By Sgt. Betsy Smith, Street Survival Seminar Instructor
The "friendly fire" death of Officer Seneca Darden of the Norfolk, VA Police Department on Sunday May 21st, 2006 is a tragic reminder for all of us to be mindful of our response to calls when working in plainclothes.
As we discuss in the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminar, there are many tactical considerations when working in plainclothes or responding to a crisis situation off-duty, and one of the most critical is making sure you are not mistaken for an armed suspect.
It is not uncommon for plainclothes investigators to respond to in-progress calls while traveling to and from court, lunch, a follow up, or from the station. Cops LOVE in-progress calls, and it's our nature to rush in, ready to fight crime and save the day.
When responding to an incident while in plainclothes make sure you can readily be identified as a law enforcement officer. Your badge on a chain or your wallet flipped open may not be enough, and you can never assume that the responding officers know who you are.
Plainclothes officers should carry a "raid jacket" or other highly visible clothing that identifies you as a police officer. This is especially important if you are working in an area you normally wouldn't be responding to in plainclothes or you're working a multi-jurisdictional situation.
Communicate with dispatch and each other during your response if possible, and never assume that just because you respond "enroute" on the radio that the uniformed units will know that you are a plainclothes unit; for example: "Tac One is responding from Main and Central, I'm in an unmarked white Impala, I'm wearing a navy blue suit with a shoulder holster entering the scene from the west."
In the heat of a critical incident, especially when responding to an "officer needs assistance" call, it's easy to slip into "cop mode" and forget that not everyone on the scene knows you are a police officer. If you're responding to a critical incident while off-duty, identifying yourself as a police officer to other officers may be key to your very survival.
Most importantly, remember Street Survival's cardinal rule for this type of situation: UNIFORM ALWAYS TRUMPS PLAINCLOTHES! Follow any order given to you by any uniformed officer on the scene until ALL ARMED PERSONNEL have been advised that you are a law enforcement officer. Never assume that anyone knows you are a police officer until you receive verbal confirmation.
In September of 2005 Corporal Mario Jenkins of the University of Central Florida PD was working a plainclothes detail at a football game when he got into a scuffle with some students and discharged his weapon. A nearby Orlando police officer responded to the "shots fired" and unaware of Cprl. Jenkins' identity, fatally shot him.
The Street Survival Seminar instructor cadre believes that one of the best ways we can honor our fallen brothers and sisters is to learn from the circumstances that resulted in their deaths.