An off-duty detective decides to confront a group of rowdy youths in a park near his home and is subsequently beaten to death. An officer checking for a prowler in his neighbor's backyard is shot to death after confronting the trespasser. An officer attending a celebration attempts to break up a fight between two women and is stabbed fatally for his efforts. An unarmed cop shopping with his wife tackles a visibly armed robber who is sticking up the store and is killed by a shotgun blast.
What each of these true-life incidents has in common is that a courageous, well-intentioned American law enforcement officer died violently while attempting to protect others. A fact each also shares is that the victim officer was off-duty when the tragedy occurred.
Because of the kind of people they are, peace officers have a hard time standing by, doing nothing in the face of danger to others. As a result, many times they intervene even though they are acting alone and without many of the advantages they enjoy while "on the clock."
Many times they win the encounter and one more offender is brought to justice. On occasion, however, the scenario takes turns they had not planned and a police funeral is the end result. The question, then, becomes one of when to get directly involved and when to be a very good witness who calls 911.
It is vital to your emotional as well as physical health that you have some down time away from the stresses of the job. Safety-smart officers also make a habit of avoiding clothing that identifies them as law enforcement when they are on their own time. They also avoid places where they are most likely to run into characters that they may have encountered while working. Finally, they remain constantly alert for the unexpected, especially when they are in a public place, just in case a dangerous situation develops around them.
Perhaps most important of all, safety-smart cops size up the opposition they may be facing before they decide to leap into an off-duty confrontation. In order to stay safe, you need to do the same.
Recognize Your Limitations
You do nothing to help a victim and only make the situation worse if you insert yourself into a confrontation you cannot possibly win. To assess your chances of prevailing, you need to examine your potential disadvantages.
Quickly ask yourself some questions. Am I armed? (Going up against an obviously armed adversary without having a gun yourself is suicidal.) Do I have handcuffs? Pepper spray? Taser? Am I wearing body armor? Do I have my law enforcement credentials with me? How about radio communication with on-duty assistance?
Are there additional limitations, such as the presence of your family at the scene, perhaps including youngsters? Are innocent bystanders likely to recognize you and obey your instructions, considering the fact that you're wearing a Bugs Bunny sweatshirt and blue jean cut-offs? The answers you come up with to all of these questions and more should help you decide whether to get directly involved or simply call 911 and continue to assess what you are observing.
You must decide quickly if what you are seeing truly requires law enforcement intervention. As veteran cops will tell you, if you're off-duty, confronting a gang of drunks or gangsters intent on graffiti vandalism or general nuisance offenses isn't worth the risk to your safety and all the other potential complications that could arise. Ditto for a reckless driver or an obnoxious patron of a business you may be visiting. Letting your fingers do the walking across your cell phone may be the best response to these incidents.
And are you really seeing what you think you are seeing? One off-duty cop was about to pull his gun and accost a group of teens who appeared to be robbing a burger joint when he realized he was facing a high school drama class taping a fake stickup.
Assess any apparent crime in progress before you act. What is actually happening? How many apparent offenders are present? Are weapons involved?
Has anyone been seriously hurt, or does it appear anyone is about to be hurt? Will it be possible to summon on-duty help quickly? Are you equipped for a confrontation? Have shots been fired? Is it possible that on-duty help is already on-scene or en route? (Another officer who observed a couple of armed men wrestling with a third man belatedly realized he was watching an undercover drug bust.) Would your armed intervention likely result in a reckless gunfire scenario amidst unwary civilians?
Do nothing to make the situation worse. If your observations and assessment tell you that you cannot hope to win, call for help and be a good witness. If you decide the gravity of the situation absolutely mandates your involvement, you've got some more duties ahead.
Get Some Help
Before you do anything else, call for on-duty law enforcement assistance. If you cannot do so yourself, ask a couple of bystanders to call for you. Take care that you are not soliciting help from an accomplice of the crook(s) involved!
Relay to the 911 operator what is going on and where, as well as the fact that there is an off-duty officer involved. Give your description and what action, if any, you are planning to take. Keep an open telephone connection if it is possible to do so.