Over the last several years I have found myself in front of many narcotic associations speaking on the inherent dangers they face each day. The introduction always begins with the same warning that law enforcement operations in plainclothes has more potential for a deadly assault than any other activity. I don’t always get the point across as one student in Illinois recently reminded me when he wrote in an evaluation that the course should only pertain to patrol officers.
He made my point! Here are 4 tips to survive working a plainclothes assignment.
Assume You Are In Uniform
I know this is counterintuitive to the “cool” factor we have all enjoyed rolling in a family sedan with a beard and hat but if you ever believe that no one knows who you are, will you be ready when they do? Vigilance is “built in” when you put on the uniform and badge. Regardless of where you are or what you are doing, you are keenly aware that to some, the mere presence of a police officer could create chaos. We see it on a weekly basis in America and the Department of Justice research reveals this to be true. The majority of officer assaults do not occur during an arrest but in other activities that may include consensual contact or simply walking into a restaurant. If you believe that no one will know what you do for a living, you may avoid the basic safety protocols that have been given to you from your first day on the job.
Train With Your Equipment
I see this potential problem each year at firearm qualification. Most cops have spent hundreds of hours training with the gear on their patrol belt but how often do you train with what you wear in a plainclothes assignment? I found this out the hard way when I was assigned to the gang unit as a supervisor many years ago. It was a non-unform assignment with one huge perk.
We all wore drop holsters.
You know the bad ass looking holsters that wrap around your leg? Looking cool was about the only benefit it gave me because I found out quick that under stress, I still believed my weapon was on my gun belt…hip height. Just as you train with your equipment in certain locations on your unform, you should do the same in a plainclothes assignment and you should do it a lot. It will take a lot of hours to replace the muscle memory that was built over many years in training but when it comes to plainclothes safety, this is a must.
Carry All The Tools
It’s easy to carry what you need on a gun belt or molle vest, but it becomes more difficult in plainclothes. You may believe that those extra magazines, handcuffs, flashlight, or knife won’t be needed but you would be wrong. Your holster may be the most important factor. Countless officer lives have been saved with retention holster technology and you should never give that up, no matter how cool you look wearing that AC/DC t-shirt.
Taking police action in plainclothes brings more risks to yourself and the suspect than a traditional officer. Search warrants and arrest warrants should have an immediate unform presence, but you should also be prepared to identify yourself to any responding officers in the area. I’ve responded to my fair share of active shooters and chaotic scenes over the last three decades and every time there was a mixture of uniforms, plain clothes, and even some cops that just left the gym. These stress filled responses with limited information has brought more tragedy than any of us care to discuss so just be sure take every precaution and ensure that your lack of immediate identity doesn’t place you in immediate danger.
Going home at night is the most important aspect of your job. Plainclothes personnel provide an immediate force multiplier for any law enforcement activity. Whether its general surveillance or drug investigations, our communities are much safer because of the work that is being done by those “not in uniform” but if we aren’t vigilant each and every day, the risks can outweigh those benefits.
Travis Yates is the author of “The Courageous Police Leader” and a 29-year veteran with the Tulsa Police Department. His seminar, “Seconds For Survival,” has been taught to thousands of narcotic officers across the nation. Travis can be contacted at www.travisyates.org.