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Above and beyond the call of duty: preventing off-duty officer deaths.

One night, an off-duty police officer visited a local bar and grill. While seated at the bar, he observed two men approach the bartender. With guns drawn, the subjects demanded cash from the register. At this point, the off-duty officer drew his service revolver, shouting "Police!" as he did so.

While the officer may have thought he had the situation under control, he was shot and killed by a third subject whom he apparently had not identified as part of the robbery team. The shooter had entered the bar and stood apart from the two other robbers to cover the escape route. All three subjects did escape, but later were identified, arrested, tried, and convicted.

As this case illustrates, for the men and women performing law enforcement duties in the United States, personal safety is more than a routine concern. Statistics support this conclusion. The 1993 edition of the FBI's annual publication, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA),(1) indicated that in 1992, 70 city, county, and state officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty, and 66,975 officers were assaulted while performing law enforcement functions both on and off duty.

Indeed, few criminals work a 9-to-5, 8-hour shift. Even when law enforcement officers are "off the clock," they still may face dangerous confrontations with armed subjects. In fact, law enforcement officers often lose their lives attempting to enforce the law while off duty.

How frequently do killings of off-duty law enforcement officers occur? According to LEOKA, from 1975 to 1985, 130 off-duty officers were feloniously killed. The period from 1991 to 1993 saw 35 officers feloniously killed while off duty. The largest number of deaths in this 3-year period (15) occurred when officers intervened in robberies. The other 20 off-duty officers died under the following circumstances: 8 in ambush, 4 while investigating suspicious persons/circumstances, 3 during other arrest situations, 2 while handling disturbance calls, 2 while initiating traffic pursuits/stops, and 1 during a burglary in progress.

To delve deeper into the nature of police officer killings, the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division conducted a study into 51 cases in which 50 offenders killed 54 law enforcement officers.(2) Of the 54 victims, 2 were off duty when they were involved in law enforcement actions that resulted in their deaths.

This article reviews the two cases from the CJIS study and then examines several more recent incidents where off-duty officers have lost their lives while enforcing the law. Finally, it offers advice for law enforcement agencies on how to prevent these tragedies from occurring.

Interviews with Cop Killers

The CJIS study included interviews of the perpetrators who killed the two off-duty officers.(3) Although as a general rule, investigators question the truthfulness of such offenders, their accounts of the actual shootings are, for the most part, consistent with both the forensic evidence and investigative reports from each incident. For this reason, their comments may provide insight into their actions and help formulate a law enforcement response to such incidents.

In the case outlined in the opening scenario of this article, the killer told investigators that he had entered the bar before his partners to avoid being seen with them. The plan called for him to walk away during the confusion, after the other two had made their escape. Although they had anticipated resistance from the restaurant management, they had not expected the presence of an off-duty officer. The assailant stated that he did not hear the officer shout "Police," but admitted that it would not have made a difference. He had entered the bar prepared to shoot, and when he observed a man with a gun, he shot him.

The killer also advised that even if the officer had waited for his partners to get the money and start to leave before making an effort to arrest them, he still would have shot him. The shooter believed that the only thing the officer could have done to avoid physical injury would have been to remain seated, observe, and not take action. In fact, he said, the trio had no intentions of robbing the customers of the restaurant.

In the second case, an officer became the victim of a carjacking. Off duty and out of uniform, the officer was driving to a shopping center with his wife when they were stopped by four men. The men opened the car doors and physically removed the couple. One subject had a revolver pointed at the officer. The officer identified himself as a police officer and drew his service revolver. Although he was shot immediately and subsequently died, the officer did manage to shoot one of the carjackers.

When interviewed, the officer's killer stated that he and his cohorts would not have harmed the officer and his wife if they had not resisted. In the shooter's opinion, the officer never should have drawn his weapon against four subjects, one of whom was armed. Instead, he said, the officer should have waited for the subjects to leave the scene, then phoned in a description of them and the stolen vehicle.

Unfortunately, the officers involved in these tragic incidents are not alive to tell their side of the story. One thing is certain, however. At the time of their deaths, their departments did not have established procedures for how officers should perform police functions while off duty - procedures that might have saved their lives. Both departments did, however, require that their officers be armed while off duty.

Unarmed, Off-duty Confrontations

The question of whether officers should be armed while off duty has been the subject of considerable debate. While such policies are left to the discretion of individual agencies, the fact remains: Unarmed, off-duty officers still take law enforcement action and sometimes get killed.

One such case occurred in 1994 and involved a recent graduate from the police academy. Although he was off duty, not in uniform, and unarmed when he witnessed an armed robbery at a grocery store, he pursued the offender, confronting him in the store parking lot. The officer attempted to arrest the robber, was shot once in the chest, and died shortly thereafter. The killer fled the parking lot on foot and escaped, but subsequently was arrested and charged with robbery and murder.

In another 1994 case, the victim, an 11-year police veteran, was off duty and shopping in a grocery store with his wife when he observed a robbery in progress. Though unarmed, he attempted to disarm and physically restrain the robber. A violent struggle ensued, during which both the officer and the robber crashed through a store window. The robber then fired one round from a sawed-off shotgun, striking the officer in the chest, killing him. The robber escaped, but later was captured, arrested, and charged with murder.

In these cases, the two officers' experience levels ranged from almost none to 11 years. Yet, both officers chose to intercede in an armed robbery while off duty and unarmed. Although neither victim's department required officers to remain armed while off duty, each department had a different policy regarding off-duty confrontations.

One department trained and encouraged officers to be good eyewitnesses while off duty, but warned against taking police action if doing so would place them or the public at risk. The other department's orders stated that if off-duty officers observed violations of the law in their jurisdictions, they should take "proper" police action. However, this order did not indicate what proper police action might be in any given set of circumstances.

Ambushed at Home While Off Duty

As is the case for an increasing number of citizens, home is not always a safe haven for off-duty police officers. Since 1994, two off-duty officers have been feloniously killed at their residences. In 1994, an officer with 7 years of law enforcement experience was in his home when someone outside called for him to come out. When he did, he was shot 14 times with two handguns and a shotgun. The four subjects being sought for the slaying remain at large.

In a 1995 case, an off-duty, 12-year veteran detective answered a knock on the door of his residence. Upon opening the door, he was shot and killed by one of three men. When arrested, the three men revealed that they had been contracted to kill the detective in order to prevent him from testifying in a pending court case.

Both of these cases beg the question: How did the killers learn where the officers lived? While the answer remains under investigation, clearly, departments need to protect the home addresses of their officers.(4)

On-duty Officers Killing Off-duty Officers: Cases of Mistaken Identity

If there could be a degree of tragedy added to the death of an off-duty officer, it is when one officer is killed mistakenly by another. For various reasons, not all of these accidental deaths have been reported to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program. According to available statistics, from 1990 until 1993, 11 on- and off-duty officers were shot and killed by other officers.

In a 1995 case, an off-duty officer in a large eastern city was in the company of his girlfriend and her two young children when he observed two armed men attempting to rob a taxi driver. The officer decided to take police action. He drew his service weapon and approached the robbers. He identified himself as a police officer, and the three faced one another with guns drawn.

An on-duty, uniformed patrol officer observed these individuals, all with guns drawn, standing around the cab. The on-duty officer approached with his gun drawn and demanded that the three individuals drop their weapons. The two robbers immediately obeyed the order, but the off-duty officer did not and, instead, turned toward the on-duty officer. Fearing for his life, the on-duty officer fired, killing the off-duty officer.

The robbers fled, but subsequently were arrested. The on-duty officer has been on medical leave since the incident. Both officers had worked in the same police district for 3 years, but due to the size of their district and their different work schedules, they never knew each other.

Another case of mistaken identity, which involved officers from different departments, started when one department received a telephone report of a residential burglary. The caller stated his name and address and reported that he had observed several young men force open the rear window of a neighbor's home and enter the residence. Although the caller could not give the address, he stated that he would show the responding officers the house.

The dispatcher broadcast the burglary call, and an officer volunteered to respond. At the scene, the officer contacted the complainant, who showed him the house that the young men had entered. The complainant advised the officer that he did not know who owned or lived in the house. Nor did he know whether the burglars were still on the premises.

The officer left the complainant and parked his patrol car about 300 yards from the house. He walked to the rear of the building and discovered an open window. After calling for backup and a K-9 patrol unit, he continued to check the rear of the home. While standing beside an open window, he saw a person's shadow. He then observed what seemed to be the shadow of a gun in the person's hand. A man appeared in the window and started to point the gun in the officer's direction. The officer fired one round, striking the subject and knocking him to the floor. The officer sought cover and notified the police dispatcher of the shooting and that the gunman remained in the house.

Numerous officers responded and surrounded the house, convinced that a barricade situation had developed. After learning that the house was owned and occupied by a police officer from a neighboring jurisdiction, the police entered the house and found the owner dead on the floor, shot once by the first responding officer.

The victim had been at work when contacted and advised that burglars had broken into his home. Going off duty, he drove home to investigate, but did not notify the local police department. A heavy overcoat concealed his police uniform.

Several years later, FBI investigators(5) interviewed the officer who had fired the fatal round. He related that on the night of the incident, he had been assigned as an "overlap," or extra, officer and had been scheduled to take leave during the second half of his shift. Hearing the call for a burglary, he volunteered, thinking that after he had responded to the call and completed the paperwork, his shift would be over. He stated that even though he had called for backup at the scene, he thought the house was empty. Then, he had seen a person's shadow in the window. He had hoped that the person inside would back away from the window, to allow him to seek cover. But when the individual appeared to point the gun toward him, he fired one round and retreated.

While investigating the incident, the officer's department relieved him of his official police powers. After a very lengthy judicial process, he returned to duty. However, 7 years later, his department still refuses to return him to patrol; he remains on administrative duty.

Law Enforcement's Response

In response to both on- and off-duty deaths, law enforcement agencies throughout the country have developed safety training programs to help officers survive potentially deadly encounters with armed offenders. Still, the number of assaults and killings has not been reduced significantly, and in some areas, has increased.

Off-duty homicides can be particularly devastating, especially if the incident could have been avoided. Each agency should have a well-defined policy that clearly explains what, if any, law enforcement functions off-duty officers must perform. Such a policy should not conflict with other departmental edicts. For example, if an agency requires its officers to be "on-duty" 24 hours a day, then a rule that forbids off-duty officers to carry weapons would be contradictory and unadvisable.

Regardless of whether departments expect officers to carry firearms while off duty, they should make all employees aware of the policy. Additionally, off-duty officers who remain armed should be required to qualify with the off-duty weapon if it is a personally owned rather than the department-issued service weapon.

The departmental policy also should address how off-duty officers should act when observing an offense on their assigned beats, as well as in other jurisdictions. Another important area of consideration is how off-duty officers should react if they become victims of a crime. In addition to establishing a policy for officers, the department should strongly encourage officers to develop a plan of action for their families, clearly covering what each family member should say or do if the family becomes drawn into a crime in progress.

For example, each family member old enough to use the telephone should know how to contact the emergency police dispatcher and relay the appropriate information. In some cases, simply reporting the fact that one or both parents are off-duty officers, the name of their agency, and the fact that they have a problem may save a life.

Whether crime victims or witnesses, armed, off-duty officers run the risk of being confronted by on-duty officers. Agencies should develop and articulate a procedure for off-duty officers to follow during such circumstances, stressing that armed, off-duty officers never should turn toward armed, on-duty officers.

Finally, the department should ensure that the personal information of all departmental employees remains confidential. No one should have access to personal information, such as a home address, without the employee's permission.

Conclusion

Law enforcement officers frequently are killed in the line of duty. While off-duty officers are murdered less frequently, these incidents can be even more disconcerting to a department unprepared to deal with them. In fact, many off-duty homicides may be avoided if departments prepare officers in advance to handle confrontations with armed offenders.

Every department should institute a policy that outlines whether off-duty officers should carry weapons, what they should do if they witness a crime or become victims of crime, and how to handle encounters with on-duty law enforcement officers. Off-duty officers who confront dangerous criminals show a dedication to duty that few employees possess. They should not have to die for it.

Endnotes

1 U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1993).

2 U.S. Department of Justice, Killed in the Line of Duty: A Study of Selected Felonious Killings of Law Enforcement Officers (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1992).

3 The authors conducted these interviews while serving in the CJIS Division.

4 In some states, members of the public can obtain the addresses of law enforcement employees through avenues such as voter registration lists and courthouse precinct records. Exceptions for law enforcement, which mandate including a post office box in lieu of an actual street address, can be made only through appropriate legislation.

5 The authors conducted this interview.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Pinizzotto, Anthony J.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Apr 1, 1996
Words:2847
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