Plainclothes Officer Safety - Investigation -

Plainclothes Officer Safety

The life you save may be your own



Paul E. Doyle | From the July 2007 Issue Saturday, June 30, 2007

Early in my undercover career, I shot and killed an armed assailant. In the immediate aftermath of this traumatic encounter, I paused and focused with tunnel vision on the dead man, completely unaware of the world around me. With long hair and full beard, wearing a stocking cap and full-length woolen coat, I was standing over the assailant's body with my smoking pistol still in my hand. Suddenly, I realized two uniformed Boston Police Department (BPD) officers were approaching, cautiously, with weapons drawn. Instinctively, as trained, I froze in place. Without moving, I identified myself, verbally. I could see by their expressions that they relaxed, momentarily. I told them my shield was in my pocket, and they removed it, warily.

I was fortunate that day. Two experienced professionals answered the call to a shooting and evaluated the situation correctly. I reacted rationally and calmly in a chaotic situation because of my training at the academy. Knowing that the burden was mine to establish my identity, I spoke clearly and professionally. It was a lesson, a baptism by fire, so to speak, that I never forgot. The lesson: If we train and practice correctly, we will react properly when we find ourselves in dangerous situations.

The anonymity and non-descript appearance that allows plainclothes officers to mingle and disappear undetected into a crowd can lead to dangerous encounters with citizens and other officers. There is no greater tragedy than the accidental death of an officer or civilian at the hand of another officer because of mistaken identity. The unfortunate case of Sergeant Cornel Young, an off-duty Providence (R.I.) Police Department officer who was shot and killed by fellow, on-duty officers responding to a call for a man with a gun, comes to mind. Young drew his weapon and ran outside a restaurant when a fight involving a pistol-wielding suspect broke out. The investigation determined that although Young announced his identity to the restaurant patrons, he neglected to announce it to the responding officers, and did not heed their demands to drop his gun. The uniformed officers saw a man with a gun. They had no way of knowing he was Sergeant Cornel Young because he did not identify himself.

In another recent incident, Norfolk, Va., Officer Seneca Darden, in plainclothes, was shot and killed by fellow officers as they all responded to a shooting scene. Subsequent investigation determined, once again, that Darden had no visible identification.

The latest occurrence involving plainclothes officers the shooting of prospective groom, Sean Bell, outside a strip club in Jamaica, Queens, after he struck an undercover officer with his vehicle and then rammed into a surveillance vehicle has captured the public s attention. Conflicting accounts of NYPD officers and witnesses in this case have incited a furor. Due to circumstances beyond anyone's control, some of these events may have been unavoidable, but many of these mishaps can be prevented by proper training, common sense and open communication.

Mistaken Identity
By its very nature, plainclothes policing is inherently dangerous. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial estimates that 82 officers have been killed by other officers. Twenty eight of those deaths were caused by mistaken identity. Approximately 20 percent of the officers killed were out of uniform.

Deputy Chief William G. Brooks of the Wellesley (Mass.) Police Department, a certified instructor, explains that the majority of these situations arise when a plainclothes officer takes enforcement action and the nature of the incident causes the officer to draw their weapon. Brooks notes perceptively that when uniformed officers draw their weapon, they are often safer. Conversely, when plainclothes officers draw their weapons, they are often exposed to increased risk.

Uniformed and plainclothes officers should be routinely reminded that these deadly encounters may be prevented by being alert if they plan and train properly. With the murder rate on the upswing in Boston, plainclothes officers of the elite BPD gang unit are well aware of the potential for violent encounters. Ken Conley, a veteran BPD officer with 17 years experience, feels that he and the other gang unit officers are well trained. They consider officer safety to be a priority. Conley explained that he and the other officers make sure that their shields are visible and that they identify themselves, always, by announcing, Police, whenever they approach a suspect.

Your Department Policy--What Is It?
Check your department's policy and guidelines for plainclothes officers. Some departments have well-defined guidelines, while others have conflicting rules and procedures. For example, some departments require that officers be armed while off duty, but have no written procedures for them to adhere to while operating in that capacity. If you find that your department's policy is lacking, make suggestions or volunteer to develop a better policy. You could save lives.

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