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Cover Story

Blue-On-Blue Shootings

Friendly fire is the greatest tragedy in law enforcement and one of the most difficult to prevent.

June 20, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Mark W. Clark
Photo: Mark W. Clark

Each year, hundreds of thousands of America's finest visit firing ranges to engage a multitude of targets with a variety of weaponry. They fire from stationary, prone, and kneeling positions; while on the run, taking advantage of whatever cover and concealment they might find on a given course.

Throughout, there is many a purpose at work. The development of muscle memory, the conditioning of split-second decision making, the learning of different tactics—all aimed at risk reduction: To lessen the likelihood that they or an innocent might be shot in the future.

That desire to mitigate risk finds officers occasionally taking aim at a "friendly" target that has pneumatically popped into view. Most of the time, the trigger finger is held in abeyance. But when that finger exerts enough pressure on the trigger and the "friendly" is hit, the shooter's score is docked.

When the "friendly" is flesh and blood, the shooter and the "friendly's" family experience grief that cannot be described in just a few words.

On Jan. 9, 2011, plainclothes officer William Torbit Jr. responded to a fight call at a Baltimore nightclub. He was attempting to break up the fight when he was attacked by several men. He retrieved his service weapon just as additional Baltimore officers arrived on scene. The arriving uniformed personnel, not realizing that Torbit was a fellow officer, reacted to the perceived threat posed by the firearm and opened fire. Torbit, an eight-year veteran, was killed at the scene.

Like Torbit, Nassau County police officer Geoffrey Breitkopf was wearing plain clothes when he responded to the scene of a knife-wielding suspect last March. The suspect had just been shot and killed inside a home when Breitkopf exited his vehicle and approached the scene on foot. A retired officer, noting that Breitkopf was carrying a rifle, yelled, "Gun!" at which time a Metropolitan Transportation Authority police officer opened fire. Breitkopf, a 12-year veteran, was mortally wounded.

Last New Year's Eve, Nassau County would again be impacted by such a tragedy. This time the sight of two men struggling in the aftermath of a pharmacy robbery and the sound of gunshots brought a retired Nassau County police lieutenant and an off-duty New York City police officer to a confrontation between the suspect and ATF Special Agent John Capano. During their struggle, Capano—who was in the pharmacy to pick up medication for his terminally ill father—fired at the suspect. In the aftermath of the incident, both were dead. Capano was shot by the retired lieutenant.

Shoot/Don't Shoot

Recognizing the potential for a blue-on-blue incident—and doing something about it—can go a long way toward preventing such tragedies. That initiative can take many forms, from anticipatory training to recognizing the implications of an errant operation.

Ted L. Bader, a former agent-in-charge of a federal agency in southern Idaho, once served on the board of directors of a local drug task force. He recalls a near disastrous episode.

"One of my agents was working with the FBI on a sting operation involving the undersheriff of a small county," Bader says. "The undersheriff was believed to be involved in an alien smuggling ring and unlawfully issuing driver licenses. Undercover federal agents were to purchase 15 pounds of marijuana from the ring. Two days before, I found that drug task force members working with this sheriff's office were scheduled to sell 15 pounds of marijuana to a dope ring that they'd been working. Both teams were prepared to make arrests at that time. It immediately became clear to me that we had an emergent situation that could have disastrous results, both from a physical hazard and a public relations standpoint if immediate action was not taken."

Fortunately, a potentially hazardous situation was averted when Bader met privately with the sheriff and advised him of the problem. Doing so entailed revealing the cause for the federal investigation, which compromised the investigation and resulted in the suspected dirty undersheriff being acquitted. Bader himself became the subject of an internal affairs investigation due to FBI allegations that he had deliberately compromised the investigation because he was also involved in the smuggling ring.

Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

Tom Ret @ 6/21/2012 6:44 PM

If you are going to carry off duty or retired, carry a cell phone and your ID. As a general rule be a good witness and let the locals handle the situation.

Greg @ 6/25/2012 6:44 AM

"It is worth noting that of the officers killed while acting in an off-duty capacity during the course of the past 30 years, more than half have been African-American. Of these officers, few ever fired their weapons. While cops are understandably sensitive to accusations of racial profiling, it would be unconscionable to ignore the role of race in blue-on-blue shootings and perniciously apathetic not to address it."

There is an old saying, "when you hear hoofbeats, don't look for a zebra". Using the uniform crime statistics of just who shoots who, who robs who males are greatly overrepresented in gun crimes. When a black off-duty officer has a gun in his hand in at a crime scene, it's not a zebra situation.

Unless you and your family's lives are at risk, be a good witness, pay attention to their safety and stay out of it. Courageous? who cares, think about your family don't have a vest, probably a smaller handgun and no're at what could be a terminal disadvantage.

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