One Day in 1970 That Changed Policing in the U.S.

The Newhall Massacre nearly 50 years ago led departments to prioritize protecting their officers.

Gerald Herbert / AP

Five police officers were killed in Dallas last week, making it one of the deadliest days for police in U.S. history outside of terrorist attacks. The killings weren’t the first time officers were deliberately targeted, however.

Over the past 50 years, four officers have died on a single day on three separate occasions—most recently in 2009.

That March, two motorcycle officers in Oakland, California, pulled over a man who had been released from prison five months earlier. Lovelle Mixon carried a gun that day in violation of his parole. He shot the two officers dead and then drove to his sister’s apartment. As a SWAT team stormed inside, he killed two more officers.

Then in November 2009, Maurice Clemmons shot dead four officers in a coffee shop near Tacoma, Washington, as they sat over their drinks.

After each of these killings, police departments across the country asked what could have been done differently to protect officers. But it was one day in 1970 when four officers were killed that had the most impact on that question. The incident is known as the Newhall Massacre, named for the town where two criminals murdered four California Highway Patrol officers, about an hour north of Los Angeles. From that April day forward, the U.S. taught its officers to be more cautious, and it trained police in tactics that reflected this new attitude. Shooting deaths of police officers have dropped steadily since the 1970s, in large part because of Newhall.

Brian McKenna is a former police officer who served 30 years in the St. Louis metro area. He wrote a book on police safety, and now trains officers. Newhall, McKenna said, “was the stimulus to say, ‘Are we really training officers to do what they need to on the street?’”

That day in 1970 began with a road-rage incident. A red two-door Pontiac cut off a couple in a Volkswagen on their way home. The man driving the Volkswagen followed the Pontiac until it eased to the shoulder. As it did, the Volkswagen’s driver, Jack Tidwell, yelled at the man in the Pontiac, Bobby Davis.

Davis, a career criminal, had about 10 guns in the car. He was on his way to pick up Jack Twining, his friend and business partner, who was scouring a construction site for explosives with which to blow up an armored car. When Tidwell threatened to beat him up, Davis waved a .38 special out the window and yelled, “Okay,just try it!”

Newhall was a small suburb where it wasn’t uncommon for people to carry guns on the road, or even draw them, McKenna said. Tidwell did call the police, though. When two officers eventually pulled the Pontiac over into a truck stop, Davis’ partner, Twining, sat in the passenger seat. California Highway Patrol officers Roger Gore and Walter Frago were both 23. They’d been on the force a couple years. As McKenna wrote, the officers asked the men to step out of the car:

… but neither of the men in the Pontiac budged. Gore repeated the command two more times before the driver’s door swung open and Bobby Davis stepped out. Now following Gore’s orders, he moved to the rear of the Pontiac and assumed the classic frisk position—feet spread wide, body leaning forward and hands on the trunk lid. Twining was still in the front seat, making no effort to move.

Both officers moved forward, Gore on the left and Frago on the right. Gore stopped behind Davis and began to frisk him as Frago moved up to the right side of the car and stopped just behind the passenger door. A load of 00 buckshot rested in the chamber of Frago’s shotgun, but he held it in only one hand—his right—with its butt against his hip and muzzle pointed skyward. Twining was still sitting behind the closed passenger door. Frago reached for the door handle with his left hand.

Davis and Twining shot the officers dead. They also killed the two officers who arrived as backup. Reformers studied decisions of all four officers, starting with the lack of caution with which the first two officers seemed to approach the Pontiac, and applied the lessons they learned.

“One thing Newhall is credited with is the officer-survival movement––training officers to be more cautious,” McKenna told me.

Most officers at the time carried revolvers, which hold six bullets. Faced with Davis and Twining’s small arsenal on the back seat, six shots were not enough. So one development after the shooting was the adoption of more powerful, higher-capacity weapons by police, and the provision of better training in the use of those weapons. Officers had always learned to shoot by aiming at stationary targets, normally pieces of paper hung at shooting ranges. After Newhall, officers trained with moving targets. They drew from their holsters to respond to a surprise threat on the ranges.

From the accounts of their deaths, neither Frago nor Gore seemed concerned the men inside the car posed a threat––though they knew Davis had a gun. They both left the safety of their car to confront two men instead of waiting for backup. Gore also carried his shotgun––pointed up, rested on his hip––like he was strolling back from a hunting trip. McKenna acknowledges it’s easy to look back and point out the many things the officers did wrong. Today, in a high-risk stop, officers train to take cover behind their squad-car doors, or wait for backup that can overwhelm someone into peaceful compliance. After Newhall, police train to assume an armed person means them harm, and to think of them as a threat.

That training has made officers much safer. Since the 1970s, the number of officers shot on duty has steadily declined. Today, officers are as about as safe as they ever have been—despite the shootings in Dallas that killed five officers (four from the city’s police department and one from the transit police).

But every time officers have been killed on duty, departments have responded with subtle but steady increases in training, and in the force with which officers can respond. The SWAT team, for instance, developed in the 1960s as a tool to combat riots after police felt overwhelmed, and so adopted the tactical stylings and training of the military. SWAT teams are now a standard feature of large departments; likewise the spread of higher-caliber rifles after a 1986 shootout in Miami, and of military-style body armor after the North Hollywood shootout in 1997.

Dallas, too, will have an impact. “I’m sure it will change something,” McKenna said. Departments might staff more officers with more weaponry, he said, or even station armored vehicles nearby. But police departments’ efforts to keep officers safe, through more weapons and more defensive training, appears to collide these days with what Black Lives Matters and other activists have protested: the militarization of police forces, and the training that teaches officers to react with lethal force.