Confrontations in which officers do not recognize others as police occur more often than most realize.
As if the stress, confusion and general chaos which will probably define the environment immediately after you either use your weapon to defend yourself or your family or intervene in a situation, there is a very real danger – very, very real – of you being mistaken for a perp yourself by the responding on duty officers – and shot as a result. Here’s some tips for interacting with the on duty troops appropriately and safely.
- There will be chaos, screaming and palatable fear charging the air if you have to shoot someone, or even if you draw your gun. As soon as you clear leather, start verbalizing, “Police! Don’t move!” (or maybe “Police! Show me your hands!”). The idea here is to let everyone around you – possibly other plainclothes or off duty officers – know that you are an officer.
- Whether or not you have a chance to challenge the perp before you have to shoot him (assuming you do), immediately afterwards, start loudly verbalizing, “Police! Stay away from him! He may still be armed!” This accomplishes three things: 1) you identify yourself, 2) you keep people away from someone who may still, in fact, be dangerous, and 3) you start to take control of the scene.
- As soon as possible, get your ID out and start waving it around – waving, not merely showing – for all to see. Keep verbalizing as above as you cover the now downed suspect.
- Start assigning duties to people as necessary. For example, tell someone to call 911; assign people to deal with anyone else who’s injured; and instruct everyone to stay right here because the police will want to talk to them.
- Instruct the person calling 911 to identify you by your looks and clothing – and as a police officer. This is important.
- As you issue these commands – forcefully and professionally – the fear will begin to subside somewhat as people realize you must be a cop and that someone is in charge.
- If possible, assign the most senior person there – the store manager, for example – to greet the responding officers and explain that an off duty police officer (you) had to shoot the guy who’s now bleeding on the floor.
- When the troops come in – just before, if at all possible – reholster your gun, keeping your ID visible and waving it in their direction – all the time verbalizing, “I am a police officer.”
- You wave your ID at them so that they will notice it. If you keep it static, they may not see it in the confusion of the moment. If you hold it beside your gun, as you see so often in pictures in the gun magazines, all they will see is your gun. They will not see the badge right beside it, because the gun – and the danger it represents – is far more important to them at that moment. This (holding your badge beside your drawn gun) is an excellent way to be mistaken for an immediate threat and be shot.
- For God’s sake, don’t turn towards responding officers with a drawn gun.
- The responding cops are in charge. Do as they say, even if you outrank them, and especially when they tell you to drop the gun. I don’t care if it’s a $5000 engraved heirloom. Do it. You’ll be cuffed and treated just like a bad guy for a while. Suck it up.
All of the above advice is for a situation in which you had to respond to a threat to yourself or another innocent. But, there’s another way that off duty cops have been mistakenly killed by on duty officers and that’s when an off duty officer intervenes in a situation that on duty police are handling. Usually, the on duty troops are in the middle of a bad situation – a felony arrest with drawn guns, subduing a violently resisting perp, or some other action in which the off duty cop feels the understandable urge to help out his/her fellow officers. What happens is that the off duty cop draws his weapon and rushes in to assist. The on duty cops understandably mistake him/her for a bad guy coming at them with a gun and they shoot. This has happened too often with tragic results. Even if you know the on duty cops involved, don’t expect them to recognize you – all they will see is your drawn gun in the stress of the thing.
How do you handle this? There isn’t a really good answer, unfortunately, but the best approach is twofold. 1) Stop, take a breath and analyze what’s going on. Do you really need to get involved or are your instincts just kicking in? 2) If you need to get involved, keep your gun holstered. Verbally identify yourself (you’ll be yelling) and get acknowledgement from the officers involved that they understand you are a cop. Does this run counter to your instincts? Does it take a great deal of self-control? Yes…and yes.
Finally, how do you prepare for these situations? Hopefully, your agency (maybe your union or association) will run some scenario training based on these kinds of off duty encounters. If so, you are lucky. Short of that, mental visualization is your best tool. There is a reason visualization is an often practiced technique of world-class athletes.
Ralph Mroz was a police officer (part-time) in Massachusetts for 20 years, seven of which he was assigned to his county’s drug task force. He has taught at a number of national, regional and international law enforcement conferences. His blog can be read at https://thestreetstandards.wordpress.com/.