Although it has been overshadowed by all the media attention being paid to the Wisconsin state senators using Illinois as a refuge, there was other controversy brewing in the Land of Lincoln this past week. The Illinois Attorney General announced that she had no reason not to release the list of Illinois residents who hold a Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) Card, the permit you must be issued in Illinois in order to simply own any firearm. This understandably caused outrage among gun owners throughout the state. Police officers — who are no longer exempt from FOID restrictions even if all they possess is a duty handgun — are concerned that releasing the FOID information will make it even easier to target cops for burglaries, harassment, and retaliatory actions.
Cops must use their home addresses when applying for the gun ownership permit (the only one of its kind in the United States), making it easier for criminals and anti-gun zealots to find us, our families, and other law-abiding gun owners. Opposing legislation has already been proposed, and as we battle this out it’ll be “politics as usual” in my home state of Illinois. But how does a crimefighter in any state keep the bad guys from finding us in our homes when we’re off duty?
When I was first hired as a cop, my FTO taught me to protect my identity — my home address, my phone number, even where my parents lived. Back then it was pretty simple: an unlisted phone number, using the department’s address on my driver’s license, and vehicle registration, and getting a post office box for my mail was about all we needed to do. Today, thanks to cell phones, GPS technology, and the Internet, we’re all way too easy to find. Here are just a few things to think about when it comes to protecting yourself, your home, and especially your family from predatory criminals.
I’m crazy about Facebook, Twitter, and other online social networking sites, but they all have features that make you easy to find. Don’t indicate what police department you work at on your Facebook, or exactly what town you live in, turn off the automatic “location” on your Smartphone when you Tweet or update your Facebook status. When you post photos, make sure your license plate, your house numbers and other personal identifiers don’t show. There are literally thousands of articles online about the safe use of social networking — read a few and act accordingly — and more importantly, make sure your family does the same, especially your teenagers. Preach “prevention” early and often.
The Dreaded DMV
Most information that you have to supply for your driver’s license and your automobile registration are easily obtained by anyone. If your department allows, use their street address instead of your own. Forget the vanity license plates that say stuff like “Sarge 1” and “Cop Gal” and “Busted.” They’re cute but they are also a sure way to get your car “keyed” at the mall or worse. The same goes for your FOP stickers or your PD baseball cap in the back window; what used to be symbols of pride on our personal cars are now just putting us and our loved ones at risk. A post office box is still a good idea for your mail, especially if you receive police-related publications or order law enforcement-related products through the mail, although be mindful that dirtbags sometimes work inside the post office too.
You’ll be surprised what pops up. Everything from the latest case you testified in to your most recent real estate transaction to your old dating site profile that you forgot to deactivate when you got engaged. You’ll also be offered a hundred ways to locate yourself online. Go into the “people finder” sites like ZabaSearch, USA People Search, Yahoo People, and even the White Pages. You’ll see how quickly you can find your house and print out an aerial photograph of your back yard, most of it for free. Many of the people-finder sites will remove your information by request, but as soon as you do that a new one pops up. The bottom line? We can no longer remain anonymous thanks to the Internet, so be prepared to defend your home and your family from someone who really wants to find you.
Don’t Forget the “Old School” Methods
Not all criminals are tech-savvy — or even need to be — in order to find us. We still need to be aware of what route we use on the drive home from work, make sure to vary yours. Look for possible surveillance, especially if you’ve been involved in a particularly hot arrest or contentious court case lately. Be mindful of where you park your take-home cruiser if you have one and check it every time for signs of tampering for you start it up. Again, prevention, not paranoia, is the key.
You must be prepared to take action off duty if you are stalked by someone who might want to exact some revenge — sometimes even a speeding ticket can drive people to track you down and confront you on your own turf. Make sure you are always the hunter, never the prey. Be safe!