Pittsburgh: Traffic-Stop Training to Prevent Police Officer Ambushes

Across the United States, incidents of police officers being targeted in ambush-style attacks have raised great concern. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police addressed this rising concern by creating reality-based training scenarios that build situational awareness and test officers on incidents they are likely to encounter during routine traffic stops.

In 2009, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP) responded to a call for service that developed into an ambush of police officers. Three officers were killed, and two were seriously injured. According to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted database, PBP experienced record-high levels of ambushes against police officers in the department in 2002 and 2006, as seen in Figure 1. Noticing these trends in their departments amid growing national concerns about violence against police, PBP began to research how best to ensure that their officers were prepared to respond safely and effectively to these types of scenarios.

In early 2013, PBP experienced several firearms assaults on officers and conducted internal analysis to betterentify the underlying problems. One result of that analysis, conducted in 2013, was the discovery that officers would benefit from reality-based training, which typically includes the following characteristics:

  • Scripted scenarios;

  • Actors/role-players;

  • Equipment, such as simulated service weapons with simulated ammunition pellets (“simunitions”);

  • Specific learning objectives; and

  • Performance evaluations by training staff.

Training Planning & Structure Given concerns about assaults and ambushes during traffic stops, PBP chose to focus on traffic-stop scenarios in their training program in the summer of 2014. After conducting research on ambush- and assault-related reality-based training scenarios, PBP developed in 2014 a set of five traffic-stop scenarios, three of which involved ambush elements. PBP had used reality-based methods previously for firearms training, so the department was familiar with associated benefits and challenges.

PBP chose to make its training voluntary, meaning officers opted-into the program rather than being selected. The department chose to offer the training on a voluntary basis for two reasons. First, reality-based training scenarios involving simunitions (as PBP’s training does) inherently involve safety risks. Training officers felt that officers who participated in the training voluntarily would be more likely to both accept and mitigate these risks. As this was a pilot program for PBP, safety was an important concern when considering the future of the program. Second, training officers wanted to begin the pilot training session with officers who were particularly interested in the training technique.

PBP training officers (firearms training staff supplemented by about 30 officers) created a training space in the firearms training range for the summer 2014 training. Officers who participated in the training did so in their normal response structure; that is, an officer who typically patrolled alone would participate in the training individually, while officers who worked in team units could participate as a team. Each of the five scenarios that PBP developed was active for one week, meaning that the complete training program lasted for a total of five weeks. Below are brief descriptions of the five scenarios.

  • Week One Scenario: Responding officers are called to respond to a moving violation by a sport utility vehicle (SUV) with tinted windows. When the officer(s) approaches the vehicle, the driver role-player refuses to respond to questions. After a short period of time, the driver produces a firearm and fires on the responding officer(s).

  • Week Two Scenario: Officers are called to respond to a moving violation by an SUV. Before officers can approach the vehicle, the driver role-player fires on the responding officer(s).

  • Week Three Scenario: Officers are called to respond to a crash following a high-speed pursuit. Upon arriving on the scene, the driver role-player exits the crashed car and flees. A second role-player is concealed in the vehicle. If the responding officer(s) does not check and clear the vehicle, this second role-player fires on the officer(s).

  • Week Four Scenario: Officers are called to respond to a suspicious vehicle in a parking lot. While investigating the vehicle, a role-player with a firearm attempts to approach the officer(s) from behind.

  • Week Five Scenario: Officers are conducting a traffic stop and, upon running the plates of the stopped vehicle, are informed that it has been flagged as being involved in several drive-by shootings.

Training Outcomes Over 500 officers (out of approximately 900 sworn officers) participated in the training program over the 5-week period in the summer of 2014. PBP found that after the initial group of officers participated, word-of-mouth helped increase interest in the training among other officers. Incorporating reality-based training represents a cultural shift for PBP, since the department had not previously used that style of training for tactical response. Training officers noted that some officers were initially uncertain of how to participate in this more open-ended style of training, as they were more used to being given a specific set of directions to execute and then being judged on the execution of those tasks, rather than on decision-making in a scenario.

PBP used a student-centered feedback model for evaluation during its training program. After officers completed a scenario, they would engage in a dialogue with the training officer, during which the training officer would ask the trainees what they thought went well or warranted improvement. In this way, the training officer guided the officers through a self-evaluation process. Officers were then given the option to repeat the training scenario multiple times if they wanted to practice again or try to improve their performance.

PBP will continue using reality-based training techniques, dedicating a little over a month each year to offering these force-on-force training scenarios with evaluator feedback. PBP plans to develop the training scenarios each year based on the needs of the department and on national trends in police preparedness. This training has been added to the standard requirements for new recruits.

Key Takeaways PBP constructed and executed a successful training program to better prepare officers to handle ambush and traffic-stop scenarios. Some key elements of their program include:

  • Leveraging research and evaluation of real-world events to design reality-based training scenarios;

  • Engaging with multiple stakeholders in the development of the training program;

  • Conditioning officers with multiple types of scenarios that cover a broad spectrum of tactical responses, not all of which require use of force;

  • Having officers train in their regular unit configurations; and

  • Engaging in evaluations using student-centered feedback models.

Reality-based training can be used to better prepare law enforcement officers – and responders in other disciplines – to respond to scenarios they may encounter in the real world. PBP successfully implemented this training in their department using traffic-stop scenarios, but it is broadly applicable to numerous scenarios and agencies.


Acknowledgements: CNA Corporation would like to thank the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police for taking the time to participate in an interview and explain their use of traffic-stop training techniques, as described in this case study. For more information about reality-based training, see Kenneth R. Murray’s definitive text on the subject: “Training at the Speed of Life: Volume One,” published in 2004 by Armiger Publications.

This project is supported by Cooperative Agreement 2011-CK-WXK036 awarded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions contained herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. References to specific agencies, companies, products, or services should not be considered an endorsement by the author(s) or the U.S. Department of Justice. Rather, the references are illustrations to supplement discussion of the issues.

Zoë Thorkildsen

Zoë Thorkildsen is a research analyst in the Safety and Security division at CNA. She leads and supports a variety of research and training and technical assistance projects for the Department of Justice and other clients. She is co-investigator on an Office of Community Oriented Policing Services-funded research project on ambush attacks of police, serves as website coordinator and analyst for the Bureau of Justice Assistance Smart Policing Initiative, and is lead analyst for a National Institute of Justice research project on safety equipment efficacy in correctional facilities.



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