Like most cops, Bob Willis considered his home a safe haven–until the Christmas Eve a gang of Asian criminals tried to crash through his front door and he ended up, barefoot in the snow, in a gunfight in his back yard. That startling ordeal, which terrorized not only his family but a house full of holiday guests as well, remains unsolved. But Willis, then a patrol officer in New Berlin (Wisconsin), has no doubt it was a strike of revenge…and an ominous warning: Stop interfering with a roving band of armed robbers and “opportunity predators” that his department had been pursuing—or cops will pay.
Revenge threats are nothing new in law enforcement. Most are meaningless—offenders emotionally blowing off steam because of the disruption you’ve caused in their lives or an attempt to leverage some influence for themselves through fear and intimidation. But a deadly minority of threats prove all too real: the New York officer whose face was blown away in a shotgun ambush by a motorist incensed over a traffic ticket…the Canadian officer stabbed multiple times on courthouse steps by the vengeful brother of an offender he’d killed…the Hawaiian detective fatally shot through the window of his home in retaliation for a gang drug bust…the East Coast officer warned to “back off” of a local drug gang by members who burst into his home and put a shotgun to his mother’s head, to mention just a few legacies of vengeance on record.
“Any threat should be taken seriously,” says Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Assn. and a former sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. “Once you start dismissing your adversaries, underestimating them, you can get yourself in trouble real quick.”
So what can you do to protect yourself, particularly off-duty when potential retaliators may consider you and your family to be most vulnerable? And how can you balance a warranted heightened concern for protection with a “normal” lifestyle? PoliceOne consulted prominent law enforcement trainers familiar with revenge attacks. Some have survived personal life-threatening retaliation threats. Here are their professional observations and recommendations:
Threat Assessment & Avoidance
Despite whatever angry machismo they may hurl at you, most offenders accept being arrested and even sent to prison as part of the cops-and-criminals cotillion. To “make” those who may have genuine revenge potential, stay aware of just whom you are dealing with.
“Most perps you contact don’t have the energy, the mental stability, the future-focused orientation or the planning skills to hunt you down,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, a psychologist specializing in law enforcement issues and executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. “But if you’re threatened by someone who has gone after and gotten other people who’ve crossed them, that’s a red flag for extra caution. The best predictor of future behavior is always past behavior.”
Lewinski himself reportedly has been the subject of a murder contract issued after he testified on behalf of an officer who killed a drug gang member in Kansas.
“Offenders who are likely to attack—even criminal gangs—for the most part tend to act impulsively in reaction to what is going on immediately in their life,” he explains. “The closer you are in time to a crisis that they might retaliate for, the greater your jeopardy.” Even a coldly calculated contract hit is unlikely to occur past a 3-9 month time frame, he believes.
"Just setting up obstacles that make it tougher to get to you and surprise you will defeat most people,” he says. “If they can’t get you when they are most distressed and vengeful, other crises are likely to come along in their turbulent lives to distract them.”
The best way to defeat a threat is to avoid it in the first place. “A little respect for the people you deal with on the street goes a long way,” explains Lou Savelli, a former NYPD gang commander and author of The Pocket Guide to Gangs Across America and Their Symbols. “You can do the job aggressively and efficiently and still be respectful. Bad guys don’t like to lose face,” especially gangbangers who often have little but their pride and wear it on their sleeve.
Adds Bob Willis, now a police trainer at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, a sworn deputy with the Brown County (Wisconsin) Sheriff’s Dept. and a part-time lake patrol officer with the Town of Merton P.D.: “It’s bad enough that some people will retaliate against you just for doing your job. It’s wise not to increase that possibility by being an asshole.”
Hardening Your Home
The purpose of fortifying your home is not only to discourage halfhearted would-be avengers but to delay the most determined long enough for you to reach a weapon or call for help. That could mean outfitting your place with:
• special metal doors with solid wood cores, making them harder to knock down, splinter or bend;
• dead-bolt locks with long, enlarged screws deep-set into the frame of your home, not just into the door jamb;
• sensor-activated yard lights, possibly combined with a tv-camera system to give you clear views of the perimeter;
• one-touch panic alarms strategically installed throughout as part of an overall alarm system;
• multiple phones, including a night-stand cell phone, pre dialed to 911 so you can quickly transmit an emergency call even if your phone lines are cut;
• not to mention that old faithful, a big, bad-ass, barking dog.
Don’t make the mistake of many officers and civilians alike: beefing up the front of your house while ignoring vulnerabilities in the rear, such as flimsily framed sliding glass doors that can be easily breached. Many officers, of course, favor easily accessed guns for home defense, especially shotguns. If you have a locking system for child safety, be sure you practice with it enough that you can unlock it fast under high stress.
And don’t dismiss the effectiveness of other weapons against intruders in desperate circumstances. “The same things in a family fight that can be threatening to an officer can be used in your home by yourself and your family to defend yourselves,” reminds Lt. Wayne Corcoran of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Dept. and a longtime survival trainer for the state of Arizona.
Apart from a firearm, which may in reality go with the officer to work, Corcoran personally favors fire extinguishers. He recommends stashing several throughout your place, including near doors, and keeping three smaller ones in all the family cars (one each in the glove box, under the seat and in the trunk). “You can grab a fire extinguisher fast with one hand and fire it off from practically any position, “even between your legs, he says. Unlike OC, “it works immediately. The person blasted can’t see, can’t breathe and you can beat him over the head with it if you have to. What more do you want from a weapon?”
Engage your family in planning your home defense, understanding that you will not always be there to single-handedly repel an assault. “You should have and practice a family attack plan the same as you do a fire plan,” Corcoran advises. “It’s not a service to them if you shield your family from the risks they may face.”
Consider talking to neighbors, too, depending on your comfort level. Encourage them to call the police if they see strange cars around or suspicious people on your property. One advantage of living in a “cop enclave,” as many urban officers tend to do, is that “you have other people looking out for you, many savvy eyes and ears monitoring and dealing with what’s going on,” says Bill Lewinski. If an avenger has you under surveillance, “someone is likely to notice.”
There’s a disadvantage to enclave living to be aware of, though. “When you work the streets and then come home to a cop neighborhood, you tend to stay continually in the police culture,” Lewinski says. “For your psychological health, there needs to be a disconnect at some point between your work life and your home life.”
Part of that disconnect, Lewinski points out, “needs to be a place for yourself, a cocoon, where you can isolate yourself from all the adversarial things you face in the world, a place where you can ‘take the uniform off’ and recharge.” With proper fortification, that place can still be your home.
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 his 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 (Louisiana) 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 that’s 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. 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 are 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 (Arizona) Sheriff’s Dept.
Get 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, like 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,” Coach 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 gunbelt 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.” Also, be conscious of what you leave easily-accessible in your car. A list of officers’ home addresses that turned up in a bomb suspect’s possessions in Iowa is believed to have been stolen from an officer’s car. Insider leaks can also be a source of sensitive information for 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 Lou Savelli and members of an anticrime unit he headed had reason to expect violent retaliation during an intensive investigation of the Latin Kings, 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 have been planted inside as civilian employees;
• they checked 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 that they were not cowed, the officers even more aggressively went after the Latin Kings, 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, executive director of the California Gang Investigators Assn., agrees that “coming down like a ton of bricks” on any person or group that threatens officers can be an invaluable departmental response. “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 Wayne 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 accouterments.
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 in the opinion of Bob Willis that leaves officers and agencies alike unnecessarily vulnerable.
The Vital Balance
The experts PoliceOne consulted for this series all agree: retaliatory threats should not be automatically dismissed, you should do what you can to protect yourself and your family, including cultivating a mindset of alertness (“awareness if 90 per cent of successful protection,” says one), but it is 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 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, Bob Willis notes, “Nobody ever said being a cop is easy.”
About the Author
Chuck co-founded the original Street Survival® Seminar and the Street Survival® Newsline, authored three of the best-selling law enforcement training textbooks and helped produce numerous award-winning training videos. His nearly three decades of work earned him the prestigious O.W. Wilson Aware for outstanding contributions to law enforcement and the American Police Hall of Fame Honor Aware for distinguished achievement in public service.