Proper Off-Duty Equipment

Well, it has happened again. A friend of mine and I entered a discussion of what to carry off duty and when to get involved in situations that would require police response. This started when he told me of a recent article he read that discussed an off duty officer becoming involved in a shooting and was eventually sued civilly by the family of the dead bad guy.

At trial, the officer testified that he was trying to order the afore mentioned bad guy to stop, cease his actions, or otherwise cause him to be restrained but, said bad guy, in true form, refused and was subsequently shot for his faulty decision-making ability. The plaintiff's attorney argued that since the off duty officer only carried a firearm and ID, he not intended to cause his client to cease anything but rather had actually intended to kill him from the onset of his intervention.

My friend said that the article went on to say that due to this type of legal ridiculousness, off duty officers should carry handcuffs along with their sidearm. I have also seen articles that purport that an off duty officer should carry pepper spray, spare magazines, don't forget the keys for the cuffs. Excuse me but WHAT THE #&*@!

Now, let's look at a little reality. I do agree that extra ammunition is a nice addition to off duty carry. I also carry a pocketknife but this is by no means what that article suggested. My friend carries a fanny pack style holster most of the time and I have climbed into his case when I have seen cuffs, pepper spray, extra magazines, and the like all housed in this obvious gun bag. I have asked why you don't just wear your duty gun belt all the time? It would be easier and then you would have extra ammo, a radio, a baton, and depending on waist size, one or two pair of cuffs. Heck, with all that, I am ready for a night out with my family. Right? Wrong!

As off duty officers we carry much less equipment than our on-duty counterparts do. I don't know the outcome of the above court case but if that officer's attorney didn't flush that argument down a nearby toilet, I would have refused to pay him for failing to do his job.

What do we read repeatedly about on-duty officers who rushed into a situation and failed to wait for back up? Unfortunately, I have read too many of the articles about how these guys died. Now I get to think about them when I visit Washington DC in May for Police Week.

When off duty, I am not carrying a radio, wearing a bullet resistant vest, driving a marked police car, or wearing a uniform. I am generally with my family and there is no readily available back-up close by. Why should I be dressed or equipped as if going to the local SWAT call out?

Given the litigious nature of our society and everyone jumping on the bandwagon to sue the police, why would you take police action other than what any normal citizen can take? Remember the academy training that says, Be a good witness so we don't have to attend your funeral? That is what I am talking about.

I have made my share of calls to other jurisdictions while driving when I have seen drunks. Heck, I even got court time for one of them in another city. Unless there is some immediate danger that anyone could or would step in and intervene, we are not bound to enter the nearest phone booth and come out in full uniform with our capes flowing in the wind.

Use your head. I have drawn my weapon once off duty and that was when the video store I was shopping in was robbed at gunpoint. Luckily, that guy made it to his car and a firefight did not take place. He was subsequently arrested a few weeks later.

Let's go back to the above court case and the plaintiff's argument. He intended to shoot my client from the onset as he had no handcuffs for making any type of seizure. I will break this down in somewhat of an expository manner. What do we do when on-duty and confronting a subject where we would be justified in the use of force, up to and including, lethal force? We order them to do certain things, "Stop! Police! Get on the ground!" You get the idea.

Let's just say for the sake of my writing that the subject complies. Do you then run up, dive on like the typical dog pile, and engage in a wrestling match to try to restrain the subject by yourself? No, you do not. You take up a position of advantage (that means where he can't see you and you can see him) and keep him covered to await your on-rushing back up officers.

You did call for them on your radio, right? Ok, so you have Billy Bad Boy on the ground, you have a tactical advantage and he is submitting to the surrender ritual by remaining there as you cover him with your firearm. You do not know if he has more weapons or if he intends to fight further. If your back up is on the way, why chance it?

Off duty, you are in somewhat of the same boat but at a severe disadvantage. Remember, you are still not wearing your vest or uniform. You have intervened and, again for the sake of the argument, let's say Billy complied. You do as you are trained by taking cover, and keeping Billy at a disadvantage.

What now since you do not have a radio? How about that new invention called the cell phone? Call your local 911 operator and tell them what you have going. Be sure to tell them that you are off duty and what you are wearing so your on-duty brothers don't shoot you when they arrive. Now just wait for the cavalry.

Remember, in situations that may involve such force, others are also going to be calling the police as well as filming you with their digital cameras on their cell phones so be prepared to accept that the police are being told, There is a guy with a gun and he is threatening to shoot some guy on the ground by the other people calling. After that, expect to see yourself on You-Tube or some other such site.

So, why exactly do I need to carry all kinds of police equipment off duty? It sure isn't to restrain the subject; that is what on-duty officers are for. It would be nice to have the stuff, but my wife, and I would venture to say, most wives would cease to go anywhere with a husband/officer who looks like he is ready for tactical assault. Further, there is no law that says that any citizen who chooses to become involved in such a situation has to take the next step and restrain the bad guy if said bad guy chooses to comply. There! The attorney's argument is null and void.

If we try to act like John Wayne (sorry Duke) when off-duty we are going to get hurt. Are you going to get duty disability when you intervene in something off duty that leaves you injured to the point of not being able to work? I doubt it very much.

My friend told me of another story that he had read about where an officer was driving and just ahead of him, he observed a carjacking in progress. The offender had a handgun pointed at the driver of an SUV and was screaming for him to get out of his car.

Due to the severity of the situation, the off-duty officer, a few cars back, exited his vehicle, took a position of cover, drew his weapon, and yelled the standard, "STOP! POLICE!" at which point the offender began to turn his weapon to the officer. Bad move for him as the officer had the guy already sighted up and dropped him without any further damage.

Was he supposed to restrain this guy? The offender's actions precluded any chance of that. Were the officer's actions offensive or defensive? I would argue defensive as our actions most of the time are. We have to react to the actions of the offender before we can take the actions that ultimately stop the situation. The officer acted as any citizen should have that is licensed to carry a firearm. He acted in defense of another's life and ended the situation with only one person getting hurt, the person who started the whole confrontation. Let's keep the blame where it is supposed to be, on the offender.

Carry what you feel comfortable carrying when off duty but by all means, use your head if you are faced with a situation that might call for the police. If it is of a nature that does not require immediate use of a serious amount of force, make the call and be that good witness. If it is a situation like our two cases noted above and you have to be involved, do so with the clear headedness to defend yourself when the street battle is over and the court battle begins.

There are, of course, times when a situation may arise that would call for immediate action with less than lethal force, and we can postulate endlessly on what the circumstances might be. I would not recommend jumping into the chase of a shoplifter by store security officers (a property crime). I also would not suggest that we idly stand by and watch someone get hurt as we talk on our cell phone to dispatch.

You may have to wade into the fight to draw the attention away from the intended victim all the while using less than lethal force. Call for the back up that is needed and do what you can but be careful not to overstep your authority in these situations and most of all, try to keep yourself from being injured in the process.

I remain confident that if I ever become involved in a situation during my off-duty time, I will be able to remain clear-headed enough to suppress the adrenaline rush, not let it overtake me and cause me to dive into the situation ill equipped. Some officers carry their firearms off duty. Some do not. It is a choice we all must make with ourselves.

I would strongly recommend extra ammunition for whatever firearm you are carrying but to carry handcuffs, batons, spray, and the like seems to be a little over the top when not in uniform. Remember the story of the old sheriff. He attended a party and was carrying his duty sidearm as he was in uniform. A partygoer asked if he expected trouble because he was armed. He said he always carried a pistol and if he expected trouble, he would have brought his rifle.

This story reminds us that handguns are generally thought to be defensive weapons and the ones we carry off duty with smaller barrels, closer sights (or none at all), and smaller ammunition capacities should be used defensively. One instructor that taught an active shooter class that I attended put it aptly. He said, Use your handgun to fight your way back to your rifle. I have not seen anyone purporting carrying a slung rifle off duty yet but based on what some folks are now suggesting, that idea cannot be far off.

I'd like to thank Jeff Garrison, a 17 year veteran of the Dearborn, MI Police Department who contributed significantly to this article. While it was a collaborative effort, the fact is that the article would never have been written without Jeff. Hats off to him.