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When the milk run goes bad: Are you ready for trouble off-duty?

Use mental rehearsal to help prepare for off-duty incidents


You’re off duty and standing at the milk cooler when you hear a suspect demanding money from the clerk. No uniform, no duty belt, no radio. How have you prepared yourself for this moment, and how are you currently equipped to provide a trained response?

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What’s your “bad day” scenario?

Have you ever thought about one? How does it start, where does it take place, and what actions do you take to resolve it? When you think about that “bad day,” are you on duty or off?

Your “bad day” scenario is a fictitious incident you’ve created in your mind that will require your official intervention as an officer. Its very name, “bad day,” foreshadows that danger may be in store for you or someone else. When you envision the twist of being off duty, now you’re talking about a time when your focus may not be at its sharpest. The goal of this type of exercise is to prepare you to effectively respond to such an event if it were to take place.

Defeat the delay

Action beats reaction. In other words, an assailant can quickly plan and initiate a violent act against someone before that person can perceive and react to it. Time is the key. When the violence begins, any delay on the part of the person recognizing what’s taking place and deciding on a response will place him or her dangerously behind in the confrontation.

Law enforcement officers can never afford to be behind and must reduce the time they spend reacting to threats that spontaneously present. Two ways to reduce reaction time are regular proficiency training and engaging in tactical performance imagery (TPI) – a performance enhancement technique endorsed by my friend Michael Asken, Ph.D. TPI is the mental rehearsal of skills we will use in situations we may encounter.

If you’re in the practice of mentally rehearsing events that require a tactical response while driving through your patrol zone, then good for you. If not, try it once. It doesn’t have to be overly complicated. It could be something as simple as this:

You envision conducting a traffic stop. Prior to your approach, you do a quick size-up of the scene. Based on your size-up, you preload a response in your mind to be triggered by an action you observe. In this case, let’s say you observe the violator turn toward you with what you perceive to be a weapon. Your preloaded response was to first move there – wherever “there” happens to be – followed by a trained response. Thinking about what you will do in advance not only prepares you to overcome the all-too-typical “What the heck?” moment, but it will theoretically put your adversary behind the curve – your action now beating his reaction.

The second part of your preloaded scenario was the trained response – in this case a smooth draw, target acquisition and the decision to challenge or use force. Speed in your response is critical, but how do you gain speed? Speed is gained through proficiency, not just fast hand movement. Proficiency is achieved through regular practice involving multiple repetitions that are technically correct. Over time, familiarity and smooth technique will increase your speed. A respected colleague would tell me, “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”

Stay aware, stay prepared

So why the concern over mentally preparing for incidents occurring off duty? If you embrace the concept, it’s easy to imagine typical patrol assignments that will be encountered over and over – traffic stops, open door alarm calls, suspicious persons, etc. – and then create scenarios with outcomes based on training and experience gained from previous calls. It’s not so easy when the uniform comes off. Proper mindset and awareness are just as necessary off the clock because you may not be able to predict when trouble will come. On patrol, a radio dispatch can be a great prologue for events to come, but that’s not available when your spouse sends you to the store for milk. A lack of mental rehearsal and practice of tactical performance imagery in off-duty scenarios is made worse if you do not commit to training and equipping yourself to respond.

Now then, what’s your “bad day” scenario for an off-duty situation? Let’s pick an environment most can relate to: the convenience store. You’re off duty and standing at the milk cooler when you hear a suspect demanding money from the clerk. No uniform, no duty belt, no radio. How have you prepared yourself for this moment, and how are you currently equipped to provide a trained response?

Before you mentally work the above problem, here are a few points to ponder:

Do you possess the means to act? In a perfect world, every law officer would see the need to be armed regardless of duty status. Unfortunately, a variety of factors may cause an individual to make personal decisions about when and where to carry. What factors would affect your decision? Would you weigh the risk of an incident occurring against the perceived safety of a location? Does your attire create difficulty with secure concealment? What about weapon choice? Agency policy? These are issues that can be resolved if you possess a preparation mindset.

Such a mindset helps you understand there is virtually no place in public that is safe from the risk of violence, and even if there were, you’d still have to make it there safely. A preparation mindset considers how you’ll dress for an occasion and carry your equipment in a way that it’s easily accessible when needed, yet not likely to draw unwanted attention. Regarding weapon choice, I find it interesting that our duty firearms possess the ability for sustained high-powered combat, yet some officers elect to carry smaller-caliber weapons with low ammunition capacity off duty, believing that somehow the conflict will be over much quicker and require fewer rounds. Do you carry extra ammunition at all?

Planning for the worst also means planning for the less-than-worst. Have you considered how you would respond to a situation that did not require lethal force? Did you allow for the carry of a less-lethal option? What about a method of restraint? Again, attire and location will likely dictate how much equipment you carry, but picturing in your mind how a scenario will play out can help you remember the smaller details through the conclusion of the incident. If your “bad day” scenario went down in a dark theater, would you find it necessary to have your issued tactical light? Now that many agencies have migrated to rail-mounted lights for duty weapons, how does that change your response for off-duty carry?

As difficult as it may be to accept, the prepared officer also knows he or she may be in the company of family or non-law enforcement friends when trouble comes. How have you accounted for them? Some officers have had the foresight to train family members on where to sit in restaurants or what prearranged code word will signal the need for them to take cover or move away. Are they familiar with the process for relating information to 9-1-1? Did you consider how you’ll identify yourself, display your badge/identification or make yourself recognizable to responding officers?

My final point to ponder is your fitness for taking any action. How would the consumption of alcohol exacerbate the problem? I’m not asking you to practice abstinence, but a well-crafted solution to any conceived scenario could be torpedoed by an impaired response, not to mention the career and legal implications that may be involved.

Now go ahead and work the convenience store scenario. Start with a simple set of circumstances – one actor, no visible weapon, no other patrons, etc. You have time to call for assistance, find cover and challenge the suspect with the appropriate force option.

Now run through it again and begin to add problems (second suspect, crowded store, etc.) Adding difficulty allows you to recognize how those factors will affect your response options and what other equipment you may need to prepare for the real-life version of your scenario. Once you have the convenience store figured out, come up with a new situation and location. These exercises will sharpen your focus, reduce your reaction time and allow you to avoid complacency during the other two-thirds of your day – your personal time.

Oh, and don’t forget to pick up the milk on your way home.

NEXT: Instant pre-play: 8 tips for making tactical performance imagery effective

Sergeant (Ret.) Robert Bemis retired in 2017 as a supervisor in the Operational Training Division at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy in Hershey. With over 30 years of law enforcement experience, Sgt. Bemis spent more than a decade as a trainer specializing in officer safety, self-defense and civil disorder tactics. He is the author of Forged in Scars & Stripes: A Trooper’s Victory Over Critical Injury. Sgt. Bemis is currently the Director of Training at Wrap Reality, a virtual reality training solution for law enforcement and corrections.