In the Force Science survey we reported on in our last transmission, officers were asked to describe any blue-on-blue encounters they had personally experienced. In all accounts submitted, tragedy was successfully avoided, although in some cases just barely.
Officers in plainclothes who potentially could have been fatally mistaken for suspects survived for a variety of reasons: early personal recognition by the officers who challenged them...a fast and loud verbal identification of themselves as cops...the failure, deliberately or by happenstance, to have a gun visible...the display of a badge or other police-specific identifier...descriptions of themselves called in pre-emptively to dispatchers before a field contact occurred...close compliance with commands and with training — and, to be honest, pure luck in some instances more than any defensive strategy.
Circumstances do not always favor such factors, as the toll of officers killed by “friendly” fire sadly attests. Yet just as there are lessons to learn from the fatalities, there can be benefits to be gained from studying what did work in confrontations that ended well.
Here, lightly edited, is a sampling of survivors who shared their experiences in the survey, voices of experience worth noting. Be conscious of how easily blue-on-blue confrontations can occur — and how easily even successes could have gone bad.
From Challenging Officers
“I started putting my finger on the trigger to fire”
I was assisting in working a vehicle crash where an individual shot himself while driving. Our dispatcher radioed me that a white male subject driving a U-Haul truck had pointed a handgun at a female and her passengers during a “road rage” in the backed up traffic.
I grabbed my shotgun and another uniformed trooper and we started walking through traffic until we saw the U-Haul. We surprised the driver and ordered him out of the truck at gunpoint. He left a 9mm Beretta on the driver’s seat.
He hesitated in raising his hands, and I remember lining him up in my sights. Thankfully, he then complied.
After getting him handcuffed, I saw a large, bearded man in plainclothes approaching us from approximately 100 yards away. I could clearly see a small silver handgun glinting off the sun in his right hand. I recall seeing his left hand raised, but at the time I locked in on the weapon. I recall him saying something, but I could not hear what. I know now he was yelling, “State Police!”
I remembered thinking, What the hell is going on today? People have lost their @#%#!! minds!
I raised my shotgun in his direction and screamed at him to drop the weapon. He hesitated, just like in the U-Haul incident seconds before. I yelled again, “Drop the weapon now!” I started putting my finger on the trigger to fire. He put the gun down just as I started to apply pressure.
At that very moment, I realized he was one of our undercover troopers working drug enforcement. He had his badge held high in his left hand the whole time.
I wrung my hands for weeks after this. I thank God I didn’t shoot him, as I know how close I came to killing one of my own.
“The key to his safety: He complied”
Dispatch informed me an off-duty officer was holding a burglary suspect at gunpoint. When I arrived, I saw a subject pointing a pistol at a subject on the ground. I stayed at my vehicle and ordered the standing subject to back away.
When he was a safe distance away, I ordered him to place his weapon on the ground and back further away. Both subjects were handcuffed by two different teams, and when the scene was safe, the armed off-duty officer was identified by his peace officer ID. He was unhandcufffed and thanked for his cooperation.
The key to his safety was the fact that he complied with our commands.
“Very scary stuff”
My unit was set up in a poorly lit parking area, watching a target apartment for a drug delivery. When the suspect arrived and quickly went for the apartment door, we rushed toward him with weapons drawn, only to realize that another narcotics unit had come around the other side of the building and was also challenging him — and challenging my unit.
From 14 to 16 plainclothes detectives were in a brief standoff. Very scary stuff.
Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and nobody fired. Since then, our units are required to use deconfliction software before setting up surveillance.
“I went with my gut”
I responded to an armed-robbery call where I spotted someone I believed to be the suspect running with a drawn gun toward a uniformed officer who had just arrived on scene. It appeared the apparent suspect was about to attack the officer, which led me to consider shooting.
As I drew my gun, I noticed something about him that told me he was a cop. In retrospect I think it was the way he was handling his gun, but at the time I just had a feeling that he was one of us.
Despite my deep concern for the safety of the other uniformed officer, I went with my gut and lowered my gun. It turned out I was right. Thank God that my subconscious picked up that clue and prevented me going any further.
“Very clear, very concise commands”
I conducted a felony car stop on two men. The driver was an off-duty deputy. He identified himself as such and said he was armed (belt holster).
I gave him very clear, very concise commands. I told him when to move and when not to. Luckily, he followed directions. From a position of advantage with other officers covering, I recovered his firearm. He was temporarily placed in the back of a patrol vehicle. I also checked him for a handcuff key, as I didn’t yet know the outcome of the situation.
“A habit of jumping ‘hot’ calls”
I was the handling officer on a silent robbery alarm at a bank shortly after I was released from the FTO program. As I made my approach behind some cars across from the bank, I observed a male adult in civilian attire standing outside the main entrance, holding a revolver at his side.
Believing he was an accomplice in an ongoing robbery, I radioed my observation to other responding officers and was preparing to take this individual under fire when another officer asked me for a physical description of the guy. When I gave it, the officer began yelling that this man was an undercover dope cop.
It turned out that this cop had a habit of jumping “hot” calls. I neither knew that nor recognized him because I was so new to the department.
From At-Risk Officers
“Start shouting: ‘Undercover officer!’”
My undercover partner and I were compromised on a sell-bust and we unwisely decided to attempt the apprehension ourselves, despite the loss of our backup. That resulted in us chasing the suspects down a busy residential street. As soon as two black UCs were spotted chasing two whites down the street with our guns drawn, multiple 911 calls were made.
As soon as I started hearing sirens, I told my partner, “Holster up, kneel down, interlace your fingers behind your head, and start shouting, ‘Undercover officer! Undercover officer! Undercover officer!’
We lost the suspects, but possibly saved our lives.
“No issues or miscommunications”
One night I heard what I thought were gunshots in my apartment building. I called 911 and told them I would be wearing shorts, a hat that said POLICE, and my vest on outside my t-shirt. I took my badge wallet and my gun and searched the area.
I found a drunk who was setting off M-80s in the breezeway and I detained him for the police. My weapon was secured in my waistband when they arrived and I was holding my credentials out for them to see. There were no issues or miscommunications.
“Automatic gunfire touched off”
I was driving a seized vehicle and wearing street clothes, doing surveillance to support an eventual search warrant. Automatic gunfire touched off about a block away and I went to assist, beating uniformed officers by only a few minutes.
Our agency issued a fluorescent orange armband with the department patch sewn on it to all sworn officers, with orders to place it on your strong-side bicep, if possible, and to have your badge clearly visible before any action is taken when you were in plainclothes.
I did both these things before exiting my car and there was absolutely no confusion when the uniformed officers arrived.
“Easily could have gone sideways quickly”
I was part of a narcotics team conducting a controlled drug buy. When the informant got back to the market parking lot where our detective was waiting for him, an unrelated felon who had a beef with the informant confronted him and then tried to run him over.
The detective intervened at gunpoint, and the market owner called 911 to report a man with a gun pointing it at someone in his lot.
We usually conduct drug buys on an administrative radio channel that is not always monitored by dispatch. Because of this, I always monitor the primary patrol channel in case of any dispatched calls in the area we’re working. When I heard the “armed subject” call go out, I knew by the description it was likely our detective.
I was able to radio this info to responding patrol officers. At the time, we had numerous new officers on the street who were not familiar with detectives. This easily could have gone sideways quickly.
“Drop the gun now!”
Pulling up to a hotel during the night with my family, I saw a vehicle enter the parking lot, closely followed by a trooper in pursuit. Both vehicles went to the back of the hotel, out of sight. I got my family inside the lobby and was standing outside, thinking I’d check on the trooper, when I saw a male subject running from behind the place. I did not see the trooper and was immediately concerned that something had happened to him.
I was in plainclothes, but I drew my off-duty weapon and a small SureFire flashlight and began chasing the suspect, yelling, “State Police! Stop now! Get on the ground!”
He ran into a drainage ditch filled with mud and got stuck. I approached, still giving him commands. He raised his hands. In seconds I heard sirens and was relieved that other troopers were on the way. Only when I heard a trooper yelling, “Drop the gun now!,” did it occur to me that I was in plainclothes.
I immediately identified myself as “Trooper, Kentucky State Police!” I half expected that I was going to get shot, but I laid my gun down while keeping my flashlight focused on the suspect. The trooper quickly assessed that I was who I said I was. He covered the suspect as I got my badge out.
“I was constantly on the phone with 911”
The victim of a knife attack called me because he trusted me more than other police or medics. We agreed to meet at a convenience store.
I had my badge on a chain around my neck, exposed to view. I was constantly on the phone with 911 and advised who I was; where I was; the make, model, and tag number of my vehicle; my height, hair color, facial hair color, clothing; and that I was armed.
My pistol was in my holster and I was tending to the victim’s gaping neck wound when the uniformed officer arrived. Luckily, he knew me.
“I used some jargon”
I was involved in an OIS while off duty. I had the person calling the police describe my attire for responding uniformed officers. When the first one arrived, I raised my hands while holding my gun in such a way that it was obvious I couldn’t fire.
Although I did not know the responding officer, I used some of our department’s jargon and told him my assignment. I was aware of the actions I should take due to training. It all went fine.
“If possible, I would holster”
When I was first on scene as a detective, I found it important to communicate via radio or by cell phone if in an outside jurisdiction. I usually gave clothing and vehicle descriptions.
If possible, I would holster before patrol units arrived. If not, I tried to take a position of advantage or cover to provide a little extra time for uniforms to adjust to the situation.
“Now that I reflect...”
There have been several times when I’ve been involved in off-duty situations and had to advise an on-duty officer who I was and what was happening. I have never had an officer challenge me too much, but I have been lucky, because now that I reflect on these situations, things could have gotten ugly real quick.
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