By Arthur Kurkowski, Senior Lead Officer, Los Angeles Port Police Department, San Pedro, California
aw enforcement professionals take on-duty safety very seriously. However, less discussion occurs or training is given on the topic of safety while off duty and at home, specifically when family members are involved. This article will review some of the basic safety concerns while off duty, as well as provide some tips on keeping loved ones safe.
Don’t Get Ready…Be Ready
Off-duty encounters and shootings can occur anytime, anywhere. They have taken place at homes, stores, banks, sporting events, bars, and restaurants. An off-duty officer may become caught in a mall shooting while having dinner with a spouse or in an armed robbery while buying a snack with the kids at a local convenience store. It is important to remember that any situation, no matter how minor at the onset, can easily escalate into a deadly encounter for which the officer might not be prepared. Things can quickly turn for the worse if the officer’s family is present. If becoming directly involved is absolutely necessary, such as in the case of a violent crime unfolding in the officer’s presence, the decision-making process should include the questions of being properly equipped for the job and preserving the immediate safety of the family. Off-duty officers have no partner or backup, have no radio, and are not wearing body armor. They may be carrying just a 5-shot revolver with a limited amount of ammunition. It’s important not to lose sight of the differences in equipment we carry on duty and off duty as these factors can have life-altering consequences.
Have a Plan
An off-duty officer taking enforcement action while dressed in civilian attire and holding a firearm may be easily mistaken for an armed suspect by the responding patrol units. Training should include actually drawing the off-duty weapon, presentation of the badge or ID, and a clear verbal announcement to alert the public. To prepare for an event where family members are present, it is beneficial not only to discuss but also to rehearse the specific actions the officer would like his or her family to carry out. Practical application in any training goes a long way. As the event unfolds, kids and spouses need to immediately move away from the officer without any discussion, as they may be caught in the line of fire or be taken hostage. This can be accomplished with a pre-determined code word or other signal. They can assist by placing the call for help, making sure to relay the fact that an off-duty officer is at the scene, and giving a detailed description. It may be a good idea to input several of the local police stations’ phone numbers into everyone’s cellphones since 9-1-1 does not always pick up immediately. Loved ones can also be made aware of some basic tactical concepts such as cover versus concealment, cross-fire, lateral movement, and so on. Since fear and panic may become a limiting factor, practicing with the family ahead of time will instill confidence and may help the officer focus on the task at hand.
Protect Your Identity
Family members and even friends need to know not to divulge the officer’s identity in public. Seemingly innocent comments like “Daddy, you’re a cop, do something” or “You need to quiet down because my friend over here is a cop” can have dire consequences for the off-duty officer. This issue should be made clear before the officer is caught off guard in a bad situation.
My Home Is My Castle…
Law enforcement officers’ home addresses are no longer confidential information. Many free public websites exist where a search by last name or phone number provides a listing of a person’s current and prior addresses. This is unfortunate and should be considered as a family and home security issue as any arrestee can now go to the web and find out where you live. Historically, some officers have been victims of burglaries and even ambushes at their homes. Installing a security alarm, motion sensor lights, or owning a dog can increase the family’s safety. Having properly secured weapons in various parts of the home may also be an option, keeping child safety concerns in mind. Loved ones can help by developing good habits of keeping the doors and windows secured and understanding the meaning of situational awareness. They should know quick escape routes and procedures, especially in homes with a second floor (where a rope ladder may come in handy).
Pride in our profession, agency, or unit can sometimes work against us as well. Officers need to keep in mind that when they wear or display their law enforcement T-shirts, jackets, stickers, or license plate covers in public, they are jeopardizing not only their own safety but also the safety of their family. Leaving an unmarked or K-9 vehicle in the driveway of your home does not help either. In some cases, criminals have targeted officers’ homes or vehicles because they knew that a burglary would likely yield some firearms or other gear.
Another topic that potentially works against the officer, family, and home security is the widespread use of social networking websites—Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and so forth. Officers may need to discuss with their families, especially with their kids, what and how much personal information is to be shared on these sites. Questions to ask are what the kids post about their parent’s job, whom are they befriending, what are their privacy settings, if work-related photos of officers in uniform are being posted or any other sensitive information such as when the family is leaving on a vacation.
Taking the time to discuss the various topics related to off-duty safety for the officer and their loved ones is definitely worthwhile. Chiefs and supervisors can help facilitate roll call training on this topic. Also, check with law enforcement trainers in your area for the availability of an off-duty survival course. ♦
Please cite as:
Arthur Kurkowski, "Keeping Yourself and Your Family Safe Off-Duty," Officer Safety Corner, The Police Chief 80 (June 2013): 14.