Blue on Blue: When a suspect looks like a cop

This month, PoliceOne examines the sensitive issue of police officers who suddenly become deadly threats to other cops - we begin with the threat posed by impersonators

Early in the morning of Sunday, January 29th of this year, I was saddened by the news that a Santa Maria (Calif.) police officer was shot and killed by fellow officers as they tried to arrest him.

The young officer — who had reportedly been under investigation for sexual misconduct with a teenage girl involved in the department’s Explorer program — apparently turned his gun on the officers who were forced to confront him at a DUI checkpoint that Saturday night. 

It just so happens that I was in my car when I heard this news, en route to day two of a two-day firearms class with my good friend Ken Hardesty.  In attendance would be a half dozen or more law enforcers I’d met the previous day.  Needless to say, the incident in Santa Maria was discussed in depth during our brief breaks to ‘top off mags and suck down water.’ 

Gone Seriously Off the Rails
Because of those conversations at that class, I decided we’d eventually need to deal with this blue-on-blue issue here on PoliceOne.  My plan was to let the Santa Maria incident fade from our immediate radar screens, revisiting it when some of the emotional precipitation had evaporated. 

Then, not even three weeks later, an ICE agent in Long Beach who shot and injured a colleague was himself killed by a third agent who “intervened and fired his weapon to prevent additional rounds being fired at the victim.” 

Not even a week after that, a Massachusetts officer reportedly killed himself after shooting a fellow cop in the groin. 

Had he not made the decision to take his own life, it’s entirely possible he would have soon been in an armed confrontation with the officers who were searching for him.  Who knows how that might have ended? 

In all three cases, these police officers had done something far afield of the high ethical standards to which police officers are held.  Something, somewhere, had gone seriously off the rails for each of these guys. 

“I guess I have to do that blue-on-blue series sooner than later,” I muttered to myself as I contemplated three eerily-similar incidents occurring within weeks of each other. 

So, I called my guys. 

Dude Looks Like a LEO
I asked the abovementioned Ken Hardesty to write an article on dealing with armed threats no matter what “uniform” they happen to be wearing.  I asked Larry Miller to write a column looking at the psychological effects of having a gunfight with a fellow-officer.  I asked Dan Marcou to write something on one specific blue-on-blue incident which was particularly deadly. I didn’t even have to ask Chuck Joyner for a column on the blue-on-blue shootings that come from negligent discharges — by pure happenstance it just appeared in my inbox. 

With all of those angles covered, I’m confident we’re going to provide a pretty comprehensive resource for your consideration during the next week and a half. 

With “my guys” Hardesty, Marcou, Miller, and Joyner handling the really tough stuff — actually having to make a deadly-force decision on a “good-guy-turned-suddenly-bad-guy” — I want to begin this series with something that’s been bothering me since Anders Breivik donned a homemade police uniform and committed the deadliest attack in Norway since World War II

Aerial images of Brevic’s deadly attack on the island of Utoya, located about 20 miles outside of Oslo, show a man whose movements and appearance were carefully tailored to make those innocent civilians believe he was a law enforcement officer. 

His disguise didn’t fool the Oslo police who responded, but it could have.  Had he been even just a little bit better at his ruse, he might have caused just a millisecond of hesitation in the responding officers — just enough time to launch a deadly attack on those coppers. 

Toward the end of last year, we got word that a bunch of gang bangers along the United States border with Mexico had been posing as police and raiding illegal gambling parlors.  Again, those disguises were enough to fool the unknowing civilians, but an experienced officer could see through the subterfuge. 

But let’s not get overconfident.  Remember the case of Vincent Richardson, a 14-year-old boy who sauntered into a Chicago police station and successfully fooled a whole slew of coppers in his January 2009 stunt impersonating a police officer

Had Richardson had malevolent intent, he could have done an incredible amount of damage.  And Richardson is by no means an anomaly.  Impersonators have shown up recently in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Colorado, Maryland, Oregon, Delaware, Florida, Oklahoma, Idaho, California, Wyoming, Illinois, Michigan, New Hampshire, Indiana, Ohio, Alaska, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Texas.

“Police impersonators pose a dangerous threat to law enforcement officers,” said PoliceOne Columnist Lance Eldridge. “Not only can they create a rift between law enforcement professionals and the community they serve, but they are also a direct threat to officer safety. In a more volatile, deadly force setting the results could be tragic. Seeing another uniformed officer could result in hesitation to act appropriately, possibly costing the real officer his or her life.” 

Not to put too fine a point on it, if the subject is an armed and deadly threat, he or she must be treated as such, no matter what “uniform” they appear to be wearing.  Cops need to be prepared to make that deadly-force decision whether you are dealing with someone you know personally to be an officer of the law, or you’re dealing with someone whose disguise just happens to be really clever. 

Like everything else in law enforcement, if you don’t mentally confront the possible scenario in advance, you will likely be a little behind the curve when that terrible day eventually comes. It’s really all just about your when-then thinking. 

As always, stay safe out there my friends. 

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, responsible for providing police training content and expert analysis on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 900 feature articles and tactical tips. Doug is also responsible for planning and recording the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, as well as being the on-air host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug also works closely with the PoliceOne Academy to develop training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Doug regularly represents PoliceOne as a public speaker in a variety of forums and is available for media interviews — he has appeared on numerous local and national radio and television news programs, and has been quoted in a host of print publications. 

Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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