By George T. Williams
How NOT to Get Shot Off-Duty by Other Officers
Off-duty officers being shot when responding patrol officers arrive on scene continues unabated despite extensive prevention training. The uniformed officer mistakenly perceives the off-duty officer’s actions and behavior as that of a threat. The result is the off-duty officer is unnecessarily injured or killed.
Taking police action while off-duty and intervening to disrupt a violent crime is a topic that has been addressed in training and literature for decades. The traditional focus of this training has been centered on how to take safer enforcement action when off-duty. Recent training is now focusing on responding officers and how to train them to attempt to better identify armed individuals before firing. Still, off-duty officers continue to be shot and sometimes killed. Is it just inevitable, or is there an answer to this?
Are Off-Duty Officers More Likely to be Mistakenly Shot Than Civilians?
While there are no available statistics on the number of times officers are mistakenly shot by responding officers, national news sources recount with grim regularity the circumstances of this type of incident. In a recent week, there were three shootings of off-duty officers nationally.
Given the number of off-duty officers who are shot and/or killed, a question arises: Are legally armed civilians also being shot in corresponding frequency by responding police? Responsible citizens licensed to carry concealed handguns also intervene in deadly assaults and violent acts by the use or display of their firearms. According to researcher John Lott, there are approximately 72,000 self-defense or defense of others shootings by civilians annually—far more than the number of incidents where officers fire their weapons at offenders.
A search of the Internet reveals almost no mention of police officers mistakenly shooting civilians as a result of lawful interventions. There is an apparent difference between off-duty officers and legally armed civilians. Both are in civilian clothes and armed with a firearm while similarly intervening, yet it is the officer who is more likely to be fired upon by responding uniformed officers.
Is there a solution to be found within these differences?
Changing Your Off-Duty Mindset
Doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result is an accepted definition of insanity. Off-duty conduct has been addressed in training for 30-plus years, but does not apparently result in success. The following tactics have been offered as the solution to off-duty friendly-fire deaths:
- Take enforcement action only in defense-of-life situations.
- Be a good witness.
- Have your police ID visible.
- When the uniformed officers arrive, DO WHAT THEY TELL YOU TO DO.
There is a problem with this laundry list of suggested actions. It fails to address the underlying problem of the “cop mindset” the off-duty or plainclothes officer brings to the situation. When performing your patrol duties, you are normally in uniform or wearing a raid jacket, which displays “POLICE” prominently. When you need help and your team members arrive, some part of you is reassured. You relax a bit. You now begin to think—and act—like a part of the team. You are not alone and your perception of danger just decreased.
This is 180 degrees opposite from your off-duty reality—the arriving officer sees you as a man with a gun and thinks, “Suspect.” Normally, when that man-with-a-gun (actor) is shooting at the other individual (victim) or is pointing a gun at the other subject (victim), the uniformed officer responds per his/her training or experience. Minimally, at gunpoint, the uniformed officer begins shouting repeated orders to drop the gun, to get on the ground, to show hands, etc. Someone pointing a gun while loudly shouting at you is, by definition, dangerous. And the officer may fire in defense of life based on your actions.
If you are snapped into your “cop mindset,” you will gratefully hear these same orders you have heard—and yourself shouted—on-duty hundreds of times. It feels normal as your teammates simply act out their roles along with you. You now turn to greet the team, with no thought of them perceiving you, an off-duty officer, as a threat. The stress and fear from the event as well as the continuing danger from the actual suspect are still on your face as you turn to look at them. Your weapon moves toward the arriving officers because your head moves toward the arriving officers.
Knowing only the original call of unknown violence or that a shooting has taken place, the on-duty, uniformed officer sees the man-with-a-gun turning at him. He responds to a reasonably perceived threat. And we lose two good cops, two families are broken, and the profession is diminished yet again by needless loss.
“Off-Duty Officer Safety” Training Suggestions
Arriving officers are going to act like cops, so you need to act like a responsible civilian. The fundamental cause of off-duty blue-on-blue shootings is the off-duty cop thinking like he’s part of the team as officers arrive. Not being readily identifiable as law enforcement, the off-duty officer is shot down because of the same human factors you experience in similar dangerous situations: heightened awareness of vulnerability fostering a body alarm reaction of narrowly focused visual field (tunnel vision), decreased auditory capabilities (cannot hear normally), and highly focused attentional processes oriented to the early discovery of threat indicators by an armed suspect. The police mindset of looking for threat indicators is intentionally trained into officers from the academy and throughout their career. These perception-response behaviors are normally beneficial to officers who perceive a suspect’s intentional imminent deadly threat behavior. Quick reaction to a suspect threatening you with a gun means the difference between life and death.
Nothing changes when it’s your jurisdiction. Just because you are in your jurisdiction—where you are well known and know every officer in the agency—do not assume they will recognize you. Attentional focus under stress cannot be switched on and off. If there is a high degree of perceived threat, the likelihood of being recognized by someone you have worked with for years is low to non-existent. This means arriving officers may not be able to recognize you even if they work with you every day, and are likely to react with deadly force given any indication you are an imminent threat. The law recognizes an officer’s disadvantages in this deadly time-competitive struggle. An officer is necessarily permitted to be mistaken when acting in self-defense and defense of others in any “time is life” situation. Sadly, the truth is that best friends have mistakenly killed best friends in broad daylight.
Your best survival strategy is to act the way you want a completely compliant suspect to act. Recognize your role in the arriving officer’s mindset, knowing that the human inside that uniform is attempting to survive this dangerous call. He will protect himself from what he perceives as a deadly threat. Even if you know the officer well, your lack of a uniform or raid jacket may prevent that officer from identifying you in time to stop him shooting you.
TRAINING POINT: Your off-duty tactical and survival strategies are different than when you are on-duty and easily identifiable. Think of the first responding officer as the most excitable and impulsive officer you’ve ever worked with. How is he/she going to be processing high-threat, time-compressed events when you are shooting at someone or standing over someone with a handgun in-hand? That ought to make you fairly concerned about your safety as the cavalry arrives, and VERY compliant to any orders.
Take enforcement action only in defense of life and be a good witness. The common arguments for not taking routine enforcement actions remain viable: You are not equipped like you are on-duty; you do not have communications capabilities like you do on-duty; you have no backup; no one is checking on you if you don’t report in; and no one knows where or who you are.
TRAINING POINT: As an off-duty officer, there is no reason to get involved in thefts, arguments, simple assaults, strong-arm robberies, etc., without extenuating circumstances (purse snatch: no; beat down or armed robbery: perhaps). Absent a threat-to-life-assault, with or without weapons, become the best witness you can. Some officers believe they have a moral “duty” to intervene under any circumstances involving any infraction or crime. A more mature view is that being a witness and safely tracking the suspect’s flight, permitting on-duty uniformed officers to converge and apprehend the offender(s) is still performing your duty without needlessly endangering your life.
If you draw a weapon, make your police ID safely visible. Your badge will protect you only to the degree the responding officer is able to see it. Heightened fear and focus on threat areas—your hands holding a firearm—will decrease the likelihood of the badge being seen at all. Thrusting a badge at the officer is the same motion as thrusting a handgun at him.
TRAINING POINT: An arriving officer’s attentional focus will likely be locked onto the handgun, perceiving only the threatening object. Absent a uniform or raid jacket, the arriving officer’s attention set (what he/she expects to see) drives the officer to see a criminal with a gun. Officers are properly trained to have this mindset and expectation. The Kansas City, Mo. Police Department found targets with belt badges were shot six times more often than neck badges, and the neck badge targets were shot quite often too. NEVER RELY ON A BADGE TO PROTECT YOU FROM MISIDENTIFICATION BY OFFICERS EXPECTING A CRIMINAL. With that said, always, if practicable, have your badge visible, but don’t depend upon an officer seeing it in time.
One suggestion is to hold the badge directly over your head while yelling, “Police officer!” as officers arrive. This is an unnatural position. The non-threatening behavior perhaps permits the officer to focus on the badge in your hand.
When the officers arrive, do what they tell you to do. See the situation from the perspective of the arriving officers. When you hear orders, follow them. If you are highly adrenalized, you may not be capable of hearing the orders. Still, you are intimately familiar with police procedure. It is critical to understand that the officer shouting and pointing a weapon at you is focused on you as a suspect. Your life now depends upon a pressure-filled decision whether or not to depress the trigger.
TRAINING POINT: Follow any police commands as if the orders were directed at you. If ordered to the ground, move slowly. If ordered to drop your weapon, do it (don’t carry a gun that you don’t want to drop on the ground—carrying a customized handgun that you don’t want to ding is stupid: Everyday carry will ding and rub the finish anyway, so either don’t carry it or drop it when commanded so you don’t get shot). DO yell that you are a cop. DO have your badge/ID visible above your head. Then comply with every command until someone says, “No, not you.” And you may be cuffed—comply, even if you wouldn’t handcuff someone who said he/she was a cop. Now is the time to thank the nice police officer for not shooting you rather than getting in his face because “You treated me like a crook!” Save your moral outrage and comply like you hope another professional would if it was your turn to figure out “who’s-who in the zoo.”
The shooting of off-duty or plainclothes officers is, largely, avoidable. Off-duty safety in the past has centered on training the off-duty officer to act like a police officer. When intervening in a criminal act, training suggested the off-duty officer to “clearly” identify him/herself, take action, and then cooperate with responding officers to take the subject into custody. But this universally trained strategy continues to end in tragedy. Solutions to this problem need to focus on the off-duty officer’s behavior, rather than the responding officer’s.
While not empirical by any means, the contrast between police and civilian response to arriving officers is illustrative. The probable root of the problem is the off-duty officer operating within his regular enforcement mindset. For the armed civilian, the arrival of uniformed police shouting and pointing weapons is threatening. When the civilian draws his weapon and fires on a suspect, he/she knows he/she is not on the cops’ team. For that civilian, while there is likely a level of relief, the police arriving on-scene is another survival hurdle to overcome. The officers don’t know him/her at all, and may treat him/her like a threat. Paying attention, complying, and showing themselves to be as non-threatening as possible is the best path.
Acting like a cop when not clearly and immediately identifiable as the police is a poor tactical choice when officers are arriving on-scene. Instead, make a conscious decision to act the same way you hope a suspect will act when you get the drop on him/her, and don’t force another cop to live through the tragedy of killing you. This chain of events is ultimately very preventable, but actually depends more upon your off-duty mindset and actions than the responding officer’s ability to recognize you as an officer. Attempts to change the responding officer’s response will likely result in more hesitation by officers and more law enforcement deaths from criminal assaults. If you initiate a police action while off-duty, your safety during the police response to this event will be largely dependent upon your actions and your behavior. That means changing your mindset. PM
George T. Williams is the Director of Training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, Wash. He has been a Police Training Specialist for more than three decades, as well as an expert witness in federal and state courts nationwide and a widely published author for more than two decades. Mr. Williams develops and presents revolutionary concepts within integrated force training solutions through a problem-solving format, functionalizing police skills and tactical training. He may be contacted at email@example.com.