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Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).
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Would You Respond Off Duty With Family?

You have a duty to the public and a duty to your loved ones, so what happens when the two conflict?

August 30, 2011  |  by - Also by this author

Some cops are adherents to Shakespeare's "all is well that ends well" philosophy. No matter how questionable the call, how suspect the judgment, so long as everything turns out OK in the's all good.

Others tend to take a second glance and ask: Would I have done that?

I found myself in the role of the latter when I read of Kate Rooney, a Vernon, Conn., police officer who recognized a reported stolen Chevy Avalanche while off-duty and commuting with her family in her personal vehicle. Dialing 911 on her cell phone, Rooney advised local police that she'd spotted the GTA and gave updates of its location as she followed it on surface streets. Normally, this would have been enough.

But when she saw a single marked patrol car arrive and begin effecting a traffic stop of the Avalanche, Rooney joined in the felony takedown, grabbing her own long gun and taking aim on the driver and passenger in the Chevy. The two men were subsequently arrested and taken into custody without incident.

By the time I finished reading an online account of Rooney's actions, I found myself in the unfamiliar position of straddling an ideological fence. Said perch is largely terra incognita for me as my opinions tend to be no less decisive than Rosie O'Donnell's, and a helluva lot more edified as they tend to be supported by logic, data, and my uncanny ability to discriminate between fact and fiction.

However, my overwhelming emotional response in evaluating Rooney's actions was one of being conflicted. For while I found her courage unimpeachable, the story's elliptical gloss-overs left me less sure of her judgment. Over and over again I wondered why she found it necessary to do what she did.

My prejudice stemmed partially from a posture that shies from the prospect of taking off-duty action if my family is in tow, a belief itself influenced by a tragedy that I first heard of nearly 30 years ago. I suspect that the tragedy in question continues to be part of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's officer safety training to this day.

The story revolved around a reserve deputy who had the misfortune of observing two robbery suspects as they fled a location. The reserve confronted the two men, precipitating a shootout and his two-year-old daughter was shot. The robbers were eventually taken into custody, at which time they admitted to specifically targeting targeting the man's daughter in the belief that, if they were successful, the parental instincts of the reserve deputy would supersede any further attempts by him to delay their departure. Their suspicions proved correct. Emotionally incapacitated, the reserve dropped out of the fight and the men were able to buy themselves a few hours additional freedom, all at the expense of the little girl's life.

Which brings me back to the Vernon, Conn., incident. If online accounts of her exploits that afternoon are correct, Rooney's two children were with her at the time she jumped from her vehicle to assist her fellow officer. At least one of the children was sufficiently young enough for Rooney to be fielding inquiries such as, "What's an Avalanche?" in the middle of this episode.

But then there's the other side of this story. It's the part that makes me so conflicted. It's the part where Rooney saw a one-man unit pulling over a stolen vehicle with two occupants.

I ask myself: Would I just hang back and hope for the best? And if things did go south, would I perhaps not only be adding to the officer's vulnerability through my own inaction?

As it stands, perhaps it really is a case of "all's well that ends well." The suspects ended up in custody and, for all I know, the newspaper elliptically glossed over how Rooney secured her family before lining up her front and rear sights. Perhaps she made allowances for any possible threats and somehow managed to park her vehicle in a manner so that the foregoing concerns were addressed and she was able to insinuate herself into the stop without incident.

The victims of the car theft have been effusive in their praise of the officer, noting that the men had not only come in possession of the Avalanche but their IDs, as well. But wouldn't they have been just as appreciative- and wouldn't Officer Rooney's actions been just as laudable-had she simply remained the good witness?

Was the one-man car initiating the stop in a position to hold off effecting a stop of the Avalanche and simply tail it until the arrival of other marked patrol cars?

I don't know. I wasn't there. But this much I do know: This story is a good springboard to get other officers thinking about what they would have done and what they might yet do if they find themselves in similar situations.

So I ask these questions of you:

  • Would you take such police action if you were out driving around with your own family?
  • Or would you confine your involvement to dialing 911 and relating what you know?

Comments (18)

Displaying 1 - 18 of 18

Katie Hamelton @ 8/30/2011 5:02 PM

It just all depends on what the nature of the incident is. I do not have any children but I do have a fiance and his 14 year old boy. Something as a stolen vehicle, that incident could go both directions. It may end well, or it could end badly. But something such as seeing a robbery or a murder take place, I would have to say no I wouldn't take such action and assist but maybe follow them at a safe distance and call 911.

Charlie Johnson @ 8/30/2011 5:11 PM

1st time was about 32 years ago I was with my wife shopping and I was fortunate enough to stop an assault on a female teenager by her ex-boyfriend.

2nd time was about 6 years ago I was with my wife going into town and I stopped to assist a Texas State Trooper by watching the driver and passenger as he searched the car.

So yes I would stop when I was off duty and help an officer on duty.

Candy Carpenter @ 8/30/2011 5:34 PM

This is a tough call if I were by myself with children in tow and small ones at that I would not put them in harm's way, however if a had an adult male with me and knew beyond all doult that he could be counted on, I would leave and go help the officer on duty, I would not be able to live with myself otherwise. I have to be able to look and live with the person that looks back at me in the mirrow, so far I am ble to do that. Thank you, Candy

Kenny @ 8/30/2011 6:27 PM

It depends on the nature of the crime. My child is grown and my wife a former police employee. When younger and if the nature of the crime is property, my actions would most likely have been limited to an advisory role if they were with me. Each situation is different. Fortunately I live in an urban area where multiple units on a traffic or felony stop is the norm.

Joshua Welliver @ 8/30/2011 6:29 PM

i am 27 yrs old and my blood runs blue every second and when i see and officer, fire fighter, or paramedic, in need of assistance i will so drop what i am doing and assist till everything is clear. i take pride in helping those in need whether if i have a badge on or not i see it as my duty to assist in every way i know how. But thats only me of course

Dave @ 8/30/2011 7:05 PM

My family and I have a plan. My wife knows my tactical plan and where to take my son to keep him and herself safe. I have been forced to respond off duty to back up another officer and would again. By myself, with my son, no... I would not intervein unless shots were being fired or the other offcer was taking a beating. Be kind and respectful to every citizen, but have a plan to kill them if you are forced to.

Ken @ 8/30/2011 9:09 PM

It is very easy to living room sofa quarterback anything; but without being there and without having all the facts the living room sofa calls would probably be wrong no matter which way you decide to go. But an off duty officer out of uniform with his or her family in their personal unmarked civilian vehicle could more likely bring more danger and problems than assistance and solutions to the situation. There are no facts or information as to why the one officer unit decided to stop a stolen vehicle occupied by two individuals without waiting for backup. Safe accepted practice would be to wait for backup if available; and many smaller agencies or State Patrol agencies who do not have access to backup make one officer stops all the time. If backup was available and the on duty officer decided (without justifiable reason) risk his or her life by failing to wait, what obligation does the off duty officer have to risk his or her civilian children and spouse? And would such judgment only increase the risks and dangers to both officers? I think it would; but then I was not there, and do not have all of the facts!! Based on what is here and available to us readers, I believe both the on duty and off duty officers used poor judgment in the given situation; and should be sent for remedial training.

Jim Lugenbeel @ 8/30/2011 9:17 PM

It is a real dilemma, and would depend entirely on the circumstances, and if anyone else's life were in jeopardy. Being a cogent, observant witness is just as good, I think...but officer and public safety would be the determining factor.....

charles @ 8/31/2011 12:27 AM

SAFETY of my child or children comes first!!! I beleive in assisting officers weather on or off duty but I would not place my child in harms way in any way shape or fashion. A stolen vehicle? Not a chance. We as officers took an oath to protect and serve. Placing your child in a felony vehicle stop. Insurance will cover the lost vehicle , but what if things go bad. Ballsy but not to bright.

darsavmo @ 8/31/2011 3:24 AM

It all depends on the circumstances! I frequently stop while off duty without my family in tow as that is my brother or sister in blue there who may need my help. However, if I had my family in tow it would depend on the circumstances and my instuincts on whether I would stop or not. My immediate family and their protection comes 1st above all else. If I can safely stop and render assistance to an officer who I perceive really needs assistance without putting my family in any danger or risk, I certainly will. If it places my family at risk, then I need to balance out the risk with the situation and the damger the officer is facing and make a decision from there. In this case sorry, my family wins by default w/o question over a stolen vehicle...

lodall @ 8/31/2011 6:32 AM

A great, discussion provoking article and the resulting comments will benefit everyone who reads them. Taking a slightly different approach to the issue, which I personally believe has to be resolved based on the totality of the circumstances at the time, I have another question or two to throw out for discussion.

If you do assist as backup while off-duty, are you concerned that you have now shown the bad guys what you drive for a personal vehicle, and if your spouse and or children are with you, who they are and what they look like? Can this lead to you and your family being targeted/harassed? We've had our employee parking lot surveilled by criminals for that purpose and a nearby agency has had officers and civilian members followed from their parking lots. By stopping to assist while operating your personal vehicle, you have opened another avenue for your and your family's safety to be jeopardized.

Also worth considering, will your insurance cover you if you are injured and or your vehicle damaged while assisting? Many policies will not as they consider you to be engaged in your duties as a LEO whether or not you are officially on the clock. How does your disability compensation policy read? It's good to know these things ahead of time because if you are injured, do you have a replacement income to provide for your family? I strongly recommend that you find out for yourself when your insurance policies will cover you and when they will not; don't take someone else's word for it.

Leonard Rutka @ 8/31/2011 7:43 AM

The answer to your question is yes I would and did. I had an encounter while off duty with my wife and son and I call it my belated Christmas gift. At the time of the incident I thought that it was a very simple incident that soon esclated into the offender shooting at a woman and then putting his weapon against my stomach and pulling the triger, which misfired, and me putting my weapon against his rib cage and pulling the triger twice, hammer hitting his cloths. I did subdued the subject and as he was laying on the ground bleeding, I asked him, why he tried to shoot me and he related that he just wanted to get away. It was later learned the reason for him to "just wanted to get away" he was just parolled out of prison in November of that year and this incident took place the day after Christmas. That is why I call it my belated Christmas gift. Over the years I have asked myself the same question, knowing the facts would I have done anything diferent and my answer was NO. My family was in our vehcile and at that time it was just (2) two men arguing but it esclated very fast to where another person plus myself could have been shot and possiblely killed. I know I would have been killed because his gun was right against my stomach. Over the years I have related this incident to younger officers and they would ask why I did what I did and my replie has always been the same, "Because I'm a police officer and that is what we are expected to do." no matter if we are on or off duty. At the time my family was secured in our vehicle and I moved the situtation away from them. In addition, that is not the only time that I made an off-duty arrest or while off duty backed up and officer that was alone and making an arrest. Always remember we are a Brotherhood and we must try to take care of each other when at all possible.
I am how retired from my orginial department and now the Chief of Police at a college.
Thank you,
Chief Leonard Rutka

Mike @ 8/31/2011 2:28 PM

It's a property crime, folks. A car is no different than a garden hose. And I'm not risking my kids' lives for a stolen garden hose. And if you're the cop in the marked unit, don't initiate a stop by yourself on a stolen occupied x2. This is not a complex issue at all.

Tom @ 9/1/2011 11:38 AM

If it looks like the officer needs immediate backup I personally would not
hesitate. The family may be able to drive to a safer location or other option to lessen their risk.

Craig @ 9/2/2011 9:38 PM

I can certainly understand both sides of the argument, but allow me to provide a different viewpoint. Many years ago I was the lone officer making a high risk stop. I had two suspects in the car and my backup was thirty minutes away. An off duty officer stopped and helped me cover the suspects until backup arrived. By the time we had the suspects in custody the guy was gone so I never got his name, but I was sure glad he stopped to help.

Rick @ 9/3/2011 1:18 AM

This has actually been used as a question for police applicants. My personal feelings are that if I had minors in my personal vehicle I would do no more than be a witness. Any action beyond witness would put minors in harms way. If I had an adult with me capable of operating the vehicle in my absence, then I would absolutely exit my vehicle, identify myself and offer assistance. Pursuit beyond the posted speed limit is also out of the question since my personal vehicle is not equipped with emergency lighting or sound devices. If such a circumstance were to occur and I witnessed the death or injury of an officer, I would not be able to forgive myself. Nor would I be able to forgive myself if my actions resulted in death or injury to a minor in my care. This is clearly one of those: Lose, Lose situations we as police officers often find ourselves in.

Dean Scoville @ 9/3/2011 1:55 PM

One of the things I like about the comment section is that I invariably find takes on the matter that are decidedly different from where I was going in the first place, but are every bit as pertinent. Those revolving around whether or not I'd be covered by my agency or insurance are prime examples. And with no disrespect to the poster who said that it's a no-brainer, I don't see this in such black/white absolutes. Suppose the officer *did* effect the stop before uniformed backup arrives. Do we just sever ties with him? Let him flounder on his own? Or do we assist - circumstances permitting - and *then* discuss better options in the future? I lean more towards the latter. Next week I'll be tackling something *really* important: Lemonade cartels...

Lenny @ 9/12/2011 6:17 PM

let's set aside the question of whether or not she- or anyone else- should respond. If we're going to critique, we must do so for the whole situation. With that, I would ask why the officer initiated a felony stop while solo? It seems THAT is what likely swayed the off-duty officer to stop/respond.

Note: information i received indicated that the rifle was not hers as stated, but rather the officer's who initiated the stop- she requested it. I don't recall if she had a handgun on her person, but don't believe so.

It falls into the category of other similar connundrums: in helping one am i jeapardizing others (in this case, her children)? In this case, some might say that it was the case. Going a step further... a positive outcome doesn't automatically mean the process was correct. Most of us have been in a situation where- admitting it out loud or not- we got out alive by shit luck.

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