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Departments : The Winning Edge

Plainclothes Survival

Wearing street clothes while you work can be a great experience, but it doesn’t make the job any easier or any safer.

July 22, 2009  |  by Adam Kasanof

Avoid Mistaken Identity

Identify Yourself When You Can Safely Do So Before Taking Enforcement Action. When you aren't properly identified, you increase tvhe risk that someone will mistakenly svhoot you, thinking you're an armed criminal.

A suspect might shoot you. Of course, all too many criminals would shoot a police officer rather than be arrested. There are other suspects who wouldn't intentionally shoot a police officer but would shoot someone they think is a criminal. Many criminals who resist arrest or shoot plainclothes officers often claim that they didn't know that the people they shot were police officers.

Other officers might shoot you, especially if they are from another precinct, unit, or agency, or even from another jurisdiction, and don't know who you are.

A lawfully armed citizen might shoot you, thinking you're a burglar or street robber.

When you remain unidentified, the people you deal with-whether armed or not-may try to run or resist you, which can be dangerous for you and them.

When you can, say who you are and show who you are. Don't just say that you're a police officer; show your badge, shield, ID or credentials. Wear a raid jacket when possible. In a noisy or stressful situation, someone may not hear or understand your spoken ID or warning.

If you are challenged by uniformed or identified officers who don't know who you are, do what they say. In any confrontation between officers, the uniformed or identified officer is in charge. Period.

Don't Stop Cars or Search Buildings Unless You Really Have To. Ideally, if you have to stop a car, do it together with uniformed officers in a marked vehicle or call uniformed officers to the scene after you pull the car over so that the person stopped would know you're law enforcement personnel. If that's not possible, have identification out, wear a raid jacket or other identifying clothing, and clearly identify yourself to the people you stop. If there is a problem or question about your identity, have a uniformed unit respond.

Searching a building can be exceptionally dangerous in plain clothes. If someone calls 911, thinking you're an armed burglar or robber, responding uniformed or plainclothes officers may come searching for you, guns drawn. If you must search a building in plain clothes, it's far safer for each plainclothes officer to search together with a uniformed officer. And each plainclothes officer should wear a raid jacket, cap, or other identifying garment.

Inform Your Fellow Cops That You Are Working In Their Area. Make sure that the agencies where you plan to work, including local precinct, district, and division officers, know that you'll be working in plain clothes and when and where you'll be. It doesn't hurt to go by some uniform roll calls to introduce yourself, thank the officers for their help, and ask them to contact you if they get any information of interest to you.

Don't Sneak Around to Crimes in Progress Without Telling Anyone. When a heavy call comes over the air, you may want to be first on the scene for a chance to capture a robber or burglar. But if other responding officers don't know that you're there, you may be mistaken for an armed suspect and possibly shot.

Tell the radio dispatcher and other units whenever you respond to a call and be very careful when you get there.

Get Help When You Need It. Ask for help from SWAT, emergency services, and regular uniformed personnel when making high-risk arrests or executing high-risk search warrants.

Complacency Kills

Never Let Your Guard Down. Someone you arrest for a misdemeanor warrant might have a string of felony convictions, and not want to go back to prison. Check a suspect's prior arrest and conviction record before you arrest him, when you can legally do so.

The non-violent suspect you've arrested before without incident may now be drunk or on drugs and violently unstable. Some arrests or confrontations may be "high risk," even if you don't know it. So take every arrest or confrontation seriously.

Carefully Search and Secure Prisoners. Rear handcuff and search all prisoners before putting them in your vehicle. If you have to move quickly, search the areas readily accessible by handcuffed prisoners, such as the rear waistband of their pants. Thoroughly search prisoners again when you reach your destination. Do not leave prisoners unattended, no matter how well you have secured them. Make sure prisoners can't access areas where firearms or other potential weapons are stored.

Plainclothes work carries its own special risks, but if you follow the recommendations above, you can help reduce those risks. 

Adam Kasanof retired from the NYPD as a lieutenant, and is also a lawyer. However, nothing in this article constitutes legal advice. You can contact him through David Griffith at [email protected]

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