By Mark A. Spawn, Director of Research, Development, and Training, New York State Association of Chiefs of Police
oncerns about officer safety often center on procedures, tactics, and equipment. Topics such as dynamic entry, arrest and raid plans, pursuit, vehicle positioning and approaches, firearms, less-lethal devices, and vehicles are common areas of discussion. An area of officer safety receiving attention recently is police-on-police encounters. These are situations in which an off-duty, plainclothes, or undercover (UC) officer is taking official action in the form of an arrest, foot pursuit, or armed encounter and is confronted or challenged by an on-duty police officer.
The issue of police-on-police shootings has been brought to the forefront in New York following three recent fatal shootings:
- On May 28, 2009, off-duty New York City Police Department (NYPD) Officer Omar Edwards was shot and killed by another officer as Edwards was in foot pursuit of a suspect who had broken into Edwards’s car.
- On January 25, 2008, off-duty Mt. Vernon, New York, Police Department Officer Christopher Ridley was shot and killed by officers from another department while Ridley was holding a suspect.
- In 2006, off-duty NYPD Officer Eric Hernandez was shot and killed by an on-duty officer after attempting to apprehend suspects who had attacked him.
These tragedies were the driving force behind the creation of New York Governor David Paterson’s Police-On-Police Shootings Task Force, established June 24, 2009. The task force is charged with “examining the issues and implications arising from confrontations in which police officers have mistakenly shot other officers, especially those in which officers are mistaken for criminal suspects.”1
In addition to these fatal encounters, other incidents were the subject of testimony before the task force at public hearings. New York State Police First Deputy Superintendent Pedro Perez testified about incidents in his agency’s history. He noted that of the 123 troopers who have died in the line of duty, 3 were victims of friendly fire. One of them, Investigator Leslie Grosso, was the victim of an accidental discharge by another officer during an undercover drug investigation on May 21, 1974. An officer was running up to the car in which Grosso, in an undercover capacity, was seated next to the suspect. A backup officer stumbled as he approached the car, unknowingly discharging one round from his revolver.
Perez also spoke about the death of Investigator Joseph Aversa, who was shot on March 5, 1990, in a gunfight during a buy-bust operation.
In another case of friendly-fire, Perez described how Trooper David Brinkerhoff was shot by another trooper during a firefight with a fugitive on April 25, 2007.2 In addition to this testimony, he offered other accounts of officer-on-officer encounters which did not result in the use of force.
Preparing for Incidents
The NYPD reported that 10 of its officers lost their lives in mistaken-identity shootings since 1930.3 The State Association of Chiefs of Police (SACOP) in New York conducted a survey of its membership to assist the Governor’s Task Force in its examination of police-on-police encounters. Of those surveyed, 12 percent indicated that they had experienced such encounters within their agencies. Half of those said the encounters involved the use of lethal force by a party. Respondents, with multiple responses permitted, indicated that the types of police-on-police encounters experienced in their jurisdiction, were primarily with off-duty officers (83 percent), followed by undercover officers (50 percent), and plainclothes officers (42 percent). The survey also asked about training: Most agencies (75 percent) indicated that officers receive training during the basic police academy; approximately 54 percent said their officers received some type of in-service training; and 12 percent indicated that no training had been provided. While the tragedies of officers’ deaths in these cases is certainly a driving force in the examination of their circumstances, it is also important to recognize that there are many officer-on-officer confrontations that do occur and that do not escalate to any use of force.
Some of the comments received during the New York SACOP survey included notes that training for this type of encounter is either in place or being developed; some agencies incorporate off-duty officer scenarios into their firearms training programs; one agency alerts patrols whenever plainclothes units are working in their beat; one department trains UC officers to properly identify themselves when such an encounter occurs; and another department governs police-on-police encounters under general orders.
But in many police-on-police encounters, the fact that the incident involves law enforcement officers on both sides is not apparent at the outset, which underscores the importance of training—not just for responding officers, but also for the off-duty, plainclothes, or UC officers—for it is the actions of these officers that often will drive responding officers’ reactions.
When officers are on duty in a plainclothes assignment or working in a UC capacity, they are usually prepared with identification, firearm, ammunition, handcuffs, body armor, and communications. When officers are off-duty, though, they will often be without many of the protective tools they would prefer to have should they decide to take action, making off-duty encounters more hazardous. One of the first assessments made by an off-duty officer is whether to intervene or just be a good witness. Officers need to determine, based on the circumstances, whether their immediate action is necessary. There are a number of factors to be considered here: the officer’s physical and mental state, number of adversaries, ability to communicate, likelihood of being mistaken for a suspect by others, equipment available to the officer, risk to others, and more. Of course, these situations are dynamic—the basis for an officer’s decision of whether to become directly involved may change as the situation develops.
Officers who are off duty and taking action in a jurisdiction other than their own are less likely to be recognized by responding officers. The same is true for officers who work in a large metropolitan area. In these cases, when responding officers arrive on the scene, off-duty officers must understand that identifying themselves as police officers may not be taken at face value.
Becoming familiar with officers from neighboring jurisdictions and commands can help in identifying those who are working in plainclothes and UC assignments. A procedure at NYPD provides for visits by plainclothes officers from various commands to roll calls for uniformed officers at nearby precincts.4
Officers need to put themselves in the shoes of responding officers. If off-duty officers are armed or displaying firearms when uniformed officers arrive, the responders may order them to drop their guns. Until the responders can identify non-uniformed officers, the latter should anticipate being treated like any other person wielding a gun. That includes being subject to the responding officer’s authority and commands, which could include handcuffing, a pat-down, and in certain cases a transport to a police station until identity can be verified.
Training should not be limited to only police officers, but rather should be extended to family members who will need to know what their roles are when the officer in their family decides to take action while off duty, in plainclothes, or UC. Talking about these roles in advance will be to the officer’s advantage should he or she decide to take action while off duty. Parts of the plan to discuss should include going to a safe place and making a 9-1-1 call, describing the location and situation—including that an off-duty officer is on the scene—along with a physical description of the off-duty officer and if the off-duty officer is armed.
Family members also should realize that there are situations in which an off-duty officer will not or should not become involved. For example, an armed robbery at a bank would likely be a situation in which public safety and officer safety are best served by being a good witness. An additional part of training should teach family members not to identify off-duty, plainclothes, or UC officers as police officers in every situation. That is a decision officers will make on a case-by-case basis.
If an officer decides to take off-duty action and implement a plan covered in the aforementioned training, family members become eyes and ears for the dispatcher and responding officers. When making 9-1-1 calls, they should remain on the line with the dispatcher until responding patrols arrive. In a training module approved by the New York Municipal Police Training Council (MPTC), this is referred to as “the family plan.”5
As mentioned previously, some agencies have been providing training for officer-on-officer encounters. The NYPD has had procedures in place since 1973 to address this incident type.6 In 2008, MPTC, the panel responsible for establishing minimum requirements for police training in New York, approved a new training module in the basic police academy for off-duty and plainclothes encounters. Some of the elements of the curriculum include assessing a situation to determine whether the off-duty officer should get involved; developing a family plan; complying with commands of responding officers; and practical exercises.7 While training of this type is critically important at the beginning of an officer’s career, administrators should ensure that the topic is revisited regularly.
Submitting to Authority
Officers should consider their states of mind when making an arrest while off-duty or during a plainclothes assignment. Are they ready to submit to the challenge of an on-duty, uniformed officer in a duty car? This is an area departments need to focus on and review regularly.
This is not a time for being nonchalant or condescending. It is a time for compliance. The responding officer might not have the benefit of a fully detailed dispatch report; it might only be “subject with a gun.” Off-duty, plainclothes, and UC officers need to put themselves in the shoes of responding officers. If they recognize the non-uniformed officer, that’s one thing. But if they don’t, the “off-duty cop” could be a criminal trying to deceive responding officers.
An encounter with an armed subject is not the time for responding officers to become complacent. Non-responding officers being confronted must be acutely aware of their movements—they should not be threatening, haphazard, or provoking. While some of these encounters occur when an officer is off duty, there is a valid point to be learned from an NYPD survey of some of its undercover officers. The department indicated that, “in over 80 percent of the confrontation situations reported, the decision made by the undercover officer to remain motionless was seen as the key action to defusing the incident.” 8 If challenging officers cannot readily identify confronted officers, the latter should anticipate being treated as any other suspect with a gun. That could include subjecting to a pat-down, getting handcuffed, and even being placed behind the cage of the patrol car until their identities can be confirmed.
The role of race in police-on-police encounters is one of the issues being evaluated by the governor’s task force. Testimony by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) urges a detailed disclosure by all police agencies in all shootings in order to more fully assess racial dynamics in police shootings.9 Some testimony at the first task force public hearing asserted that race is a prevailing factor in some encounters. Other testimony cited that the use of force is methodical and is based upon threat. Individuals noted that Officer Edwards, age 25, was black, and the officer who shot him was white;10 and Officer Christopher Ridley, age 23, of the Mount Vernon Police Department, was black, and of the officers involved in the fatal exchange with him, one was white, one was black, and two were Hispanic—all of whom were cleared by a grand jury.11 First Deputy Superintendent Pedro Perez noted that race was not a relevant factor in the shootings of three previously noted New York State Troopers: Investigator Grosso, a white male, was believed to have been shot by a white officer; Trooper David Brinkerhoff, a white male, was shot by a black trooper; and it was not possible to determine who shot Investigator Aversa, except that the trajectory of the bullet indicated it had to have been friendly fire.12 Deputy Commissioner Wilbur Chapman’s testimony noted that in the NYPD review of officer-on-officer shootings, one incident involved a black officer being shot by another black officer; another involved a male Hispanic officer killed by another male Hispanic officer; and four incidents involved white male officers killing white male officers. Chapman noted that the statistical sample was too small to draw a conclusion, except that 80 percent of the officers killed were off duty at the time.13
Part of the governor’s charge to the task force is to “examine all matters it deems relevant to these issues with particular emphasis upon examining how training, tactics, policies and procedures, technology and equipment, and sociological and psychological factors may contribute to such shootings and confrontations.”14 While there are divergent opinions on the role of race in police shootings, a thorough and objective analysis of this issue will certainly help law enforcement administrators in the development and implementation of measures to correct any deficiencies.
Strategies for Success
Like many things in police work, off-duty incidents are fluid and dynamic. A minor situation can turn into a critical incident in seconds. While there is no single solution to the circumstances presented in off-duty, plainclothes, and UC incidents, there are some strategies that can have an impact on decreasing the frequency and lethality of police-on-police encounters:
- Conduct basic police academy training
- Facilitate regular in-service or roll call training
- Schedule regular 9-1-1 call taker and dispatcher training
- Develop familiarity between plainclothes officers and beat officers
- Develop a family plan
- Assess whether to get involved
- Carry a shield and credentials
- Notify local precincts/jurisdictions when an officer is UC or special operations
- Yield to commands from responding officers, even if it means the suspect gets away
- Anticipate being treated as a suspect
- Make no sudden moves
- Participate in practical exercises to train on all of the above
Police officers are considered to be “on duty” at all times by virtue of their sworn office. Knowing when to become involved in an incident takes experience, training, and discipline. As the law enforcement community continues to develop training, tactics, and strategies to protect officers from harm, its members need to be cognizant of the possibility of a street encounter being a police-on-police encounter. For the uniform duty officers, responding to calls of a “subject with a gun” are tenuous. If the subject of the call turns out to be an off-duty, UC, or plainclothes officer, it is likely that the officer is carrying a firearm. When the incident results in an encounter, the responding duty officer and the confronted officer need to be cautious and deliberate in their words and actions. Regular training and discussion on this important topic can help protect all officers. ■
1David A. Paterson, “Police-on-Police Shootings Task Force: Overview,” Police-on-Police Shootings Task Force, http://www.policeonpolicetf.ny.gov/index.htm (accessed February 25, 2010).
2Dep. Supt. Pedro Perez, “Friendly Fire: The New York State Police Experience,” testimony before the Police-on-Police Shootings Task Force, November 16, 2009, 5–6, http://www.policeonpolicetf.ny.gov/assets/documents/Perez%20Testimony.pdf (accessed February 25, 2010).
3Wilbur Chapman, “Statement of New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner, Training,” statement before the Police-on-Police Shootings Task Force, December 3, 2009, 3, http://www.policeonpolicetf.ny.gov/assets/documents/Chapman%20Testimony.pdf (accessed February 25, 2010).
5NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services, Office of Public Safety, Off-Duty and Plainclothes Encounters (Basic Course for Police Officers), September 22, 2008, 7, www.criminaljustice.state.ny.us/ops/training/bcpo/part4s.pdf.
6Chapman, “Statement of New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner, Training,” 3.
7NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services, Office of Public Safety, Off Duty and Plainclothes Encounters (Basic Course for Police Officers), September 22, 2008, slides, http://www.criminaljustice.state.ny.us/ops/training/bcpo/offdutyandplainclothespoliceencounters.ppt (accessed February 26, 2010).
8Chapman, “Statement of New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner, Training,” 8.
9Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman, New York Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), written testimony before the Police-on-Police Shootings Task Force, December 2, 2009, 3, http://www.policeonpolicetf.ny.gov/assets/documents/NYCLU%20Testimony.pdf (accessed February 26, 2010).
10“Off-Duty Officer Is Fatally Shot by Police in Harlem,” New York Times, May 29, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/29/nyregion/29cop.html (accessed February 26, 2010).
11“Victim of Friendly Fire?” WABC-TV/DT, abc7 Eyewitness News, Sunday, January 27, 2008, http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/local&id=5916882 (February 26, 2010).
12Perez, “Friendly Fire,” 6.
13Chapman, “Statement of New York City Police Department Deputy Commissioner, Training,” 4.
14David A. Paterson, Governor, and Lawrence Schwartz, Secretary to the Governor, “Executive Order No. 23: Establishing a Task Force on Police-on-Police Shootings,” http://www.policeonpolicetf.ny.gov/executiveorder23.htm (accessed November 19, 2009).
|Author’s Note: The findings of the Governor’s Task Force, which could include recommendations for legislation and policy to help prevent such incidents and improve safety, are expected to be released in the spring of 2010. |
The author notes that the descriptions of the officer shootings within this article are cited in order to orient the reader to the real and tragic results of certain encounters. No criticism should be inferred of the actions of any of the officers.
Please cite as:
Mark A. Spawn, "Officer Safety during Police-on-Police Encounters," The Police Chief 77 (April 2010): 24–30,
http://policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=2049&issue_id=42010 (insert access date).