Undercover and off-duty police officers also have to ask themselves if their acting in a law enforcement capacity might be putting themselves in harm's way. Considerations that may affect them include a lack of equipment normally associated with the situation, including ballistic protection, radio communication, and a variety of lethal and less-lethal weaponry. Jurisdictional issues are to be weighed, as well as the extent to which an actual exigency exists.
Many departments go out of their way to discourage officers from taking off-duty police action. They tell their cops things like, "Remember, you have no legal or departmental obligation to get involved, especially if such intervention places you in a position of peril or such intervention requires that you behave recklessly, carelessly, or in a suicidal manner."
But should an officer determine that his or her involvement in a situation is obligatory, Harding cautions that responsibility for avoiding misidentification of non-uniformed officers falls equally on the shoulders of off-duty officers.
"What we tell our off-duty officers if they are in an active shooter situation as a first responder, maneuvering and looking for the threat, is that they keep their weapon inside their holster, concealed, until they get to a threat, and only draw when they absolutely and positively know that they are going to use that weapon to stop a threat. After doing so, they should then reholster, conceal the weapon, and retreat back to a cover position with their hands up."
Even if a non-uniformed officer holds his or her badge up, it may not be readily visible to responding uniformed officers. The badge is unidirectional, that is it can only be seen in one direction. If an officer comes in from a different direction, he may see only the weapon in play. Responding officers under combat stress may also choose to engage immediately upon seeing the gun.
Steve Papenfuhs, a retired sergeant and current marketing director for Victory Tactical Gear, recommends that off-duty officers adhere to many of the same tactical concepts they would on duty. Papenfuhs gives the following advice:
- Move to a position of cover and maintain that cover. "Use that cover like cops are trained to do. You're going to have an on-duty officer arrive on scene and he's going to get a flash recognition through body mechanics, posture, positioning. That’s going to be the first thing this guy sees from a distance. He's not going to see your badge from a distance. He's not going to see your face from a distance. He's not going to hear your voice from a distance. But from 100 yards away, he's going to see recognizable body language. That means use cover if cover is available," Papenfuhs says.
- Keep your head moving and your eyes scanning. That off-duty officer needs to, as best he can, know that other officers are present.
- Give good, clear, concise, calm verbal commands to suspects and bystanders. "Being calm expresses itself in body language and tone of voice. If you maintain that calm, cool, collected command posture, fellow officers are going to recognize that," Papenfuhs says.
- Don't point your gun at the bad guy. "I would suggest that a low ready will be too threatening at that point. Just bring it into a combat tuck. I would prefer that responding officers not see the gun," Papenfuhs explains. "I want them to command me to show my hands, and when they do so, I'm going to say, 'I'm an off-duty officer with a firearm. I'm putting it down now.' Or 'I'm turning now.' Give a good explicit response to the responding officers."
Cops are not the kind of people who would let a victim's cries for help go unanswered. Several blue-on-blue tragedies have involved representatives from more than two law enforcement agencies and that illustrates their willingness to intervene on behalf of others, as well as the dangers they face in doing so.
There is much more that can be done to prevent these shootings, and given their rippling effects—destroying lives, splintering families and departments—more should be done. The establishment of a national protocol for dealing with not readily identifiable "friendlies"—be they active undercover operatives, off-duty personnel, vacationers, or retirees—would certainly go a long way toward mitigating the likelihood of such events.
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.
No doubt, those officers who have fired their service weapons with regret would desperately want to be able to go back in time and change things. To take that one additional split-second to assess the scene or consider other options—anything that might lead to a better outcome. But continually second-guessing themselves might well be a masochistic study in futility and could even prove detrimental should the officer fail to react appropriately when a split-second response is truly required in some subsequent event.
Papenfuhs is sympathetic to their plight. But he would ask them, their critics, and their fellow officers to remember the omnipresent constraints under which they operate, particularly as they relate to time.
He compares an officer's reaction-making process to those of pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's successful water landing of US Airways flight 1549. From the time the airplane struck a flock of birds and immediately lost two engines, he had only three-and-a-half minutes in which to assess the viability of his aircraft, coordinate a possible landing at an alternate airport, decide that the plane would not reach the airport, and ultimately decide to land the plane in the Hudson River. Sully's quick thinking and calm reaction saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew.
"Three-and-a-half minutes," Papenfuhs muses. "That's an eternity in law enforcement problem solving. Cops get a few seconds—if not milliseconds—to solve life-and-death problems."
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