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Armed response in plainclothes: 3 safety tips for when police arrive

Here are a few tips for the plainclothes folks on staying alive should you get mixed up in an altercation requiring gunplay

I remember standing there, on any number of calls, prepared for the worst. I cut a tall and looming figure, adorned in my pressed uniform, looking for all the world like a flag pole ran up my back. On scene I wore a face that broached no argument and promised a world of trouble for those who tried me. This was command presence—the first level of a layered system designed to increase my safety during my tour. The next stratum consisted of that professional looking uniform. Beneath it, I wore a ballistic vest for those not worried about meeting the Devil. I look fondly back on my uniformed days and think about changes in my life and how they may apply to other people. My mission has since altered and so has my perspective. What about people who do not wear a uniform and vest? What protections are out there for plainclothes officers? What about the concealed carry citizen, Joe Goodguy?

Imagine shopping in your local grocery store when a terminated employee comes in to exact their revenge with a gun. You deal with the threat according to law, authority, and training. However, you know all the while, officers responding to the scene are heading to an “active shooter” call. There is going to be a heightened response that requires the officer to go directly to the source and stop the threat to life. This does not relieve the officer from a responsibility of target identification, but there are steps you can take before things have to get that far. What if that is you standing there with a gun out after you have “stopped” said threat and officers crash through the front door?

Here are a few tips for the plainclothes folks on staying alive should you get mixed up in an altercation requiring gunplay.

First off, your obscurity is your vest. Following the grey man principle, don’t jump into a bad situation unless things are getting critical. If you have to do something, remember speed, surprise, and violence of action. We train on the range for post-shooting behaviors that can increase our odds for survival. This often includes the mantra “Shoot, Move, Communicate”, and checking to see if you are alright and if your partners are alright. We often discuss reloading during the lull in action to be ready for the next threat. Another huge issue is looking around. We tend to get tunnel vision, rightfully so, when the rounds start flying. After the shots have stopped, it’s critical to take inventory of your status and environment. Joseph Wilcox, a concealed carry citizen, tried valiantly to stop the cop killers that had entered a Walmart in 2014. He did not realize there were two as he drew down on Jerad Miller. Miller’s wife Amanda, shot and killed Wilcox. Put your head on a swivel - everyone you encounter after a shooting may not be waiting to pin a medal on you.

Physical identification is crucial. Make sure any badge you may have is out and plainly visible. Consider DSM Safety’s products to help identification. A badge hanging from a chain around your neck is a good start, but does not help officers approaching you from behind. There are both pocket banners and those designed as reversible sleeves for bag straps you may already carry. They are high visibility and plainly state “POLICE”, “SHERIFF”, “LEOSA”, etc. Sales to law enforcement are vetted for obvious reasons.

Time permitting, call 911 and advise dispatch of status and that you are a plainclothes officer on scene. Do not let them hang up without describing your own appearance. If you are a concealed carry, communicate this to the dispatcher. Speakerphone will allow you to still command the scene while you talk. Plainclothes officers or civilians should advise of any suspects that may have fled and if an ambulance is needed on scene. Once you have identified yourself, be prepared for the responding officers that will surely arrive.

Early iterations of police response to active shooters included setting up perimeters and sending in SWAT to resolve. That transitioned to waiting for a few officers to go in and engage the suspect. Now, shooters can expect to be confronted by a never-ending evolution of officers bent on their cessation. Involved plainclothes officers should identify themselves visibly to the best of their ability. This is absolutely the time where you need your stinkin’ badges. Whether your ID is in a wallet, hanging on a chain around your neck, or the new DSM Safety Banner (stands for Don’t Shoot Me), differentiate yourself visibly from someone a responding cop feels like they might need to shoot. Joe Goodguy may not have this option; should enough time pass and you feel like the situation is stabilized, holster your weapon. Officers feel a lot better about finding a gun on your hip after you’re handcuffed on the ground than seeing you holding one in your hands.

Put yourself in a responding officer’s shoes. They want to get home to the spouse and kids. They show up to an active shooter and you (hopefully) are the only one with the gun in your hands. The situation is ripe for tragedy. If you can safely holster, tuck your tool up! If not, make no sudden movements and listen carefully to the commands you are given. Verbally identify as law enforcement if that is your case. Never point a gun in the direction of officers as this may result in acute lead poisoning. Be prepared to “prone out” on the ground. Expect to be handcuffed by someone whose heart rate is north of 150 BPM and do not hold it against them.

It is easy to see how active shooter scenarios are on the rise. In 2015, the United States had more mass shootings than days of the year. This does not mean the indices of blue-on-blue shootings needs to increase, nor does it mean Joe Goodguy has to be shot for exercising his right to self-defense. We may not have a uniform or vest to protect us, but using common sense and safe practices, we may harness the element of surprise. Keep in mind the mentality of responding officers. They have learned that directly stopping the shooter will save the most lives—count on that. Take care of business and be ready for their response.

Sean Curtis is a law enforcement professional with over two decades of experience, serving with SWAT, diving and swift water rescue teams in Colorado. He has also served in wildland fire, search and rescue, EMS and emergency management.