U.S. police departments rethink 'always armed' policies in wake of officer deaths
By RAY HENRY
The Associated Press
PROVIDENCE, R.I. - An old police tradition of requiring off-duty officers to carry their weapons - "always armed, always on duty" - is being scaled back in police departments across the U.S., increasingly being blamed for the deaths of officers shot by colleagues who thought they were criminals.
The policy requires officers to respond to crimes even when they're not on duty. Supporters also say that letting officers carry their guns off-duty protects them from crooks bent on revenge.
But critics point to the shooting of officers in Providence, Rhode Island, Orlando, Florida, Oakland, California and elsewhere.
The policy is at the center of a $20 million (euro17 million) civil rights lawsuit being heard this month in Providence, where Sgt. Cornel Young Jr. was killed in 2000 while he was off duty and trying to break up a fight. He was dressed in baggy jeans, an overcoat and a baseball cap, and carrying a gun.
"Our situation is the extreme example of what can go wrong," said Sgt. Robert Paniccia, president of the Providence police union.
Young's mother, Leisa Young, says the rookie officer who shot him was not adequately trained to recognize off-duty or plainclothes officers.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police has called "always on duty" policies a costly tradition. The group, which has more than 20,000 members, recommends that off-duty officers who witness a crime call for assistance rather than pulling a weapon.
According to the FBI, 43 police officers have been killed since 1987 by friendly fire. Some were caught in crossfire, or killed by firearms mishaps. A handful, like Young, were mistaken for criminals and shot by fellow officers.
This year, an Orlando, Florida, police officer killed a man who had fired a gun outside the Citrus Bowl. The victim was a plainclothes officer working for the University of Central Florida. In 2001, two uniformed officers shot and killed an undercover detective when he trained his gun on a suspected car thief in Oakland, California.
In 1994, an off-duty police officer in New York City shot an undercover transit officer eight times in the chest. The transit officer survived.
In Providence, carrying a gun is now optional for off-duty officers, who are encouraged instead to be good witnesses if they see a crime, said Paniccia. The police union in Washington, D.C., won a similar concession after three off-duty officers were killed in separate incidents, said Officer Gregory Greene, the union's chairman.
David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, formerly worked as a Los Angeles police officer and said he usually carried a gun off duty. If police officers are properly trained, officers should have the option of carrying a gun for their own protection, he said.
"I don't want to be driving through the ghetto without a gun," he said. "What if some knucklehead I arrested spots me?"