these indicators during our downtime, as well as at all other times when on duty?
3. Threat recognition is vital to officer safety, and improved observation skills are vital to timely threat recognition. How much training have you received in ways to improve your observation skills? What can this tragedy teach us about the need for more training in this area? How can individual officers improve their observation skills?
4. According to FBI statistics, 21.5 percent of the officers murdered in the U.S. over the past decade were killed in ambushes, which is by far the highest fatality rate of any category of felonious police killings. What can we do to defend against this threat during downtime, as well as at other times when on duty? How much training have you received in detecting and responding to ambushes? What can this tragedy teach us about the need for more training to deal with this threat?
5. The evidence indicates that Officer Owens attempted to engage Clemmons with a non-lethal empty-handed technique rather than use deadly force. He was skilled at control tactics, in excellent physical condition, and had a proclivity for going hands-on in force incidents. Could this have been the reason why he chose not to use deadly force?
6. Could the fact that Clemmons’ gun jammed, and was therefore no longer an immediate threat, have influenced Officer Owens’ decision to use non-lethal rather than deadly force? Are police officers legally or morally obliged to withhold deadly force under such circumstances? Is an officer legally required to wait until the last instant before resorting to deadly force? Under what circumstances is an officer legally permitted to use deadly force?
7. What is the best way to respond to an extreme close-quarters armed attack? If you are a trainer, do you train your officers in such techniques? If not, has this tragedy convinced you to seek out solid, street-relevant extreme close-quarters techniques and then thoroughly train your officers in them?
8. What does this incident tell us about the importance of staying aware of the possibility that an armed opponent may be armed with a backup weapon?
9. Officer Richards was confronted with the extremely difficult task of neutralizing an armed assailant who was engaged in a physical struggle with a fellow officer. What is the best technique for dealing with this kind of situation? How much training have you received in solid, street-relevant techniques for neutralizing such threats? What can this tragedy teach us about the need for more training in this area?
10. It appears that Officer Richards drew his gun before he was disarmed. This is an important point, because the majority of officers who are disarmed lose their guns during the draw. What does this say about the need to focus more on weapon retention techniques for retaining control of your sidearm during and after the draw?
11. What does Clemmons’ level of coldblooded calculation and preparation tell us about the cop killer mindset? How should the realization that such individuals exist affect our level of commitment to training, hard work, mental preparation and winning?
12. In what way did officers Owens’ and Richards’ actions exemplify winning mindset and warrior spirit?
1. From the available evidence it appears that Officer Owens was seated when the attack occurred, but it is also possible that he was standing. Regardless, we can be reasonably sure that he was at or near the table.
2. Apparently, Clemmons tore the Taser and its holster from Officer Richards’ belt at some time during the struggle, but never used it.
3. Because of the lack of witnesses, it isn’t possible to determine many of the details of this incident with certainty. The details recounted here are carefully developed conclusions made from information provided by the LPD, including its after-action report on the shooting.