Photo courtesy of Dave Douglas.
On Feb. 27, 2007, off-duty Ogden, Utah, police officer Ken Hammond was having a late Valentine's Day dinner with his wife in Salt Lake City's Trolley Square Mall. While Hammond and his wife ate, an 18-year-old man entered the mall armed with a handgun and a shotgun and began killing people. Hammond took action and engaged the shooter while his wife, a police dispatcher, called 911.
Both Officer Hammond and his wife distinguished themselves and the police profession that evening. But the point I really don't want lost here is that violence came to them, they did not seek it out.
Trouble finding an officer is typical of off-duty incidents. That's the first thing we must understand in order to prepare ourselves for the unexpected off-duty encounter: They can happen at any time anywhere.
I will talk about handgun choices for the off-duty officer at the end of this article but as we look at all of the other issues involved it should be abundantly clear that the days of stuffing a "J" frame revolver in your pocket and heading to the mall with your family are long over. You have to think about what can happen and be ready to react to it.
On Your Own
Your first consideration is to make sure you clearly understand your department's rules and regulations regarding off-duty carry and off-duty response. You should also have received training on how to conduct yourself during off-duty incidents.
Understand the differences between your non-duty status and your off-duty status. Here's what I mean. You are not likely to have access to instant communications, body armor, collapsible batons, TASERs, handcuffs, or a long gun. And remember, in an off-duty capacity you are not readily identifiable to other people and responding officers as a police officer. Also always remember that you have the option of electing not to engage and being the best witness you can be.
A lot of officers assisted me with the information discussed here. I also found two other sources of information that were especially valuable in helping me understand clearly what you need to know about off-duty carry of a handgun and off-duty response: a PowerPoint titled "Off-duty Survival" prepared by Dep. John Williams of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and "Blood Lessons," an article written by Scott Buhrmaster based on e-mails from a Barstow, Calif., police sergeant who was involved in a harrowing 1997 off-duty shootout in a local McDonald's restaurant.
The sergeant states in his e-mail to Buhrmaster, "On-duty mindset and off-duty mindset need to be strongly separated and the boundaries clear."
In the PowerPoint Williams tells LASD deputies, "What many do not realize is the subtle institutionalization of deputies that occurs over time. When an incident occurs in their presence, failure to respond creates a role conflict. This institutionalization is an occupational hazard...and sometimes leads to deputies becoming involved in an off-duty incident that may have been better handled by them being a good witness." Officers need to understand this, and it will be especially useful if they can make these judgments about when to engage or when to be a good witness during appropriate training.
Williams is especially clear on this point and says, "Most survival-conscious deputies have trained themselves not to intervene off-duty unless their life or the life of another innocent party is imminently in danger. In other words you intercede only when deadly force is justified, not 'just' to make an arrest."