Off-Duty Gang Confrontations

Do yourself a favor. Your planning for the many facets of an unthinkable off-duty situation must be serious and deliberate. Think about it, and be prepared for these confrontations.

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Photo: Richard ValdemarPhoto: Richard Valdemar

Gang members remember an officer who has had significant contacts with the gang. As an officer specifically assigned to gangs, you will be especially remembered. Eventually, while off-duty, you'll run into a gang banger who recognizes you. Will you be prepared when this happens?

The first thing I learned working gangs in Compton as a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy was that our issued Smith & Wesson Model 15, four-inch .38 revolver was not enough. Those who figured this out ordered stainless Smith & Wesson Model 66 six-inch .357 Magnum revolvers and an additional Model 60 five-shot back-up gun. The larger, six-inch-barreled shiny guns definitely got the attention of the gang members, but the change was more for function than form. Since we came into contact with multiple gang members in their natural habitat daily, 11 hot hollow points was better than six.

We also beefed up the issued Ithaca Model 37 12-gauge shotgun by carrying a reserve of rifled slugs and Ferret teargas rounds. Unlike LAPD, the sheriff's deputies were authorized to use these rounds with a nod from the sergeant. Although the patrol rifles were usually locked in the station armory, rendering them all but useless, we qualified and became familiar with the AR-15.

One of the best ways to prevent off-duty confrontations with gang members is to not identify yourself as a target. Don't tape a bull's eye on your back. It was common in my department to display a small police decal on the rear of your personal vehicle. Sometimes deputies would buy license-plate holders marked with the LASD radio call letters of KMA 628. This was also common on the private vehicles of LAPD and California Highway Patrol with their radio call letters. I think this was a method of avoiding traffic tickets. However, gang members have learned to recognize these off-duty cop identifiers. And remember you're not the only one who rides in that car; don't turn your family ride into a bullet magnet.

Here's another illogical cop phenomenon I can't explain. Police officers often work many years in uniform assignments with the goal of obtaining a highly desirable plainclothes or undercover assignment. Yet while these same officers were off duty, they routinely wore police-identifying clothing.

This phenomenon is most observable on the East Coast in and around the D.C. beltway, especially among off-duty federal officers. Unfortunately, this trend seems to be spreading across the nation. This off-duty "uniform" is khaki cargo pants, a dark colored or black golf shirt (complete with some cop logo), and a semi-auto pistol in a Kydex holster exposed on a belt. I call this the "shoot me first" off-duty uniform.

Smart gang members learn to spot undercover and off-duty police officers in public places. So why help them with their target acquisition by standing out in the crowd at the hamburger stand, in a restaurant, or in the mall?

The opposite extreme of this phenomenon is those cops who try to look like gangsters. They dress like outlaw bikers, hip hop rappers, skinheads, or tattooed cholos. This would also draw the attention of gang members and mark them as priority targets.

Off-duty dress should help you blend in with the average citizen, not make you stand out. Concealed carry means that your weapon should not be exposed. Conceal it, if you want the life-saving element of surprise.

Preparing for an off-duty confrontation with multiple gang members while you're alone, without a radio, ballistic vest or foreseeable back-up is a serious matter. Here's how we old gang dinosaurs got ready, or should I say "stayed ready." The LASD OSS gang deputies were some of the first officers to go to the large capacity 9mm semi-autos with the S&W Model 59. My back-up and off-duty weapon became a 12-shot S&W Model 469 9mm with a 20-round spare magazine (33 rounds).

Thinking and acting in a tactical way is not a natural inclination; it must be learned and practiced. It must become part of your on- and off-duty habit. Don't expect this to be easy or well accepted by others. Carry your off-duty weapon everywhere. Carry a knife, and have a flashlight and handcuffs handy. Prepare and rehearse scenarios like bad guys showing up at your family's front door. This happened to me.[PAGEBREAK]

Outstanding OSS gang units led by sergeants such as Ed Dvorak, Charlie Araujo and others begged, barrowed and invented police equipment and training far advanced of our regular departmental training. We spent our own time and money to train with LAPD and LASD SWAT teams. We trained with experienced experts from Israel, Jordan, France, New Zealand, and England who belonged to special anti-terrorist units. This somehow seemed to be offensive to those who felt that "the department-issued equipment and training was enough." To be the best, train like the best.

In the early 1990s, I was living in the Southridge area of Fontana, Calif. Though this was a residential area populated by firemen and police officers, my wife and I had several confrontations with local members of the 18th Street gang, the Headhunters and a local tagging crew called TDK.

These gang members seemed to have free reign at night in this area. They knew who I was, although I didn't work in that city. Several times after coming home late at night they would stand down the street in a park and taunt me. Finally one day while skateboarding at the neighborhood park, my middle-school boy was shot at by gang members. He was grazed in the elbow by one of the rounds. We moved out before the inevitable confrontation occurred. My neighbor was not so lucky.

On Sept. 25, 1995 at about 7 p.m. in my quiet middle-class Southridge neighborhood, an elderly man saw a group of taggers crossing out a curb tag on the sidewalk in front of his home in the 11500 block of Winery Drive. The vandals had stopped and unloaded from two vehicles parked in the street in front of the residence. The homeowner exited his door and asked them what they were doing. Instead of running away, four tagger crew members began yelling at the homeowner.

Several of the neighborhood children and teens were in the area playing when they turned their attention to the confrontation. They witnessed the taggers jumping on the homeowner and attacking him with fists and feet, and later told police. An LAPD officer lived next door and was also aroused to the commotion and like a good neighbor ran to the aid of the elderly neighbor. The four young taggers were not used to victims resisting and fighting back, especially when they were adult men. One of the most violent taggers ran to the parked vehicles and returned to the fight armed with a handgun.

The off-duty LAPD officer had no choice but to draw and fire. Witnesses said two or three shots dropped the armed tag banger. The remaining taggers and the witnesses scattered. The suspect vehicles sped away, one north on Winery and the other east on Shadow Drive (past my house). Responding police and paramedics pronounced the teenager dead, taped off the crime scene and covered the tag banger's body. The television news crew showed up.

Beating the suspect to the draw is not the end of the problem. The aftermath of an off-duty shooting can be just as dangerous. The next morning the mother of the slain tag banger appeared on the Los Angeles television news saying that her son was forced to carry a handgun to defend himself from the police who harassed and threatened her poor son. There was a general response from the self-appointed "community spokespersons" who expressed shock and dismay that the off-duty LAPD officer could find no other response but to kill a youthful minority member for a minor act of vandalism.

My sympathy for the poor LAPD officer only increased as he endured the shooting-review process. This could have easily been me. Don't make the false assumption that the negative television and print media coverage of the shooting, and the community activist's anti-police campaign would have no influence on the police shooting review.

Even if the shooting was found justified by the LAPD shooting review process, the Good Samaritan officer might still face criminal and civil trials. His home and his family could possibly now become targets of the surviving gang bangers. The stress and aftermath of this shooting could change the officer's whole future life.

Do yourself a favor. Your planning for the many facets of an unthinkable off-duty situation must be serious and deliberate. Think about it, and be prepared for these confrontations.

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Sergeant (Ret.)
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