Preparation, awareness and "family planning" are key whether on or off duty.
As criminal justice professionals we are all concerned with safety issues. Most of us rely on our training and experiences to prepare ourselves for the next taxing moment. The statistics tell a unique story for us. Across the country we are hurt and killed in the line of duty at an increasing rate. We encounter weapons on the street with young criminals as never seen before, even though, generally speaking, violent crime is in a downward trend in the United States.
On-duty safety issues continue to be an important part of every police officer's street survival training. A certain physical and mental preparedness is a necessary component for a favorable outcome when we have a violent encounter.
The gang-related violent encounters with police officers have been increasing as well. Debriefings with many street and prison gang members have led to one conclusion: Criminal justice professionals can become the targets of gang-related plots on the street, but also at our homes, in the courtrooms, as well as other off-duty situations. It is easy for us to put on the safety hat when on duty making that car stop or serving a search warrant. Bit what about safety issues for any criminal justice professional in off-duty situations and locations we might not normally think about?
Is there a way to train for off-duty encounters with gang members? Any criminal justice professional can become trapped as a victim in a bank take-over robbery. There are two suspects, both are armed and the bank has just opened. There are about 20 people inside, including the few tellers. What would you do?
Look Before You Leap
Do you carry an off-duty weapon? Would you comply with the robber's commands or would you try to engage him, if given the chance. Think about these variables: Does the robbery team have a lay-off man or woman inside the bank posing as a customer, but who is really a backup? Is that person also armed?
What should you do if you are with your small child? Is your spouse or girl-or boyfriend going to follow your directions?
A few years ago, I was presenting some gang training in Southern California. The class was commenting on off-duty officer safety issues. One male officer shared this story. He worked graveyard. He was single. Once a week he would take his mom and dad to a local fast-food chicken restaurant before going to work. It was his parents' favorite restaurant. It was hot and the officer was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, sandals and had a twenty-dollar bill in his pocket to pay for dinner and that is all.
As they reached the restaurant door, it opened from the inside and a single robber emerged, carrying a shotgun. The robber was wearing a blue bandana on his face, a blue shirt and blue tennis shoes; probably a member of a Crip set. As the robber rushed out the door backwards, he knocked the officer's father over and bumped into his mother as he started to escape on foot.
Stunned, the officer said he stopped and was simultaneously watching his gather get up and the gangster effecting his escape by running away from them. All of a sudden his mother yells at the top of her voice, "Get 'em son...you're a cop!"
The officer said immediately the robber stopped, turned around and leveled the shotgun at him. The officer said his whole life flashed before his eyes. He told us he thought for sure the robber was going to shoot, so he started to run for cover while telling his parents to run. Remember the officer was not armed. For whatever reasons, the gangster did not shoot. The officer was lucky.
The point: criminal justice professionals need to prepare themselves and their family members for situations just like this. Will your wife and kids, parents, girlfriend or boyfriend do what you say, without question in this type of situation? Will they announce to the suspect that you are a cop? Have you talked with them in preparation? Do you have a plan?
How about your law enforcement identification? Where is it now? For most of us, it's in our wallets. Come on guys, how many of you carry your law enforcement identification in the same wallet that you use on and off duty? Would you try and throw it away or hide it if caught in a take-over robbery? Especially, if you were not armed?
Not Just Patrol Officers
Across the country, as gangsters become more brazen in their activities to intimidate the public and those who seek to hold them accountable for their actions, we encounter all types of criminal justice safety issues. There have been reports of street officer ambush scenarios; detectives who were marked for contract killings. There have been instances where probation and parole officers have been threatened and surveyed by the crooks. Correctional officers have to be especially careful of step-ups by the inmates.
Prosecutors have to be aware of their safety as well. In Southern California, while awaiting Highway Patrol officer, an Asian street-gang member plotted the murder of the prosecutor and witnesses on the case. The gang member used the assistance of his fellow gangsters and allegedly the help of the defense investigator assigned to the case. This case is still pending, the gangster is still in custody and the Feds have the defense investigator in custody.
Prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals have to remember if a gang member gets insulted he must respond somehow because no insult ever goes unanswered. If you insult a gangster in court, in a street contact, probation/parole contact or in a custody contact, you may have inadvertently placed yourself in harm's way.
The bounty on a criminal justice professional has increased for some gang members. It would bring the ultimate in respect and status for a gang member to attack or kill a criminal justice professional. Think about what one gangster relayed to me when I asked if he would attack a criminal justice professional in court, "Man, if I had nothing to lose...and I was going to prison anyway...why not?" Court security issues have become a priority in gang cases.
Be familiar with the customs and practices of the gangs you are dealing with. This knowledge can be a critical factor as far as criminal justice safety goes. You see, our safety practice today has become a full-time concern.
Don't Make Yourself a Target
Another example: The local newspapers like to run stories or short biographies on local citizens, teacher and businessmen. But should criminal justice professionals who investigate, prosecute or house gang members allow their biographies to be printed in the paper? Do you want the gang members and their leaders to know you have three children ages 4,6 and 8, where they go to school, what your spouse's name is, and that the most important thing in your life is your family? These are admirable qualities, but they could become pressure points and safety hazards if this information is used against you.
Imagine you are a prosecutor, investigator, probation/parole officer and the gang members learn all about you. Would you stay on the case if you were followed home, or your children were targeted for death threats at their school? By giving out your biography, you have potentially given out a way to be intimidated and attacked by street-gang members. Gang prosecutors and other criminal justice professionals have been threatened, burglarized, run off the road, surveilled and contacted by gang members at the direction of the incarcerated gang member during the investigation, trial and post-trial times. Why make it easy for them?
Your media contacts should continue, but maybe limit them to the case and facts about the case. Reporters have a job to do, just like you, however they may not be as safety conscious as we are.
Today, there are many locations where we can be victimized by random and planned gang violence. A recent U.S. Department of Justice report concluded that the most likely place for an adult to be victimized by a violent juvenile is a fast-food restaurant. Our safety may depend on the actions or lack of actions of our loved ones, as well as our planned response responses to hostile situations. Hopefully, none of us will ever have to cross that bridge, but with trends changing, there is a greater likelihood we could become involved. As the holidays approach, we all will be out shopping and getting ready for our celebrations. Have a plan, think before it happens, and be prepared. Be safe!
Al Valdez is an investigator with the Orange County (Calif.) District Attorney's Office and is author of the book, Gangs.