Ogden City (Utah)Police Master Officer Ken Hammond poses with his wife Sarita and the Medal of Honor he received for his bravery in confronting a gunman while off duty, Feb. 16 2007, in Salt Lake City. Photo AP/Douglas C. Pizac
FEATURED IN TACTICS AND WEAPONS
The latest statistics from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports indicate approximately 12 percent of officer murders occur while the victim is off-duty. That number appears to have remained fairly constant over the past few years. In fact, it s declined a few percentage points since trainers began incorporating off-duty survival tactics into department firearms programs.
While many readers may think killing off-duty cops is a relatively new trend attributed to street gangs, research shows that s not the case. The first recorded murder of an off-duty police officer dates back 150 years. On Nov. 8, 1858, Baltimore (Md.) Police Officer Bob Rigdon was murdered after he returned home from testifying in court. Ironically, Rigdon testified at the trial of a suspect accused of killing another police officer. Rigdon had received several death threats warning him not to testify against the accused cop killer. The threats proved accurate when he was gunned down by an assassin s bullet.
More than a century later, on an early September morning, Officer Mark Phebus, a seven-month rookie with the Texas Department of Public Safety was shot and killed. He had stopped to assist in what he thought was a motor vehicle accident on a lonely stretch of highway. After identifying himself as a police officer and going back to his personally owned vehicle to retrieve a flashlight, he was struck down with a shot to his face by the male driver of one of the vehicles. Unbeknownst to Phebus, he had inadvertently interrupted a violent domestic dispute.
Whether for revenge, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, these examples show the inherent dangers of being a cop. Records from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, from which these two examples were gleaned, indicate that more than 200 law enforcement officers have been killed while off-duty since this statistic has been recorded.
So, as an officer, how can you be protected from off-duty danger? Well, short of pretending you re not a cop, there are some tactics and concepts that might afford you some measure of protection and still let you honor your oath to protect and serve while off-duty.
First, when you re off-duty, you must assess each situation from three perspectives. These intervention assessment definitions come from the Off-Duty Survival block of instruction that was included in the old Calibre Press Street Survival Seminars I taught for 12 years. The three perspectives are critical; non-critical; and important, but not critical.
Non-Critical & Important, but Non-Critical
Let s review the non-critical perspective first, because that s the group most encounters fall into. The best advice most trainers who ve studied off-duty encounters will offer is to simply be a good witness. In other words, go to a safe location, call 911, gather as much information as you can about what you see and monitor the situation until the cavalry arrives.
Some officers disagree with this advice based on the concept of being a cop 24/7. However, remember that you have no legal obligation to become involved in an off-duty capacity if it requires you to behave in a reckless, careless or suicidal manner. While I agree you re a cop 24 hours a day, you re usually on duty for only eight (or 10) hours of that time. That doesn t mean you have to wear blinders for the remaining 14 or 16 hours. But, you do need to consider several factors before you decide to get involved, especially if the situation falls into the important, but not critical, or not critical categories.
Those important, but not critical situations may require a more visible presence and active role than just calling 911. In those situations, you may opt to identify yourself as an officer. For example, this technique would work in a potentially dangerous child discipline matter that borders on abuse, or a physical altercation between a shoplifter and store security officer, who needs assistance controlling the suspect. Again, identification is critical, and environmental concerns and accessibility to equipment, such as handcuffs should be considered.
Intervention in Critical Situations
Critical incidents are a little more complicated. Most cops will agree that when you see a violent crime taking place where someone s life may be in imminent danger, you must act. A Salt Lake City case from a year ago is a classic example. Ogden Police Department Officer Ken Hammond, while off-duty and out for dinner with his wife, heard and witnessed a shooting in a shopping mall. Fortunately, Hammond was armed and reacted, and the SWAT team responded quickly. Had he been unarmed, however, his intervention might have consisted of being the good witness we discussed earlier.
When deciding to become involved in a critical situation, you must consider a number of factors. Do you have the proper equipment? I don t just mean your gun. Communications items, such as a cell phone, are important. The responding officers will need to know who you are, what you re wearing and if you re armed.
Next, should you successfully take a suspect into custody, how will you secure him until the uniforms arrive? Also, do you know how to respond to the arriving officers? More than two decades ago, my fellow New York trainer Guy Rossi and I addressed this issue during one of our department s in-service firearms programs. We designed a four-hour, live-fire range exercise course, Firearms Training for Off-Duty Confrontations, which consists of the evaluation process before deciding to become involved in an off-duty situation. It also addresses the proper method for identifying yourself as an officer, how to safely respond to the arriving officers commands, how to remove your credentials and putting down your firearm if you re ordered to. The session ends with a belly-gun course designed for off-duty and back-up guns.
Ken Hammond s wife was with him when he decided to get involved during the Salt Lake City shooting incident, which brings us to the final issue. What do you do when family members are with you and the situation is deemed critical? When rounds are being exchanged, it s not the time to discuss your off-duty survival lesson plan with your family. These issues need to be addressed well in advance.
Calibre s checklist includes important topics such as how your spouse or other family member should call in the situation, including your status as an off-duty officer, manner of dress, walking on your non-gun side and never publicly revealing your police status.
I d like to expand on those concepts just a little. I had my kids early in life and got on the job as a young man fresh out of Vietnam. As a result of my training, my son, daughter, and my spouse at the time were taught what to do if I got involved in an off-duty situation. Those instructions included not disclosing my police identity, but also how to make the important 911 calls and calmly provide all the relevant details. They also learned how to discreetly distance themselves so as not to be associated with me if someone else recognizes me and reveals my identity as a cop.
Carry the Essentials
Next, and this is important, there are three pieces of equipment you ll need if you decide to get involved off-duty. Remember: Guns and badges go together like peanut butter and jelly. Restraints must be a part of that sandwich. Should you incapacitate the suspect, you ll need to secure them afterward. From a legal perspective, cuffing will go a long way in defusing an accusation that your intent was to kill the suspect rather than stopping the threat. There are many lightweight alloy cuffs on the market that fit very nicely in a fanny pack.
Last, you might consider avoiding clothing that readily identifies you as a cop. Those T-shirts that read Homicide: Our Day Begins When Your Day Ends or Go Ahead, Attack Me. I Need The Practice might be appropriate garb at the annual PBA Pig Roast or FOP Picnic. However, what message will they send if you inadvertently walk into a hold-up at the local Stop n Rob on the way home? That attire might just catapult you into a deadly force situation you re not physically or mentally prepared for. Food for thought.