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Are you prepared for an off-duty encounter?

Facing off with a criminal while off duty seldom goes as planned and can be deadly

Even if you regularly carry a weapon while off-duty, you should still think through what you would do in an unarmed situation.

Several active shooter situations have been brought to an end by a single person – often an off-duty officer who was armed and had the wherewithal to engage. What about you? Have you thought it through?

Carrying a firearm while off-duty brings big responsibility and, if you engage, much greater risk than on-duty actions. Those risks go beyond the obvious ones related to potential injury from a bad guy. They involve exposure to criminal prosecution, civil liability and if you’re accompanied by a family member, potential injury to a loved one.

To carry or not to carry

No one knows with any degree of certainty how many officers carry a firearm while off duty. There is no reliable source for this data and, even if there was, it would vary dramatically among jurisdictions. Suffice to say that many officers choose to carry a weapon and their motivation for doing so ranges from a base level of self-protection (only for me or my family) to an outright commitment to take action in the event of a serious crime. Regardless of where you are on that scale, there are some important considerations.

What to carry

There have been entire books written on off-duty weaponry, so it obviously goes beyond the scope of this article. Bottom line: The weapon must be capable of stopping a threat and you must be sufficiently skilled in using it.

A compact version of your service weapon can be a solid choice because of operational similarity. Example: Those who carry a Glock 19 or 23 might consider the Glock 26 or 27, respectively. Many officers who carry a backup gun when on duty like to carry that same weapon when off duty. Again, weapon familiarity is a benefit. The last thing you want during a crisis is a weapon that you can’t put into operation or quickly clear if a malfunction occurs.

When to carry

Off-duty carry is such an important responsibility that it should either be done regularly or not at all. Carrying on an intermittent basis can lead to problems due to unfamiliarity with your equipment and uncertainty by those who are often with you (e.g. family).

Perhaps just as concerning, if you don’t regularly carry, there is a much greater chance that you will inadvertently misplace or leave the gun behind (I know of two instances where this has happened). Just as important is when not to carry. Far too many officers have ended up in trouble (fired or prosecuted) because they used a firearm while off duty and intoxicated. If you’re armed, don’t drink.

How to carry

Where you carry your gun on your body is a matter of personal choice. Some officers swear by an ankle holster, especially if that’s where they carry their backup weapon. Other officers don’t like the ankle holster approach because they feel the weapon isn’t readily accessible. This is a matter of practice and an ankle holster can also fit into something of a ploy in the event that you are the victim of a robbery.

I know of an officer who purposely dropped his wallet during a robbery, then feigned reaching down to pick it up. He came up firing. This same type of subterfuge can be done with other methods of off-duty carry, but you should absolutely practice and think through what you would do.

Have a plan

As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, you need to think through how you will react in an off-duty situation. This includes your level of engagement. Some officers feel the best approach is to simply be the best witness possible and only act if they or a family member is in immediate danger. Many other officers extend that to the immediate danger of another person, regardless of the relationship.

It is important for you to evaluate your probable situations and determine what your threshold of engagement will be. You’re much more likely to be successful in your action if you take this approach.

Share the plan

Sit down and have a conversation with your family and/or close friends who are regularly with you. Tell them what to expect in the event of an off-duty engagement. Give them specific instructions as to what they should do. At a minimum, move away from the situation, take cover, call for help and stress that an off-duty officer is involved and needs help. It is absolutely essential that you have this conversation and that you should do so more than once.

If you have kids, it is helpful to have age-appropriate talks based on a hypothetical like a robbery-in-progress. If done properly, your kids will have a clear expectation of what you will do and what you need them to do. It literally could save their life.

Other considerations

An off-duty engagement with a suspect is exponentially more dangerous than when you’re on duty. You’re very unlikely to have needed equipment like body armor, radio, handcuffs or extra ammunition. It’s also likely that any uniformed assistance is going to be both delayed and potentially dangerous. The danger comes from the risk of being mistaken for an armed suspect.

Several off-duty officers have been killed by responding officers who perceived the off-duty officer as an armed suspect rather than a fellow officer. Always assume that responding officers do not know who you are, even if you’re in your own jurisdiction. I have a friend who sustained a serious facial injury during an ATM robbery. He fought back, shot one suspect and held the other at gunpoint. Officers (from his own department) responded to a report of shots fired and a man with a gun. On arrival, my friend’s coworkers didn’t recognize him due to his appearance. Only after some tense moments, and my friend repeatedly yelling his name, did the officers realize they were pointing guns (and a K-9) at a fellow officer. Bottom line: Never assume that you’ll be recognized.

At a minimum, make sure to take these steps:

  • Identify yourself and keep doing so.
  • Instruct anyone calling 911 to clearly convey that an off-duty officer is on scene and needs assistance.
  • Don’t rely on a badge clipped on your belt. Instead, hold your badge and identification high so that they can be clearly seen. Also helpful is a badge clearly displayed at chest level.
  • Verbalize your status.
  • Comply with the instructions of responding officers. Keep in mind that they do not know your status and they’re looking at an unknown person who is armed. This is especially important if shots have been fired or if you have taken down a suspect.

Force yourself out of tunnel vision and try to take in the whole scene. There may be other suspects, especially in a robbery, that could pose a deadly threat. If you engage, issue clear and concise commands. Use available cover. If you are forced to shoot, do so purposefully, just like you would on duty.

After shots are fired, stop and evaluate your situation. Think “WIN – What’s Important Now?” There may be other suspects that you’re not aware of – a lookout or getaway driver.

What if you’re unarmed?

Even if you regularly carry a weapon while off duty, you should still think through what you would do in an unarmed situation. You may find yourself in a place or jurisdiction where firearms are prohibited or you’re in a flying status and have chosen to go unarmed. It really can happen anywhere and to anyone. Think through what you would do, what actions you would take and again, your expectations for your family.

Off-duty encounters seldom go as planned and can be deadly for a well-intentioned officer. Think through your purpose in carrying a firearm while off duty and have a plan that you clearly communicate with your loved ones. Think tactically and continually reassess the situation as it unfolds. Sometimes discretion truly is the better part of valor and it may be appropriate to simply be the best witness possible.

This article, originally published 02/07/2017, has been updated.

Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, having worked in all areas of police operations and investigations and retiring as a police captain from Carlsbad, California. He is a graduate of the 201st FBI National Academy and holds a Master’s degree in Criminology from the University of California, Irvine. He has served as a Commissioner for California POST, the agency responsible for all California policing standards and training. Dale is the former editor-in-chief of Law Officer Magazine and is the founder of Below 100.