4 off-duty OPSEC tips for police officers

It’s important to be discreet about your LE status and maintain a low profile in order to avoid becoming a target


I grew up as the son of a cop who entered service in the 1960s and hit his stride in the early 1970s, when violent attacks on police officers hit a peak that has since been unmatched.

I was taught to use discretion about my dad’s law enforcement status. My family was proud of him and his profession, but we also knew there were lots of people out there who didn’t like cops, so we had to be mindful about what we said, and when and where we said it. 

The importance of these practices was occasionally reinforced when he became the target of specific threats. Later in life as a military officer, I learned we had been practicing “operational security.”

Remind family and friends that when you’re out in public together, they should never say anything that betrays your status or the fact you’re carrying a weapon. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)
Remind family and friends that when you’re out in public together, they should never say anything that betrays your status or the fact you’re carrying a weapon. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)

What is OPSEC?

Operational security – or OPSEC, as it is better known – deals with the protection of information to deny its exploitation by the enemy.

We’ve are all familiar with the “loose lips sink ships” slogan from World War II, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Your habits, patterns of behavior, the way you share information, the places and settings where you share that information, and the way you dispose of sensitive materials all contribute to operational security.

An important part of OPSEC is understanding that the enemy can take a lot of seemingly unimportant bits of information and put them together into something useful. In the military, we knew that even the smallest thing could be helpful to the enemy, so the focus on OPSEC was continuous.

In a post-Ferguson world, where officers are being targeted by violent criminals and radicals for the uniform they wear, it’s important to make OPSEC a part of your life. It’s important to be discreet about your LE status and maintain a low profile in order to avoid becoming a target, and there are four ways to do it:

1. Sanitize Those Signs

“Sanitize” your social media sites, vehicles, clothing and homes and get rid of the clues that identify you as a law enforcement officer. This includes your Facebook page, radio code license plate frames, “Thin Blue Line” bumper stickers, agency hats and tees, and other obvious tells. 

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be proud of your service, only that it’s foolish to lay out a trail of breadcrumbs. 

Don’t forget to take a look at the way you dress off duty. Are you wearing an “off-duty uniform” by mixing “tactical” clothing or uniform items with civilian clothes? That is a surefire way to advertise you’re a cop.

2. Fix Bad Habits

Do you commute to and from work in uniform? If so, stop that immediately. Put your uniform in the trunk or a garment bag, where it won’t be seen if you have to make a quick stop, or if a taller vehicle pulls alongside you. 

Covering up with a light jacket isn’t good enough. If I had a nickel for every time I saw some guy in uniform pants and boots, and a Major League Baseball pullover jacket going into Starbucks, I’d be a rich man. You’re not fooling anybody. Remember, the thugs out there are as good at picking you out as you are at picking them out. 

I hope you’re carrying off duty, and I also hope that every time you carry a gun, you’re carrying your police ID and badge. I know it’s convenient to carry that flat badge in the same wallet as your license, credit cards and cash, but it’s important to keep them separate. You don’t want to accidentally flash your badge when you’re paying for groceries at the market – and have the ex-con in line behind you see it – or have the clerk make a stupid joke that “outs” you in front of everybody. 

I know it’s a pain, but carry two separate wallets. Neck chain and belt clip badges also work, but be careful to not accidentally expose them.

3. Educate Your Family and Friends

Talk to your spouse and kids about situational awareness, and the importance of discretion. You don’t want your wife talking on the phone about your work schedule when she’s in line at the store, and you don’t want your kids posting a bunch of stuff about your job on social media (including “hero photos”) for all the world to see.

I know your spouse wants to help, but pick up your own dry cleaning and don’t hang your uniform in the window of the car. Tell your sweetie that the pendant necklace with the little badge is best reserved for special occasions and environments.

Most important, remind family and friends that when you’re out in public together, they should never say anything that betrays your status or the fact you’re carrying a weapon. You don’t want the extra attention and you don’t want to lose the tactical advantage of surprise, if action becomes necessary.

4. Use Your Head,  Ditch Your Ego

Some of you may think these tips are signs of fear or weakness, and reject them. You need to put your ego aside and use your head. Do you have a spouse, child, or significant other who drives your car from time to time? If so, do you want them to be followed home by the next guy who wants to “put wings on pigs?” 

Do you want to come out of the store and find your tires slashed or your windows broken by a thug who is looking for an unattended gun in “the cop’s car?”

Do you want to die in front of your friends and family when the gang of three toughs decides to ambush you and “even the score” after seeing the logo on your baseball cap?

We need you in this fight and can’t afford to lose you. Use your head and stay safe out there – both on and off duty.

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