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Safe at Home; A Cop’s Dilemma

Years ago, I received an email from a female crimefighter who was startled by a criminal with a knife who had approached her front door because her take home marked squad car was parked in her driveway.  He was not actually there to attack her, he had mental health issues and was looking for help, but she certainly did not know that at the time.  She was able to deal effectively with him, but as she reviewed her actions she wondered what she could have done better, especially because her kids had been playing nearby during the incident.

I admired not only her ability to contain a potential bad guy in her doorway, but how she had kept her family safe and secure…all in a day’s work for a crimefighting mom!  But her incident raised a larger issue; how do we keep ourselves, and our families safe at home?

First of all, we must accept and understand that this threat has always been a part of police work.  On November 8, 1858, Officer Robert Rigdon of the Baltimore, MD Police Department was assassinated in his home as retaliation for his testimony in the trial of the man who murdered fellow BPD officer Benjamin Benton.  Since then, over 200 American police officers have been killed taking action off duty.

Next, begin by realistically assessing the possibilities.  Do you have a take-home squad car?  Are you living in the same community where you are a cop?  Do you work in an assignment, such as narcotics, gangs, probation, parole, or another where you could be targeted by a motivated offender?  Sergeant Carl Dewayne Graham, Jr. of the Missouri State Highway Patrol was shot and killed in front of his home on March 29th, 2005 by a suspect who was under investigation by the sergeant for leaving the scene of a fatal accident.  Fortunately, Sergeant Graham’s four year old son was not with him at the time.

We all know that we are relatively easy to find when we’re off duty.  Thanks to the Internet, it’s harder than ever to hide our identity, our home address, even what personal car we drive.  Police officers can also be found inadvertently through other family members (especially our kids), our off duty interests such as church or school, or even the old fashioned method of being followed home from work.  This brings us to prevention and response.

Realistically, you’re probably not going to walk around the house with your gun and handcuffs on all the time.  However, you can easily train your family members to assist you in this type of situation. As police officers, we often shy away from teaching our kids about our tactics, our weapons, and the general nasty nature of our job.  In our “Beyond Off Duty Survival” class, we encourage officers to train their families to be able to assist them.  One of the best books available to help with teaching your kids to be strong and resourceful is Raising Kids Who Can Protect Themselves by Mike and Debbie Gardner.  The Gardner’s (both were law enforcement officers who are now nationally recognized trainers and safety experts) use “courage coaching” to help create a family defense systems and help parents teach kids some of the tactics cops use such as tactical breathing, positive self talk and special awareness.  

It’s also a good idea to start with age appropriate firearms safety (the NRA’s “Eddie Eagle” program is a great resource for younger kids), and then teach your whole family how to safely retrieve your firearm and handcuffs from safekeeping and bring them to you in a subtle, “tactical” manner (IE: away from the bad guy).  Frequently reiterate to them that they are part of a warrior family, and that some day you may need their help in protecting the family and/or the community.  Talk about your own survival mentality and your “warrior ethos,” and if you’re looking for a few good stories to tell the kids, pick up a copy of Steven Pressfield’s book “Warrior Ethos” or Ben Sherwood’s “The Survivor’s Club.”  If you empower your family, especially your children, to help out and take control, they will amaze you!  Also teach them to call “911” if it looks like you need immediate assistance. Have them tell dispatch that an off duty officer needs assistance and to stay on the phone to help the responding officers determine your location, description and your specific needs.  If you’re home alone, consider keeping your gun and handcuffs in a secure area closer to the front door. Where ever you keep your home defense weapon(s), practice retrieving them so that in a crisis you don’t have to “think” about where it is.  And remember, cops often get hurt when they “rush in.”  Train yourself to quickly assess the situation and consider the safest alternative.  For example, for the officer who found herself dealing unexpectedly with that man armed with a knife at her own front door, there would have been nothing wrong with pushing the guy (or verbally directing him if he was cooperative) out the door and then calling “911” and waiting for back up, or better yet, slamming the door in his face (creating both distance and a barrier), retrieving her firearm and calling it in.

Her letter also brought up another excellent concern: “take home” squad cars.  Officers who bring a squad home have to be extra vigilant in dealing with people in their neighborhood, since the squad in the drive way is basically a bill board saying “a cop lives here!”  If your department policy allows, consider parking it a few blocks away in a more “public” lot (with permission, of course), put it in your garage, or even park it at the local fire station. The less you advertise that someone in the house is a cop, the better, especially if your kids frequently play outside.  If you have to leave it in the driveway, discuss potential scenarios with your family and your neighbors to help them deal with people who may approach your home looking for assistance or worse, looking to do harm. 

Unfortunately, off duty safety means we have to be prepared to take action not just at the grocery story or at our kid’s school or at the bank while making a deposit, but in our own homes as well.  Be vigilant, and stay safe!


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About The Author:

Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith is a 29-year veteran of a large suburban Chicago police department. Recently retired as a patrol supervisor, she has held positions in patrol, investigations, narcotics, juvenile, crime prevention and field training. As a sergeant, she supervised her department's K-9 Unit, served as a field training sergeant, recruitment team sergeant, bike patrol coordinator, the Crowd Control Bike Team supervisor, and supervisor of the Community Education/Crime Prevention Unit.

As a patrol sergeant, Betsy served on the Elderly Services Team, the Crisis Intervention Team, and was a supervisory member of the Honor Guard Unit. From 1999 - 2003 Betsy hosted various programs for the Law Enforcement Television Network and served as a content expert.

A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command, Betsy writes for numerous law enforcement and government publications including and is a regular columnist for many police websites including Police Link. A content expert and instructor for the Calibre Press "Street Survival" seminar since 2003, Betsy also serves as an on-air commentator and advisor for Police One TV and was a featured character in the Biography Channel’s “Female Forces” reality show. Betsy has been a law enforcement trainer for over 20 years and is a popular keynote speaker at conferences throughout the United States and Canada and beyond.

Betsy is the lead instructor for the Calibre Press “Street Survival for Women” seminar and manages Dave Smith & Associates. Together, Betsy and Dave teach courses through “Winning Mind Seminars,” an Illinois based company. She can be reached through her website at