The DSM Safety Banner provides instant identification for an officer responding in plainclothes. Photo: DSM Safety Products.
Blue-on-blue tragedies are preventable, and SWAT should be instrumental in preventing them. From its inception, SWAT has continually taken a leadership role, and officer survival needs to be a high officer survival priority.
While admittedly not a scientific research study, I've found that SWAT police-on-police shootings fall into two categories: mistaken identity or accidental (training and operational).
Let's explore mistaken identity incidents.
The tragic March 12 death of Nassau County (N.Y.) PD's Special Operations Officer Geoffrey Breitkopf shows how any LEO can fall victim to "friendly fire" caused by mistaken identity.
While the investigation(s) into the Nassau County tragedy are underway, all SWAT teams need to take a deep look into whether or not their officers are readily identifiable as "POLICE." This applies not only for on-duty, but also for off-duty response to SWAT callouts.
Many SWAT teams wear BDUs with shoulder patches and sewn badges that may be prominent or subdued. Many teams also wear helmets and tactical vests with large "POLICE" lettering front and back.
Even the partial SWAT uniform worn by the LAPD SWAT officer, in his gym clothes, was readily identifiable because of his helmet and tactical vest. He looked like "SWAT."
Compare this to the close encounter I witnessed while riding along with an experienced Midwest SWAT team on a nighttime high-risk search warrant. This team wore black (BDUs with balaclavas) with only badges identifying them as "POLICE." Helmets and tactical vests were optional.
While the entry was underway, a very tense confrontation unfolded in the street. A lone containment officer with orders not to allow any vehicles to pass through stood in the middle of the dark street wearing all black with a balaclava covering his face, armed with his issued .45 pistol.
Imagine what the driver of an approaching car thought upon seeing this dark figure with face covered in the middle of the street, aiming a gun at him. The sudden screeching of burning rubber in reverse said it all. I seriously doubt the driver realized it was the "POLICE."
Even teams who prefer wearing T-shirts during summer can do so and still be identifiable as "POLICE." A number of teams wear T-shirts with a badge replicas, shoulder patch, sergeant's stripes or the word "SERGEANT" or "LIEUTENANT."
SWAT officers often respond to call-outs while off duty and driving their personal vehicles. And they often arrive before the rest of SWAT. Thought needs to be given to how identifiable they are when arriving on scene, particularly in swirling, chaotic, life-threatening situations, and especially when there's a chance on-scene officers might not know they're SWAT.
One proven and effective trick is to always have extra BDUs and boots in your home and car. You may have to put them on in a hurry. Because you might not have time to change, particularly during active-shooter situations, you'll deploy rapidly and "as is," which may mean you're still wearing gym clothes.
Mistaken identity police-on-police shootings are the result of not recognizing or realizing the armed individual is actually a LEO. Badges alone aren't enough, because they're only visible from the front.
This is why so many LE agencies require plainclothes officers wear raid jackets with highly visible "POLICE" on them. Other agencies, especially in the northeast U.S., employ the "color of the day" to recognize plainclothes LEOs.
However, there is one product available to LE today that greatly reduces the potential of misidentification "friendly fire" involving non-uniformed LEO's involved in critical incidents. This ground-breaking product is the DSM (Don't Shoot Me) Safety Banner, which is highly visible from 360 degrees, easily deployed and inexpensive.
Manufactured by DSM Safety Products, the DSM Safety Banner is the creation of Sgt. Mike Lessman, a veteran Reno (Nev.) PD SWAT officer. The DSM is low cost, lightweight, easy to carry, and deploys rapidly. Best of all, it provides immediate "POLICE" recognition both front and back.
While infrequent, mistaken identity police-on-police shootings rank among the most devastating LODDs. That's the bad news. The good news is they can be prevented, if not entirely eliminated.
Friendly Fire: A Devastating LODD
Friendly Fire: Analyzing the Problem