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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

"The investigation eventually cleared me," says Bader. "But it also caused a screaming match between me and my superiors. It appears that the FBI was more concerned with the sting operation than they were with cops shooting it out with cops."

Many larger agencies—such as the LAPD and the NYPD—provide specialized training to their undercover officers to help avoid misidentification in the field. By using color of the day or other code words, they can identify themselves as fellow officers when they cross paths with uniformed personnel. Elsewhere, Simunition scenarios can help officers prepare for this type of situation by introducing one added variable to the mix: the armed "friendly."

The shoot/don't shoot decision is particularly difficult when an officer is presented with the image of an unidentified person pointing a gun at another. One study revealed that differences in the biomechanic responses of subjects narrowed considerably when there was the perception of a "victim" involved in the scenario, thereby raising the stakes and the perceived exigency.

The reality is that we are more apt to fixate on the implications of a firearm than we are on the backstory of the person wielding it. This fact should be familiar to most veteran officers. More than that, it should be considered each time we are faced with the prospect of taking police action without the benefit of professional identifiers.

Training officers to correctly assess the dynamics of an active shooter scenario and react appropriately under mounting stress is the key to minimizing the likelihood of another blue-on-blue tragedy. But such training should be tailored so that "role players" also have the opportunity to evaluate the situation from a non-uniformed perspective.

The chances of an officer becoming involved in an off-duty incident are high, and the circumstances leading to such an incident are unpredictable. Whether you find yourself on the uniformed or non-uniformed end of the barrel, take a split-second to consider the implications of your subsequent actions.

Focusing On the Gun

Sgt. Michael Harding of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Tactics and Survival Training Unit cautions that officers responding to an active shooter event must be cognizant that there may be both off-duty officers as well as citizens who legally carry firearms acting in support of law enforcement.

"We have seen in many evolutions of training that in an active shooter event most responders are at a heightened level of awareness, adrenaline is flowing, and they are obviously looking to stop potential threats as they maneuver through the area," observes Harding.

The problem, according to Harding, is that first responders are thinking, find the shooter and take him out, so they are geared up to look for a person with a gun. "The initial information that is broadcast over the radio may not be as clear as we would like as first responders. Therefore, we may not have adequate information when we arrive at the scene. However, we do have to acknowledge that there may be other people there who may be armed who are not the bad guys," he says.

To address such realities, the LASD has instituted challenge procedures in its training, encouraging its deputies to take the time and opportunity to create a reactionary gap, stay behind cover, make proper assessments, and read behaviors of persons who are potentially or obviously armed.

"Challenge them to ensure that they are in fact suspects that pose a threat rather than an off-duty cop or a citizen possessing a CCW," suggests Harding. "We challenge them by telling them who we are. We challenge them by placing them in a position of disadvantage, maybe gun down, back away, on the ground, and hopefully they do. We also assume that if it is a bad guy that we're challenging, he will turn around and run at a faster pace or he will face us and engage. As long as we have tactical advantage behind cover, then we can properly address that threat."

Once the actual threat has been neutralized and the scene stabilized, it is important that officers in command effectively communicate the status to all personnel on scene. Immediate notification will obviate the need for others, including off-duty officers, to respond. This may also help to avoid setting tragic events into motion such as in the Breitkopf shooting.

Should You Respond?

Former Sedgwick County (Kan.) Sheriff's Office sergeant Steve Nelson appreciates the considerable latitude afforded him to carry a firearm pursuant to the Law Enforcement Officer Safety Act (LEOSA), which allows him to legally carry a gun in every state. Still, the prospect of carrying a firearm in varying jurisdictions and taking necessary action concerns him. "Even new guys on my former department or adjoining ones wouldn't have any idea who I was in a situation where I was forced to act," he says.

Tags: Friendly Fire, Nassau County (N.Y.) PD, Baltimore PD, ATF, Plainclothes


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 etc...black 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 first...you don't have a vest, probably a smaller handgun and no backup...you're at what could be a terminal disadvantage.

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