In January of this year, an off-duty ATF agent heroically interceded in an armed robbery occurring in a drug store where he happened to be. The agent shot the armed suspect, gave chase and was ultimately shot by other off-duty police officers who had responded to the robbery from a deli next door. The whole situation is tragic and the involved officers will forever replay those events and the “what ifs.”
These so-called “blue on blue” scenarios are perhaps some of the most dangerous situations law enforcement officers face. Being confronted by a “keyed up” fellow officer who has a gun pointed at you, focusing on your gun, is far from optimal. In plainclothes or off-duty, not wearing a uniform mandates a different set of tactics and techniques in order to survive.
The first rule is to know your surroundings and situation. Just because a crime happens in front of you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spring into action. In some cases, as with a robbery in a restaurant a few years back in California, this might result in an unavoidable shootout where the off-duty officer’s family is present. In reality, while protection of the public is a law enforcement tenant, taking action may have unforeseen consequences. Think before you act and avoid danger if at all possible.
The second rule: The one in the uniform is in control. Many times, plainclothes or off-duty officers aren’t seen as law enforcement officers, especially if they are in true undercover mode with long hair, etc. Due to the phenomenon of tunnel vision, most uniformed responding officers will focus on the gun in your hand and nothing else. So, if you can safely put your gun away before they show up, do it. All law enforcement officers are also trained to take everyone into custody first and figure it out later. So, if confronted, do what the uniformed officer says.
Gear & Identification
Most law enforcement officers are used to carrying a bunch of gear with them: lights, guns, handcuffs, knives, and most importantly, a radio. Off-duty or in plainclothes, you probably don’t have some, if not all, of the aforementioned. Lacking those basic tools, you can’t do what you would normally do with them. You need to adapt and re-think how or if you would respond to a situation. One of the top things to consider is body armor. Obviously, if things go horribly wrong, this could save your life.
Lastly, identification is extremely important. It’s a simple point that is often forgotten by many law enforcement professionals. A badge around the neck or having some type of police identification can prevent a bad situation from getting worse. If off-duty and most likely without a radio, calling 911 and telling the dispatcher you are off-duty, your location, manner of dress and the fact that you are armed could help identify you when the officers arrive. In many places like New York City, the local police issue a code word for the day that could help “deconflict” with another officer. Nothing is foolproof under stress—communications often get blurred—but the more things you have working for you, the better your odds of surviving.
In reality, no law enforcement officer is ever “off-duty,” and when working plainclothes, both the bad guys and your own are potential threats to your safety. I was once told, “Law enforcement is a thinking game. The more you think, the less you will have to use your gun.” The life you save may be your own.