How often do we find ourselves faced with an off-duty situation that would normally require our direct and immediate intervention if we were functioning in an on-duty capacity? Hopefully, not very often.

But should we find ourselves in such a position, the extent to which we have planned for it ahead of time can optimize our chances for coming out ahead. 

Taking something of a Hippocratic oath--first, do no harm--can help. By not playing into another's hands and needlessly escalating a situation, we minimize both our obligation to take action and any inherent liability if we do.

As law enforcement’s patron saint of off-duty escapades put it, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

When it comes to the prospect of taking off-duty action, our limitations are:

• Lack of recognizable identification. How will citizens and on-duty officers know the legitimacy of your actions?

• Minimal tactical resources. You’re probably going to lack a ballistic vest, radio communication, backup weapons, radio car, or much in the way of use-of-force options.

• Liability. Will your department back your play when it comes to sanctioning your involvement? Will it cover any possible medical expenditures you incur incident to your actions?

While many state laws give law enforcement officers authority to act as peace officers anywhere within their state, the duty to exercise that authority while off-duty is usually defined by agency policy. That definition can include limiting an officer’s justifiable actions to those situations wherein there is immediate danger to person or property or of the escape of the perpetrator.

Therefore, unless you’ve observed the commission of a crime involving immediate danger to person or property or you have received prior approval from local authorities, you should not take any action in the capacity of a peace officer.

Notifying the police agency having jurisdiction is the best option, particularly as most officers have the luxury of cell phones to do so.

Finding yourself involved in an action outside policy can result in you defending yourself in a civil action without benefit of your department’s legal counsel.

Unfortunately, you can find yourself involved in off-duty incidents despite having no desire to do so. Statistics show that a number of off-duty incidents can be attributed to deputies and officers who put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. An example of this might be a late night withdrawal at an ATM. Other off-duty incidents might be precipitated by impaired judgment due to alcohol intoxication.

Officers should consider the possibility of being present when a crime takes place, and not only minimize their need to become involved, but the likelihood of becoming a collateral casualty. Carrying a second wallet or set of car keys (cuff keys can be dead giveaways, literally) are good ideas.

And as proud as you are of being a cop, think about when and where to wear law enforcement t-shirts, hats, and other logo wear. Post-incident interviews with aggravated assault suspects bear out that many consciously picked out their victims by their choice of such attire.

Above all, sit down and talk with your family members. Have a game plan in place in anticipation of any possible off-duty incidents. Make sure they know what to do.

Once uniformed officers are on the scene of an incident wherein the presence of an off-duty officer has become known, the senior or lead officer needs to take control of the situation. He or she needs to issue commands so as to minimize the likelihood of friendly fire, first by establishing containment of any known suspects, then by displacing the off-duty officer to a location where he is neither a threat to uniformed personnel nor subject to friendly fire. It is imperative that one officer issue commands so that there is no conflicting information and everyone is apprised of the circumstances.

Even when the most conscientious officers are involved, off-duty incidents can and have resulted in tragic consequences.

A 2006 practical app study on off-duty/plainclothes incidents conducted by the Wauconda Police Department determined that officers easily understood how off-duty cops could be shot. Keep in mind that, although most of our time is spent off-duty, the majority of our training is focused on surviving on-duty incidents.

Sometimes your best option when you witness an off-duty incident is to be a good witness.


Dean Scoville
Dean Scoville

Dean Scoville

Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

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Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

View Bio