with Dr. Richard Weinblatt
10 tips for officers engaged in off-duty incidents
In the wake of last year's Salt Lake City mall shooting incident involving an off-duty Ogden City Police officer, I spoke with one of our police academy recruit classes. As typical the almost 40 newly minted “blue shirts” were eager to embark on their law enforcement careers and make a difference. They were eager to get involved and for most of them, that included the notion of off-duty action to protect and serve.
This diverse group of budding law enforcers and I talked about off-duty involvements and some of the considerations they should ponder when they get settled in an agency. Shootings of plain clothed off-duty officers are all too familiar to those of us in the business. Even the Ogden City officer reported to the media that tense moments transpired as he was confronted by the first on-duty responding uniformed Salt Lake City Police officer. He said that he shouted repeatedly that he was an off-duty officer and feared that the patrol officers would shoot him.
This Weinblatt’s tips column may provide some new food for thought for new law enforcers and a reminder for the vets out there.
- Know your department policies. Make sure that you are familiar with your agency’s departmental policies, especially geographical jurisdictional issues, off-duty authority, and firearms regulations.
- Train with your weapon. If you choose to be armed (within your agency’s policy parameters), make sure that you have qualified with the weapon. The firearm should be checked over by your department’s armorer. You should practice drawing it from whatever holster you are utilizing. Chances are you are not using the on-duty rig that you qualified with. Drawing from another holster will be a different kind of experience. You don’t want to get familiar with a new type of draw in the middle of a hot situation. And while I’m on the topic of the gun, carry an extra magazine. While it may be inconvenient, try to carry an extra magazine. Nothing is more inconvenient than not having that extra ammo when it really counts.
- Pick your holster wisely. Before you commit to an expensive holster that seems to be the fad for the moment, do some research. Read reviews of holster products and consult different officers in your department. More importantly, don’t go with what any one person recommends until you’ve checked it out yourself and see if it works for you. What works for one officer may not necessarily work for another. Visit the P1 Police Holsters page.
- Devise family plan. Make sure your family is aware of a physical or verbal code you give them to leave the area if you perceive a threat. Your training and observation skills will probably cue you in to any issues well before they’ve figured it out. My wife today knows to grab our five-year-old and move away from quickly if I tell her to do so. (Also read Justifying off duty preparedness to your family: A Street Survival Q & A by Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith.)
- Keep your badge with your gun. As many critical incident engaged off-duty officers find themselves challenged by responding officers or deputies, make sure that your badge is readily visible. While they may tunnel vision only on your firearm, your repetitive verbal and visual identification may save your life. I keep a badge holder (with badge) clipped to my off-duty holster so I am forced to take it with me anytime the off-duty Glock 30 .45 goes mobile from it’s resting spot. In my mind, no badge equals no gun. They always accompany each other.
- Avoid wearing identifiers. Don’t advertise who you are before you need to. Wearing police T-shirts and other identifiers off-duty tip off others to your status and may give them the tactical advantage. For that matter, law enforcement window decals on your car expose you in the same manner and could also invite vandals to target your vehicle.
- Charge your cell phone. Since most off-duty officers do not walk around with their radio (they are a little hard to conceal in addition to the gun), invest in a good cell phone with reliable phone service. That phone may be your lifeline to get reinforcements to come to your assistance. You don’t want the battery to go dead when you most need it.
- Evaluate your need to act. Think about whether you truly need to intervene. This one is hard since time is not a plentiful commodity when an incident erupts. Sometimes your best course of action is to be an observant witness. You should weight whether your engaging the suspect or suspects will likely save lives or create larger dangers.
- Fight complacency. While officers who are on-duty tend to be observant, it is easy for us to go into a lower level of alertness when we’re sans uniform. Be observant, Just as when you’re answering calls during a tour of duty, be alert to your surroundings. Do not enter stores and other locations without first checking out the interior.
- Document your actions. If you are involved in an off-duty shooting situation, after consulting with your attorney, union rep., etc., make sure that you document your actions and articulate your need to intervene and use deadly force.
Thankfully, off-duty shootings do not happen everyday to law enforcers. When they do explode into reality, officers need to be prepared to engage, protect themselves and the public, and win. With these ten tips in mind, losing should not an option.