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."[PAGEBREAK]
With these points in mind let's consider some of the tactical issues involved with responding to a lethal use-of-force incident off-duty.
The first thing you need to consider is what you are going to have to do if you have your family with you. The California sergeant said in his e-mail, "When you are off duty your first responsibility is to your family...The smartest, most responsible thing I could have done would have been to take care of my family first. I should have personally seen to their safety." Consider that "family" can be represented several different ways such as:
- Just you and your spouse
- Just you and your children
- You, your spouse, and your children
Each of these combinations poses a different problem for you, which needs to be discussed with your family members before, not during, the event.
In a really worst-case scenario you may be injured. Larry Nichols, the senior rangemaster and armorer for the Burbank (Calif.) Police Department and a POLICE-TREXPO advisory board member tells his officers to advise their spouses, "Do not try to help me if I am shot. Stay away; you will only draw fire and get in my line of return fire."
Off-duty you can control when to announce you are a police officer and use the element of surprise to maximum advantage. Get your family safely out of the way and get the best possible position for yourself. Since you are probably not wearing your protective vest this includes taking advantage of the best cover available to you.
Draw your handgun discreetly. A fast draw may be too flashy, alerting not only good guys in the area but also other possible bad guys that you have a gun. Stealth is more important than speed. A discreet draw prevents anyone from having advanced notice that you are armed.
When the right time arrives, identify yourself as a police officer. This is important not just for responding officers, but you need to consider that there may be other off-duty or plainclothes officers in the area or an armed security guard. You also need to consider the possibility that there may be a lawfully armed citizen nearby.
Having your badge on a neck chain makes a lot of sense to me as it doesn't tie up one hand you may have a better use for, like calling 911 on your cell phone. You can hold it up over your head if you have to, show it to someone behind you, etc., and turn it loose when you need to without having to return it to a belt or stick it in a pocket.
Another option that you may want to consider is the DSM Safety Banner. Designed by Reno, Nev., police sergeant Mike Lessman, the DSM (Don't Shoot Me) is a vividly lettered sash that says "POLICE" on the front and back. The sash deploys from a small pouch on the wearer's belt. The DSM sells for $30 and is available at www.DSMsafety.com. Lessman says he only takes order for the POLICE model from law enforcement agencies to ensure that the product is only available to officers. In addition to the POLICE, the company also sells DSM banners for CCW holders and security officers.[PAGEBREAK]
Guns and Ammo
Now let's discuss your choice of firearm. Handguns selected for different law enforcement requirements such as on-duty (uniformed), on-duty (plainclothes), backup, deep cover or hideout and off-duty, come in a variety of models and calibers.
The power floor for a handgun used to defend yourself or others is generally considered to be a .38 special revolver or a 9mm pistol. These calibers, with appropriate ammunition, provide an adequate level of fight-stopping power. When you go below this level to calibers such as .380 ACP and .32 ACP you need to have a really good reason because what you might gain in concealability you lose in stopping power as well as magazine capacity.
Trouble finds you when you are off-duty so you need to be prepared for the worst case scenario and I will suggest to you that this is the bottom line criteria for your off-duty handgun selection. You need to keep in mind that while your duty status has changed gunfight dynamics have not. There is no way to predict what you might be up against and your handgun choice will be especially important because it is the only firearm you are likely to have available. You want to have the largest caliber you are authorized to carry and as much ammo as possible.
I happened to be at John Benner's Tactical Defense Institute helping him with a new class he has just introduced titled "Active Shooter/Killer for Civilians," when the editors of POLICE Magazine contacted me and asked me to write this article. I was able to take advantage of the wealth of knowledge represented by Benner's instructors, many of whom are serving or retired police officers. They gave me three pieces of advice to pass on to you.
The first thing they told me was to always have a handgun with you. There are still far too many officers who don't carry off-duty. Next, stick with your service handgun. Given the variety of concealment holsters available today, you should be able to find one that works for you and dress around the gun. Don't downsize your firearm in order to make a fashion statement. This approach ensures that you have the handgun with which you are the most familiar available when you need it and you don't reduce your stopping power capability.
The next best option is to get the smaller version of your 9mm or .40 caliber service pistol, as with the Glock 17/22 (Standard), Glock 19/23 (Compact), and the Glock 26/27 (Subcompact). There is almost no learning curve here, nothing to forget, since everything works the same. And always have at least one spare magazine with you.
In 1997 an off-duty Barstow, Calif., officer intervened to stop a robbery in a local McDonald's. He killed the robber and ended the threat. That Barstow officer entered the fast-food restaurant with his family unaware that it was being robbed by a lone individual armed with a handgun. Trouble sought this officer out while he was simply spending time with his family. He was quickly involved in a gunfight with the robber.
He has this advice for fellow officers: "If you are going to carry a firearm off-duty, you should carry extra ammo. Security camera video of this incident revealed that I fired all 11 rounds from my Glock 26 in about two seconds," he says. "My extra mag held 17 rounds. Words cannot describe the emotion I felt when I slammed that mag into my weapon and was still able to be in the fight."
I also spoke with Dave Spaulding who had just finished teaching an off-duty instructor class for officers in New Jersey along with Mike Boyle. Spaulding is a retired police lieutenant and a well-known authority on police firearms and tactics. He was recently selected as the law enforcement trainer of the year by the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA). He currently serves as a deputy U.S. Marshal and is a rep for Ruger firearms.
Spaulding is in full agreement with the duty pistol option and spare mag. He adds however that off-duty officers should consider carrying, at a minimum, their badge, a cell phone, a flashlight, a knife, and if not handcuffs, some type of restraining device.
Retired CIA officer Ed Lovette is the author of "The Snubby Revolver," published by Paladin Press, and co-author of "Defensive Living," published by Looseleaf Law Publications. He is a member of the POLICE-TREXPO advisory board.