Well, do you carry off duty? I certainly hope so. However, I have heard a lot of reasons why some officers don't. Things like:
- Hey, I'm on my own time!
- My wife doesn't like guns around when we go out together.
- I don't want to have to dress for carrying.
- I'm not into guns. It's just a tool I have to carry around when I'm working. I'm not carrying it when I'm not working.
Now, I do recognize that people get into police work for a variety of reasons, and getting to shoot someone should not be one of them. But the possibility comes with the job. Something else that comes with the job, whether we like it or not, is the 24/7 responsibility. You may not plan it that way, but that is the way it is. You may think you can avoid being involved when you are off duty, and maybe you can most of the time. In fact, maybe you should. Some of the ugliest internal affairs investigations I know of got that way because an officer involved himself in something while off duty when he should have left well enough alone. I'm not saying you should run away, but sometimes the best place to see your name is in the Reporting Party or Witness box on the report form. But what happens if you really do need to act quickly and decisively to prevent death or grave bodily harm? If you left your gun in the car, or back at home, or in your locker at the department, you may find yourself, or people you care about, in the Victim section.
You can't be a cop for very long without being aware of the dangerous nature of dealing with the public. You know other human beings who are going about their business in a very different manner from everyone else. You'd think that knowing that would be enough incentive to be prepared for the worst, even if you are hoping for the best. Some officers seem to think that when they take off the uniform, including all of the equipment, they take off the dark side of the human experience. Well, to a degree this may be so. When you are off duty, you can go into avoidance mode, raise the drawbridge, if you will, and keep the outside world away. That doesn't really work, of course, because you still have domestic duties, some sort of a social life and you can't hide in your house for long. But, when you do go out, you don't have to look for trouble, right? What if trouble finds you? Just recently, a young Los Angeles County Deputy was shot while he was walking just outside his home. Suddenly, a car pulled up next to him, the lone occupant shouted an expletive indicating his dislike for the Sheriff's Department and then he began shooting. The Deputy sustained two non-life threatening but potentially crippling wounds to his leg. His attacker obviously knew he was a Sheriff's Deputy and was intent on ambushing him. The Deputy was not armed. He reportedly had left his off-duty gun in his car.
Such reports about officers who have been involved in off-duty deadly force encounters can be easily found. Law enforcement professional organizations, be they training oriented, like IALEFI (the International Association of Law Enforcement Training Officers) or many of the police benevolent or advocacy groups, like LEAA (Law Enforcement Alliance of America) regularly report on incidents that happen to officers, on and off-duty. So, of course, does Officer.com. There is also a link at the bottom of this column for an excellent report that is on the website of the Fraternal Order of Police. It was written when the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2004 (commonly known as H.R. 218) was being considered. It eloquently relates that there are a lot of names of officers on the Wall of Remembrance at the National Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial who were killed in the line of duty while off duty. The saddest thing about that Wall is that there will never be an end to the names. Our war memorials have plenty of names, but they do have an end. Law enforcement will go on forever and there will always, unfortunately, be more names on that Wall. The best we can do is to try and keep the number as small as possible. That part is up to you.
In the "good old days," we sometimes claimed that there was some sort of unwritten code that the bad guys might do anything when you dealt with them at work, but they'd leave you alone when you were off duty; and they certainly wouldn't harm your family! Like many memories of those days, there are a lot of flaws and nostalgic fog involved in such thinking. But, from the reports I'm seeing, the admittedly flimsy social taboo about not messing with off-duty cops or their families that might have existed once upon a time certainly has no relevance today. Cops and their families are targets for revenge attacks by gang members, paroled and escaped convicts and just about any spoiled brat-like troublemaker who just never learned that they can't always have their own way. Police are authority figures and they get the backlash. Sometimes it is deadly. Again, we know this, yet I still talk to cops who can't be bothered carrying off-duty.
Non-cops can sometimes make things worse. Comments from family or friends, perhaps well intentioned or perhaps just based in frustration, ignorance or misunderstanding of the risk, can cause an officer to leave the gun behind, just to deflect any such comments. Of course, if the ca-ca hits the fan, the officer is the one who takes the heat. I was talking to a friend of mine recently who has a relative who is a corrections officer. At a family gathering, some other relatives where visiting from out of town. In this case, "out of town" is a place where gun ownership is highly restricted, even for police officers. These folks just couldn't understand why a corrections officer would want, or need, to carry while off duty. After all, he worked in a gun-free environment anyway, right? They scoffed at the idea that a former inmate might hold a grudge after getting out of prison. That never really happens! Yeah, right. I wonder if these people think that prisons create their own inmates, rather than the criminals being responsible for the need for the prisons.
In any case, you are the person who must make the decision to carry, or not. What lessons have you learned while on the job? What sort of people do you deal with every day? Many are victims. We certainly should learn from their stories. We, or the people we care about, could so easily be them. Most are just the bystanders who move through their daily routines with little or no regard for the dangers around them. But, I ask you this: How can any law enforcement officer not know the risks and the dangers? How can anyone in this business not be prepared for the times when things go wrong? If you do find yourself in a tight situation while you are off-duty, who are the people most likely to be with you? Your family and friends. So, you spend your duty time protecting everyone else's family and friends, but you don't see the need to protect your own the rest of the time? Sorry, but that just doesn't make sense to me.
You must make the final decision and live with that choice. I hope your decision is to be prepared. You need to have your mental radar on "scan" and be ready to react appropriately to your surroundings. In the best of all possible worlds, you'll never have any problems. But if the worst happens, you will at least have a chance to prevail. It would be even better if you, your family and your friends were prepared to react to any danger as a team. But that's a whole 'nother subject. For now, avoid what you can, but be prepared for the worst. If you carry a badge, carry a gun.