About two weeks ago, I was visiting my parents, who live in the same city that I work in. While sitting in the living room talking to my dad, I heard my mom say in a surprised tone that a man had jumped the fence and ran through the yard.
My first inclination was that an adolescent jumped the fence to retrieve a ball or something to that effect. I walked onto the front porch but didn't see anyone in the yard. I then heard the familiar sound of a police radio broadcasting from a patrol vehicle parked down the street. I heard someone running through the next door neighbor's yard and realized it was an officer that I work with. This was a FBI clue that the man who ran through the yard was a bad guy and the officer was in foot pursuit.
I called to the officer by yelling his last name and then identified myself by saying, "It's Nance." He acknowledged my presence and we checked the backyard of my parent's residence for the subject.
While searching the backyard, my dad came outside to see what was going on. I told him to go back inside and lock the door, which he did. Not only was I concerned for my safety and that of my fellow officers but also for the safety of my family (not something we usually have to concern ourselves with while on duty).
About this time, I began to feel a little uneasy about not being armed and being without a vest, radio, and other equipment that would be available to me if I were on duty. I probably should have taken my own advice and followed my dad into the house.
A minute or two later, when backup arrived, I armed myself and met with other officers who had arrived on scene. I made sure they knew I was present and were familiar with what I was wearing. I did not want to return to my parents' house at that point because if the subject was watching, I did not want him to associate me with their residence.
Ultimately, other officers apprehended the subject a few minutes later. He was hiding in a yard two houses from my parents' house. As it turned out, he was a teenager driving a stolen vehicle that he wrecked prior to fleeing on foot.
This incident brought home (literally) the fact that we are never really "off duty." Upon reflecting on the incident, I was reminded of several potential hazards associated with taking police action while off duty. Specifically, there are identification issues, equipment issues, and third party protection issues.
I work for a department that's small enough that I know every officer by name. I made it a point to advise the officers on scene of my presence and made sure they saw me. I wanted them to know what I was wearing and that I was assisting them in their effort to locate the subject. However, what I didn't account for were officers from outside agencies who might have responded to assist. I should have had one of the officers advise dispatch that I was on scene.
If an officer from another jurisdiction saw me creeping around in plain clothes, carrying a handgun, who is to say they would know I was an officer? What if that officer was in plain clothes and I thought he was the subject we were after? What if a nearby resident saw me sneaking through their yard armed with a handgun (especially if they saw officers searching their yard with their guns drawn moments earlier)?
What if the suspect didn't realize I was a police officer? Even if he did believe that I was an officer, a resisting arrest charge would be a tough sell if he were to run away or fight me, since I was not readily identifiable as a police officer. As you can see, there are several what ifs regarding off duty identification issues. Unfortunately each scenario could have tragic consequences.
In the beginning of this fiasco, I was unarmed. I soon armed myself with my duty weapon but was without a ballistic vest, radio, handcuffs, flashlight, pepper spray, baton, and TASER. I wouldn't have to worry about conducting any type of reload if I were involved in a shooting because I only had one magazine for my firearm!
Is your off-duty firearm of equal caliber to your duty weapon? I know that little Derringer is easy to conceal, but what kind of stopping power does it have? How many rounds does it hold? Do you carry extra magazines while off duty? I would bet that most officers don't.
Third party protection issues
When my dad came outside, I was momentarily distracted and vulnerable to attack. This issue would have been compounded if my dad had argued with me or if I had been responsible for protecting a child or children.
Make sure you have a plan for the unexpected. Your significant other needs to know there may come a time when you are required to take immediate police action. You can develop a code phrase with your significant other and children that will alert them that you're switching gears from citizen to police officer. Part of your plan should include having them leave the area as quickly and safely as possible and calling 911.
If it comes down to going after the bad guy or keeping my family safe, the bad guy is going to get away. Remember, you're primary function during an off duty incident is one of VIP protection for your own family!
The adage of "Walk softly and carry a big stick" seems particularly relevant to the topic of off-duty survival. Make sure you're armed whenever possible, because chances are danger will find you when you least expect it. Don't take action unless it's a matter of life and death and even then, do not do so at the cost of jeopardizing the lives of your loved ones. Practice drawing from your off-duty holster and for God's sake, make sure you carry your badge with your gun! Don't take unnecessary risks. Be a good witness!