Photo: Richard Valdemar
Gang members remember an officer who has had significant contacts with the gang. As an officer specifically assigned to gangs, you will be especially remembered. Eventually, while off-duty, you'll run into a gang banger who recognizes you. Will you be prepared when this happens?
The first thing I learned working gangs in Compton as a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy was that our issued Smith & Wesson Model 15, four-inch .38 revolver was not enough. Those who figured this out ordered stainless Smith & Wesson Model 66 six-inch .357 Magnum revolvers and an additional Model 60 five-shot back-up gun. The larger, six-inch-barreled shiny guns definitely got the attention of the gang members, but the change was more for function than form. Since we came into contact with multiple gang members in their natural habitat daily, 11 hot hollow points was better than six.
We also beefed up the issued Ithaca Model 37 12-gauge shotgun by carrying a reserve of rifled slugs and Ferret teargas rounds. Unlike LAPD, the sheriff's deputies were authorized to use these rounds with a nod from the sergeant. Although the patrol rifles were usually locked in the station armory, rendering them all but useless, we qualified and became familiar with the AR-15.
One of the best ways to prevent off-duty confrontations with gang members is to not identify yourself as a target. Don't tape a bull's eye on your back. It was common in my department to display a small police decal on the rear of your personal vehicle. Sometimes deputies would buy license-plate holders marked with the LASD radio call letters of KMA 628. This was also common on the private vehicles of LAPD and California Highway Patrol with their radio call letters. I think this was a method of avoiding traffic tickets. However, gang members have learned to recognize these off-duty cop identifiers. And remember you're not the only one who rides in that car; don't turn your family ride into a bullet magnet.
Here's another illogical cop phenomenon I can't explain. Police officers often work many years in uniform assignments with the goal of obtaining a highly desirable plainclothes or undercover assignment. Yet while these same officers were off duty, they routinely wore police-identifying clothing.
This phenomenon is most observable on the East Coast in and around the D.C. beltway, especially among off-duty federal officers. Unfortunately, this trend seems to be spreading across the nation. This off-duty "uniform" is khaki cargo pants, a dark colored or black golf shirt (complete with some cop logo), and a semi-auto pistol in a Kydex holster exposed on a belt. I call this the "shoot me first" off-duty uniform.
Smart gang members learn to spot undercover and off-duty police officers in public places. So why help them with their target acquisition by standing out in the crowd at the hamburger stand, in a restaurant, or in the mall?
The opposite extreme of this phenomenon is those cops who try to look like gangsters. They dress like outlaw bikers, hip hop rappers, skinheads, or tattooed cholos. This would also draw the attention of gang members and mark them as priority targets.
Off-duty dress should help you blend in with the average citizen, not make you stand out. Concealed carry means that your weapon should not be exposed. Conceal it, if you want the life-saving element of surprise.
Preparing for an off-duty confrontation with multiple gang members while you're alone, without a radio, ballistic vest or foreseeable back-up is a serious matter. Here's how we old gang dinosaurs got ready, or should I say "stayed ready." The LASD OSS gang deputies were some of the first officers to go to the large capacity 9mm semi-autos with the S&W Model 59. My back-up and off-duty weapon became a 12-shot S&W Model 469 9mm with a 20-round spare magazine (33 rounds).
Thinking and acting in a tactical way is not a natural inclination; it must be learned and practiced. It must become part of your on- and off-duty habit. Don't expect this to be easy or well accepted by others. Carry your off-duty weapon everywhere. Carry a knife, and have a flashlight and handcuffs handy. Prepare and rehearse scenarios like bad guys showing up at your family's front door. This happened to me.