Make your badge visible, if possible, and yell out that you’re an off-duty cop. But be prepared to follow commands from responders that you may be highly uncomfortable with.
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This column first appeared on PoliceOne.com.
In light of recent threats by gang members to retaliate against peace officers for arrests and shootings, it's wise to keep in mind that offenders who vow revenge should always be taken seriously and that sometimes they do follow through.
What can you do especially off-duty, when you may be most vulnerable to protect yourself and your family from angry criminals determined to retaliate? And how do you keep legitimate concern for your safety from dominating your life?
We conclude our two-part series on what leading trainers and survivors of vengeful assaults recommend.
When you're out and about with your family, whoever picks up on a danger cue first an ominous stare, aggressive movement in your direction, a bulge or a gait that suggests a concealed weapon should know how to immediately alert the rest of you and exactly what their role should be from that point forward.
"Coach" Bob Lindsey, who teaches off-duty survival and has practiced what he preaches during a long career with the Jefferson Parish (La.) Sheriff's Office, outlines the key ingredients of a good family protection plan:
- From cop talk in the home, even your kids are likely to have an aptitude for alertness superior to the average civilian's. If your family members are aware of their surroundings, just as you are, they'll be getting impressions from what they see, what they hear and what they feel, Lindsey explains. "What they feel is most important," he says. "There'll be a sense of impending danger that is complemented almost instantly by something they see or hear." The key to receiving these important messages strongly and promptly is for your whole family to consciously heighten their awareness level anytime you're out in public in the great unknown.
- If you're armed, your family should stay on your non-gun side. You don't want someone impulsively locking down on your gun arm in response to danger if you have to draw.
- Establish and practice both visual and verbal family codes. Whoever senses a threat might make a specified hand gesture (reaching their right hand across the chest and tugging on their left collar tab, for example) and/or say something ("Attack!") that's a prearranged signal. Sound the alert as soon as you sense something wrong. "If you wait for confirmation," Lindsey advises, "the attack will only be quicker and closer."
- If all of you cannot immediately exit from the threat zone, the rest of your family should disengage, leaving you behind to further assess and, if necessary, deal with the situation. "This is imperative," Lindsey stresses. "You don't want your family to become part of an attack. If they do, you may put yourself in greater jeopardy and weaken your response trying to defend them."
- From a place of safety, your family should call 911. First and foremost, they should report that an off-duty officer is at the scene and is armed. They should give a description of you and your clothing that can be relayed to responding personnel. Then they should stay in their safe location.
If you've had to draw your sidearm to control an off-duty situation and your gun's still out, remember that "your greatest threat now is likely to be from responding officers, who will probably initially see you only as an unidentified subject with a gun," says Lt. Wayne Corcoran of the Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff's Department.
Make your badge visible, if possible, and yell out that you're an off-duty cop. But be prepared to follow commands from responders that you may be highly uncomfortable with, such as putting your gun down and moving away from it. Be careful especially not to turn abruptly and unintentionally point your gun at an arriving officer.
Remember, too, not to let confidence in your spouse's and children's observations and responses make you complacent on family outings, Lindsey cautions. "Understand that it's not their obligation to protect you. You need to be your own best body guard."
"The elements of an attack are intent weapon delivery system and target, and in managing an attack we need to eliminate as many elements as possible," Lindsey teaches. Yet rather than minimize themselves as a target when off-duty, some officers billboard their police affiliation like a lure to anyone with a grudge against law enforcement.
They're the ones who wear their uniform shirt to and from work rather than change or cover it up with a jacket. Or change everything but their dead-give-away cop boots. Or sling their gun belt over their shoulder as they head in or out of their apartment. Or carry a gym bag with a department logo when they go to work out. Or never pay any attention to who might be following them as they daydream along their same, unvaried daily route.
"You stay alive by staying alert," says Lou Savelli, a former NYPD gang commander and how head of an independent training organization called Homefront Protective Group. "Stay aware of who's approaching you, who's around you, who's following you. If you don't see a threat coming you may not be able to save yourself from it."
"Stay in Condition Yellow to and from work, watching for people who may be tailing you," recommends Bob Willis, a survivor of a retaliation attack and now a police trainer at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. "Don't let fatigue, worry about personal problems or daydreaming cause you to miss danger cues."
Think also of what you leave easily accessible in your car. A list of officers' home addresses that turned up recently in a bomb-suspect's possessions in Iowa is believed to have been stolen from an officer's car about a year ago. Insider leaks can also provide sensitive information to would-be avengers. In Texas in December 2004, a city personnel department employee was charged with giving confidential information about undercover officers and other cops including their social security numbers and home addresses to drug manufacturers and users in an effort to alleviate her ex-husband's drug debts.
To easily enhance your protection when you're off-duty and in transit, Wayne Corcoran likes the idea of putting a panel of soft body armor inside a backpack and keeping it on the seat beside you. "You can easily swing it up or carry it with you for protection."
When Savelli and members of an anti-crime unit he headed had reason to expect violent retaliation during an intensive investigation of the Latin Kings gang, the officers implemented an effective series of counter-threat safeguards. Among other things:
- The unit's personnel files were immediately restricted so that only Savelli and the precinct commander had physical access to them to hamper gang moles who might be planted inside as civilian employees;
- They checked out the Internet to see what personal information was available about them there (in some parts of the country private data about officers, including names, photos and home addresses, have been posted even by the government entities employing them in misguided efforts to make civil servants seem friendlier and more accessible);
- Each officer was given a take-home radio with which they could access all police channels citywide and thus get immediate help from any precinct;
- The officers set up a telephone plan by which they notified each other upon arriving home safely each day and were able to advise on their whereabouts off-duty;
- They registered their private vehicles to the stationhouse rather than to their home address;
- They religiously inspected their personal and professional vehicles for booby traps before entering or starting them;
- They frequently varied their routes to and from work each day and employed a full range of surveillance-detection techniques;
- To demonstrate they were not cowed, the officers went after the Latin Kings even more aggressively, with zero-tolerance enforcement. They leaned on parolees and probationers who had the most to lose to become informants. "We caused massive disruption" in the gang members' lives, Savelli says. Before long, the Kings backed away from their threats, and the original investigation pushed ahead to a successful conclusion.
Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association, agrees that "coming down like a ton of bricks" on any person or group that threatens officers can prove invaluable for a department. "Use whatever legal recourse you can, from traffic tickets and public-nuisance ordinances on up. Never, ever let them think they can push the police around, or they will own you."
If you're forced into defensive combat off duty without the full complement of what Corcoran calls your "Bat gear" cuffs, radio, pepper spray, baton, uniform, patrol car, etc. you're at a decided disadvantage. With only your gun and whatever command presence you can project, you have limited force options and, depending on the outcome, you could conceivably encounter legal complications.
Does your department have an obligation to train you for the special challenges of off-duty responses?
At least one court has said that under certain circumstances, the answer is yes. In what grew into a complicated legal case, an off-duty Denver officer in civilian clothes who was running errands in his private vehicle became involved in a heated traffic altercation during which, according to the officer, the other motorist refused to obey commands, tried to flee and, at a crucial point, moved as if reaching for a weapon. The officer shot him, inflicting serious but nonfatal wounds. Lawsuits flew in all directions, including the officer suing his department to recover more than $120,000 in costs for his defense.
At trial, the department's "always-armed/always-on-duty" policy was spotlighted. The department expected its officers to be armed at all times and to take "proper police action in any matter coming to their attention" even when not working a shift. Yet no special training was offered on how they should deal with dangerous confrontations or potential arrest situations when they lacked the usual police accoutrement.
Testimony indicated that the department made a conscious decision not to train in off-duty tactics because of the perception that on- and off-duty situations were the same. But an expert witness insisted that such training is "imperative" and that failure to provide it constitutes "deliberate indifference."
The jury agreed with the expert, as did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit [see Brown v. Gray v. Denver Manager of Public Safety and City and County of Denver, 227 F.3d 1278 (2000)]. The injured motorist won a judgment of $400,000.
Currently, most departments do not offer training in how to respond to off-duty scenarios, and Willis believes that leaves officers and agencies alike unnecessarily vulnerable.
The Vital Balance
The experts consulted for this series all agree: Retaliatory threats should not be automatically dismissed, and you should do what you can to protect yourself and your family, including cultivating a mind-set of alertness ("awareness is 90 percent of successful protection," says one). But, it's vitally important to maintain balance in your life.
Being a good cop, following the warrior's path, requires personal sacrifice, no doubt about it. But, as Dr. Bill Lewinski, the police psychology specialist who heads the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, puts it, "If your whole focus is on protecting yourself you will never have the rich, full life you deserve. Your life is obsessed with protecting it rather than living it, and the bad guy owns you without even attacking."
Avoiding paranoia and striking a nurturing balance can be tough. For most officers, it requires continual weighing and adjustment, as do other facets of your life. But then, Willis notes, "Nobody ever said being a cop is easy."
Remsberg's column is a PoliceOne.com exclusive, sponsored by Blauer.