Taking home trouble: 5 safety considerations for take-home squads
A take-home vehicle can be a valuable benefit, but you have to recognize that the benefit comes with a cost to officer safety
If you work for an agency that issues take-home squads you’re probably thankful that you don’t have to deal with a dirty, smelly “pool car” – and also thrilled with the gas and vehicle maintenance money you’re saving.
Your city is probably happy as well, since it gives them an increase in coverage without adding personnel, decreased response times to callouts, a fleet that is more carefully maintained, and the potential for closer ties between the police and the community.
There’s no doubt that there are many advantages to take-home cars, but we can’t allow our enthusiasm for them to blind us to some of the burdens they place on officer safety.
Let’s start with an easy one. If you have a police vehicle parked in your driveway, the entire neighborhood – and everyone passing through it – will know a cop lives there. They will also know when you’re at work, and not at home. In this era of increasing violence toward law enforcement officers, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how this could have very negative consequences for you and your family.
Burglars, vandals, violent criminals, terrorists, kidnappers and all kinds of other scum would be thrilled to have this kind of valuable intelligence offered to them – for free! The only effective way to deal with this is to garage the vehicle where it can’t be seen, and be disciplined about keeping the door shut.
That car in your driveway will also invite all kinds of people to seek your help for matters that are best handled by on-duty officers. The neighbor who comes home at night to find the front door pushed in will think nothing of going first to “the cop that lives down the block” instead of calling 911 and waiting, like he should. Even though you know how risky it could be to handle something like this alone without backup or all of your duty gear, you might be pressured into doing it to keep them happy.
If a neighbor seeks your assistance and you think it’s a time-critical issue that truly requires your response, call dispatch to report the emergency, advise you are responding (include a description of what you’re wearing), and request backup from an on-duty officer. Don’t respond without first getting all of your safety gear on (all of it, including your vest) and something that will readily identify you as a police officer.
3. Home Security
The car in your driveway is an excellent target for vandals and thieves, and chances are good that the physical security at your residence is nowhere near as good as it is at the station, where the motor pool parking lot is probably fenced, well lit, monitored by video, and access is restricted by a guard or locking gate.
A large number of weapons, radios and other valuable equipment have been stolen from unattended police vehicles over the years (even from vehicles parked at the police station!) and your take-home car is especially vulnerable. Once again, the best defense is to garage the vehicle, and make sure the doors are locked up.
4. Out of Area Transit
If your residence is far from your patrol area, you may not be able to establish good communications with your primary dispatcher via radio when you’re close to home. This places you at increased risk, especially if you’re unable to access the radio nets of other local agencies. Obtain the direct-line phone numbers for dispatchers in the areas you transit and program them into your cell phone.
5. Off-Duty Hazards
Perhaps the most dangerous risks associated with take-home vehicles are the risks to officers who are allowed to use them for personal reasons when off-duty, such as a quick trip to the store. Some agencies won’t permit this, but many agencies will.
In these situations, officers are unlikely to have their full complement of duty gear and safety equipment (body armor, flashlight, less-than-lethal options, radio) with them, and are likely to be carrying a more compact and less capable firearm (if any – perish the thought!). They are also likely to be in “street clothes” instead of an easily identifiable police uniform. All of these things make them less prepared to deal with dangerous situations and more likely to be misidentified by responding officers or lawfully armed citizens.
Some agencies require officers to justify their take-home status by requiring a minimum number of contacts or stops. This may encourage officers to make stops when they are off-duty, out of their area, inadequately equipped, or worse yet, accompanied by family members.
Even if an officer resolves to never get involved or initiate a stop off-duty, it may be forced upon him or her. The officer may become the unfortunate target of an impromptu ambush attack, or blunder into a crime in progress that cannot be avoided or escaped. If you’re in a marked vehicle, you probably won’t be able to ignore a violent crime in progress, or a citizen that seeks your help. If you happen to drive by the bank just as a robbery team runs out the door and spots you, do you really want to be sitting behind the wheel of a black and white bullet magnet wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a pocket-sized auto or snubby revolver?
If you want to stay low profile and preserve your option to be a witness instead of a participant, take the family wagon for personal business instead. Especially if the family is going with you!
A take-home vehicle can be a valuable benefit, but you have to recognize that the benefit comes with an associated cost to officer safety. The bad guys don’t care if it’s your day off, you’re 10-7, or if you’re out of your assigned patrol area. The star or shield on your door makes you a target, so keep alert, be smart and be safe out there.
This article, originally published on 03/25/2016, has been updated.