Most law enforcement officers will go through their entire careers without firing a shot in anger. While we often use our firearms to manage threats, actually having to shoot an assailant is rare. Historic record indicates most deadly force incidents involve on-duty officers. Although off-duty incidents represent a much smaller part of the picture, assaults directed at officers or their intervention in protecting members of the public can have very dire consequences. Consider the following:
Baltimore, Maryland – A police officer had just gotten off duty and was out of uniform when he arrived at his girlfriend’s home. Shortly thereafter, he was confronted by a career criminal who was out on bail awaiting trial for another offense. In an exchange of gunfire, the officer was mortally wounded and the assailant was shot in the leg.
Paterson, New Jersey – Shortly after 1:00 am, an officer entered a restaurant to pick up a take-out order. After getting his food and attempting to leave, he and the other patrons were menaced by an armed subject who demanded their money and jewelry. While attempting to thwart the robbery attempt, the officer was shot during a physical altercation. He succumbed to his wounds about an hour later.
St. Louis, Missouri – An officer is working an off duty security job in a fast food restaurant. An armed subject announces a robbery and the officer is shot in the leg. The subject flees the scene.
All of these incidents occurred in a single week.
The likelihood of being involved in an off-duty shooting incident varies widely from one jurisdiction to the next. In their definitive text Deadly Force: What We Know, authors Geller and Scott reported that in several large US cities, off-duty shootings by officers accounted for a considerable percentage of the total. Therefore, the likelihood of being shot was somewhat higher as well. Although a disproportionate amount of these events takes place in urban areas, off-duty shootings are not entirely unknown in suburban or rural communities.
Many law enforcement officers carry handguns while off-duty and some agencies even require it. However, it’s rare for the agency to offer significant training in this area. Merely qualifying for the record is hardly adequate. Unlike duty situations, you will not be in that hunter-predator mode. In fact, you may be perceived as a prey (albeit poor victim selection). Does your training address this very different confrontational dynamic?
In order to prevail in the off-duty encounter, you must develop a plan and get your priorities straight. Those same priorities that keep us safe on duty can also save our bacon when we’re on our own time.
Law enforcement remains a 24/7 occupation. Although in a technical sense, we may be off-duty, we can never afford to be switched off. Officers who live in or near communities where they work have to consider the possibility of retaliatory attacks by persons they have arrested. We all recognize that danger can visit at any time. Be aware of what is going on around you at all times. Awareness is the foundation of personal safety. You can’t possibly defend yourself if you are oblivious to the danger. When going about in modern society, whether on- or off-duty, you can never lapse into Condition White.
If put in a situation where force is the only reasonable alternative, you must be willing. Many law enforcement officers feel they have a sixth sense and can read the intentions of people they contact. However, we don’t hold a monopoly on this. Bad guys can also recognize a reluctance to use force. Hesitation kills. As ugly as it gets, force (including deadly force) may be our only recourse. Deal with the fallout after the fact. But first you have to win. Be aware, be willing.
Tactics are strategies employed before or during an event that are used to seize an advantage. Good tactics are simple, make sense and are street-proven. Common examples could include movement, use-of-cover, verbalization and controlling the light. Off duty situations may require some additional strategies. On duty officers are readily identifiable and must act in certain situations. Off-duty officers have options. Depending on the situation, acting as a trained observer may be the best course of action. However, if you or other citizens are placed in imminent danger, taking measures to prevent an unwanted outcome is necessary and justifiable. By playing your cards right, you may be able to make the element of surprise work in your favor.
Have you considered what to do if family or friends are in close proximity? If not, you better have that discussion. Conventional wisdom suggests that a disconnect between loved ones and friends is the best course-of-action, if and when possible. Should things get ugly, this may minimize risk to their safety. How about when the cavalry arrives to save the day? Contrary to a widely held opinion, we don’t have an aura surrounding our bodies that identifies us as a member of the forces of good. Responding uniformed officers are rolling up to a “man with a gun, shots fired” call. That “man with a gun” is you and it’s pretty safe to say that the responding officer’s anxiety level is fairly high as well. Is your ID, badge, star, etc. available for you to display? When challenged, do everything the responding officer demands of you. A couple of dings in the finish of your gun are not worth your life.
The best off-duty tactic is avoidance. Although we can’t live in a bubble, the chances of being involved in a violent, off-duty encounter can be minimized by avoiding certain places and activities. Frequenting after-hour clubs in bad neighborhoods, maintaining a love life complicated by jealous partners and flashing signals to other motorists would be high on the list of things best avoided.
Most agencies require individuals who carry a secondary handgun to qualify with it or at least record it with their department. This, however, is not enough. Do you really train with it? Can you efficiently draw from concealment and hit in a realistic amount of time? Practice drawing the handgun from the holster with the type of clothing normally worn off duty. One does not necessarily have to go to the range to do this. But, make sure your gun is clear and there is no live ammunition in your practice area. Working the gun from the holster and dry-fire practice can help you maintain the edge between those all too infrequent range sessions. Live-fire practice should emphasize a rapid response against one or more threats in fairly close proximity.
Of course, not all off-duty confrontations will require a deadly force response. Unlike on-duty events, you probably won’t have access to your baton, OC, or electro-discharge weapon. This leaves open hand skills as your only remedy. Against deadly threats in extreme close quarters, you may need to resort to empty-hand skills before accessing your weapon. One need not be a martial arts master, but a few simple and effective empty-hand techniques should be part of your toolbox.
Carry an off-duty handgun or not? Having a handgun with you at all time gives you options. Sure, it can be really inconvenient, but it allows some control over your own destiny. Without one, you’re just another potential victim. Today, there is a bewildering array of guns ideally suited for concealed carry. Carry the biggest gun you can effectively hide and shoot to a high standard. A compact or subcompact version of your service pistol might be the best choice. With good ammunition, a .38 Special snub or subcompact 9mm remain excellent choices. Guns chambered for a service cartridge beat the pants off any of the sub-caliber pocket pistols, which are best avoided.
Choose a holster that is comfortable, secure and effectively hides the weapon. That last quality is often forgotten. Your holster must be worn in such a way that your gun can be accessed fairly quickly. Different modes-of-carry may have to be employed, depending on the time of the year and clothing worn. In order to be as discreet as possible, one should avoid looking like a cop off-duty. We are all proud of what we do, but those shirts, hats and jackets that tell the world who we work for are best avoided. Save the cop threads for the range or the gym. How many times have you spotted an off-duty officer wearing such attire who clearly wasn’t armed? When the balloon goes up, guess who is going to be taken out first?
Blending in helps with that element of surprise. If you go about in loose, casual attire, concealing even a full-size weapon is not that difficult. Woolrich, a longtime manufacturer of quality clothing has recently expanded their Elite line to include shirts and trousers specifically designed for the armed professional. This clothing can help the off duty or plainclothes officer blend into polite society, and be prepared to deal with danger in a heart beat.
It's all about winning
Merely surviving is not enough. When thrust into a confrontational situation, whether on- or off-duty, we’ve got to come out on top. The consequences for losing are exactly the same whether you are on the clock or not. Once we get over that first hurdle of adopting the proper mindset, the rest comes easy. Be aware, be willing, but avoid potential conflict when you can. If and when danger comes to visit, employ sound tactics and use your superior skill to defeat your assailant. Combined with good equipment, these qualities give you the means to prevail. And remember, the bad guys are never off duty!