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Chicago off duty death reminds us of risks

By Dave Smith

Early in the morning hours of February 12, 2007, Chicago Police Officer and Special Enforcement Unit member Jose Vasquez was shot and killed in the back of his Chicago home as he was exiting his vehicle. Although it’s usually the bad guy on the losing end of the altercation, this time another Brother-at-Arms has fallen while simply trying to get home.

Chicago seems to be the home of off duty shootings involving officers just trying to get home, but the lesson for all of us is an essential one: keep your head in the game until you are safely home!

Officers who have survived being robbed or ambushed have often relied on more than luck, which often seems to be the only asset we might have when the perp strikes. There are several steps we can take to increase our odds in these deadly encounters. Understand, nothing guarantees that our brothers and sisters who have fallen and gave us these lessons would have survived if they had done these steps. No doubt many may have fallen anyway, but it is our duty to learn and honor their sacrifice by carrying on the mission on and off duty.

The first step in surviving these encounters is awareness.

We emphasize the need to stay in Condition Yellow, a broad external awareness that permits us to process what is going on around us. In this day and age of distracters and stress it is not unusual for us to get on the cell phone immediately and start thinking about our time off. We essentially go mentally off duty before we’re out of harms way. This is called Condition White and is a healing, problem-solving, internal focus that does not serve us well when threats are around.

The goal is to maintain a “on patrol” mindset all the way home. Ask yourself, “Who is behind you, walking down your alley or street, parked in an odd position, or driving too slow in your neighborhood?” In other words, stay alert!

Next, make sure your off duty weapons are available and you have trained with them.

Too often, we like to buy great little (or big) off duty weapons we then fail to train with. As with all tools our life may depend on, we need to practice with them until their use becomes habitual and automatic. Some departments even require officers to qualify with their off duty guns and that seems like a very good idea since individual weapons have strengths and weaknesses some officers are not aware of.

For example, if you plan on using a special fanny pack or purse that you intend to shoot out of without drawing the weapon an automatic might not be a good choice since many devices will not allow the slide to cycle properly, giving the user one shot…and one shot only.

Another thing to take into account is what are the environmental issues you are dealing with? Going home at 5:00 PM is going mean different environmental concerns than getting off at 2:00 AM. Things such as weather, lighting in your neighborhood, special problems in the vicinity like bars or half-way houses and any other concern you can think of, should be problems you focus on when driving home.

If you are going to stop at convenience stores, banks, fast food restaurants, or other higher risk locales, you should approach with the same steps and mindset you do on duty: observe, approach, park to advantage, observe again, and then proceed.

Finally, it seems we have been writing a lot about off duty incidents and family issues. The truth is Newsline merely follows where the news leads us and 2007 has lead us to be concerned with preparing for off duty encounters as well as teaching our family members and those we truly care about the dangers the world can throw at us and the best way to react to them!

Editor's note: Reports of a mass shooting in a Utah shopping mall [Read news reports on PoliceOne.com] serve as timely confirmation of the points made in this Newsline article. One of those who confronted the active shooter was a heroic off-duty officer who happened to be in the mall and was able to distract and contain the shooter until other officers could arrive. He stands testimony to the truth that you may face an off duty attack wherever, whenever. Whether it's aimed specifically at you or focused on others, you need to always be ready to engage a threat and stop it.

If you have off-duty tips and pointers you would like to share, please e-mail them to editor@policeone.com


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