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How Not to Shoot Off-Duty Officers: The Other Side of the Coin

by George on July 14, 2014 07:28

In an earlier blog-entry, I wrote the article, "How Not to Get Shot Off-Duty by Other Officers” (pubished in "The Police Marksman", March/April 2014 issue).  This is the companion piece to that article, examining how patrol officers can maximize their own safety through tactical principles while decreasing the likelihood of shooting another officer.

You’re responding to a call of a man-with-a-gun with multiple 9-1-1 calls.  Out of your patrol car, you’re moving toward the reported location behind the house when you suddenly hear some shouting and then a series of gunshots and believe they’re from the alley just a few feet from the corner of the fence you are moving along.  Slicing around the corner, you see a male with a handgun in his hand, his back to you, shouting something you can’t understand.  Another male is down, holding his belly, slowly rocking back and forth as blood pools beneath him.  Just as you take in this information, out of the corner of your eye you see your uniformed backup officer step around the corner a few steps, directly into alley.  He’s wide-eyed with his rifle aimed at the armed subject’s back.  You’re about to tell him to get back behind cover when he calls out, “Police!  Freeze!  Drop the…!”  The armed subject turns his head and shoulders, his face hard with surprise, the handgun swinging in your general direction as he moves.  You and your backup officer don’t see the badge hanging around his neck…

The problem of uniformed on-duty officers intentionally shooting an armed subject who later turns out to be an off-duty or plainclothes cop continues to plague law enforcement.  A large responsibility for this problem falls on the armed off-duty officer by failing to recognize the peril he is in from responding officers, especially when he turns toward armed officers.  The responding officers believe that an unidentified individual is a criminal involved in a shooting in-progress or just-occurred.  A badge may be even visible, worn around the neck or clipped to their belt, or even held in their hand.  Even though visibly displayed, badges are not be seen because the officers’ attentional focus is locked on that firearm as it is moving or lifting toward the officer.  Problematically, there is nothing about that badge that is sufficiently salient or conspicuous enough to rip their attention away from the firearm that is now threatening them.  They fire in what they believe to be in defense of their lives, and, too often, two or more cops and their families are smothered in tragedy. 

Training programs have been developed focusing on the responding officer.  These programs revolve around recognizing badges and essentially slowing down the deadly force response to apparent threat.  This may be an ill-considered attempt to rectify a problem that probably should be directed more to training officers in safer off-duty conduct as well as how to more safely arrive at the scene of a shooting or the presence of a firearm.  Slowing an officer’s response to a perceived threat involving a visible handgun is counter to an officer’s safety. 

That said, there are steps that responding officers can to confidently respond to an apparent imminent deadly threat while providing them with a method making it less likely to fire upon an off-duty or plainclothes officer. 



As a trainer, it is a highly useful and beneficial goal to train officers to recognize a deadly force threat and to respond with little need for thinking about how to fire their weapon.  This is performed through stimulus-response training.  As the officer learns to associate an imminent threat with a proper response (fire accurately until the threat is over), that response starts out as, “Threat?  Yes—Shoot!’  As training progresses, the response becomes, “Threat-Shoot!”  A well-prepared officer will exhibit a “Thr-Shoot!” response.  In the split-second, high threat world of surviving the typical close range gunfight where the suspect is first to move and almost always gets the first shot (according to the FBI), an unconsciously competent, nearly automatic response to a perceived imminent deadly threat is a life-saver.

Many officer survival and firearms training programs emphasize recognition of the weapon as the trip-wire for response.  “If you see a gun, shoot him.”  “If you see a knife, shoot…”  It is also common in academies as well as in-service training to use the command, “Gun!” as the drill execution command (the military command of “Fire!” has no relevance to policing; neither does the current “cool-guy” command of “Up!”).  Upon hearing, “Gun!” officers initiate their string of fire.  This translates as “Gun = shoot.”  Problematically, this range execution command is the same as the street communication between officers of “Gun!”  In the street, this is a warning that there is a firearm present but should not be an initiation signal to begin firing.  The use of the same word for two incompatible purposes—to fire or to inform—creates internal and potentially fatal conflict within an officer. 

TRAINING POINT:  Deadly force should be a behavior-based response rather than a simple response to the hardware an individual possesses.

Training should provide what we call "Early Orientation Markers,"© providing threat pattern-matching capabilities for officers.  By training officers in what threatening behavior looks like, how the body moves when the suspect is obtaining a deadly weapon, the officer is likely to make better decisions. 

While this discussion is not intended to be a primer on deadly force standards, the individual officer’s reasonable belief the suspect’s actions, based on everything known to the officer at that moment, is creating an imminent (about to shoot) or actual (the subject is firing) danger of being killed or seriously injured is required. The mere possession of a deadly weapon absent any other indication of on-going or imminent threat is difficult to justify.  If the suspect is simply armed, the officer likely needs more information to shoot.

Training should emphasize the concept of “threatening behavior plus reasonable belief of capability equals deadly force response.”  While a suspected criminal subject with a firearm turning rapidly with the weapon would reasonably justify shooting that person in self-defense, there are other behaviors that might be evaluated if there is time.

For example, identifying expected criminal behavior after a shooting is valuable information.  There is a difference between criminal use of a firearm and police or legally armed citizens’ defensive use of a firearm.  Fleeing after a shooting (or quickly robbing the victim) is likely the most common reaction for a criminal suspect. 

Off-duty officers, on the other hand, will likely be acting, well, like cops:

  • Armed and holding someone at gunpoint with the suspect holding up his hands or putting his hands on his head.
  • Standing over someone who is proned out.
  • After shooting somebody, guarding that person until help arrives. 
  • After shooting someone, holding the suspect’s associates at bay by pointing his/her handgun and shouting at them to “Stay back!” or “Get on the ground!”

Another example of behavior-based response in very threatening circumstances is the first responding sergeant to the Trolley Square Mall shooting (an active shooter event on February 12, 2007).  An off-duty officer disrupted the suspect’s attack, exchanging gunfire with the suspect.  The sergeant stated he did not fire on the armed off-duty officer because of the officer’s behavior—though the plainclothes, off-duty officer was armed with a weapon in-hand and was maneuvering in a tactical manner—the sergeant instantly recognized that this armed individual was not a problem. Simply put, the off-duty officer was not acting in a criminal manner that prompted his needing to be shot.  That sergeant’s instant evaluation in a high-threat environment is the behavior-based decision-making that must be reinforced in training. Our job is to create in our officers a capability of evaluating threat behavior very quickly: “Is the behavior I see right now like a criminal (threatening) or like a cop (protective even though tactical)?

Fundamentally, it is not solely hardware that creates the justification and need to shoot, but the person’s actions, whether armed or not, that creates a reasonable and imminent fear of serious physical injury and provokes a police deadly force response.



Many tactically minded cops complain that many of their co-workers are not “tactical.”  Why is this so?  I would submit the reason lies in “prescriptive training” (a how-to list that is unique to each type of incident).  It’s impossible to remember every step in a unique list that is just one of dozens or hundreds of lists.  Eventually, many officers’ response becomes standard—they show up at a call.  And since no one has killed them yet, they keep doing what they do because they misinterpret luck for skill.  Pulling up to the reported location, stepping out into the open where people are or have just been shooting at each other, and letting everyone know that you have arrived before you have identified who the problem might be—or even what the problem is—affords little time to do anything other than react to a perceived threat.  And that may turn out to be an off-duty cop, forgetting that you have no idea who he is, who is justifiably shot because of his reaction to your presence.

Tactical response should not be reserved only for high-risk calls.  Training and peer-pressure should emphasize a tactical response to every call to create habits of behavior.  Habitually responding to every call in a tactical manner creates a beneficially automatic pattern of performance that, by definition, makes you safer on the street.  Employing tactical universally applied principles makes better sense than attempting to follow a prescriptive list. 

Employing a principle that is universal—it can be employed in a broad spectrum of incidents—creates a continuity of response that makes sense and becomes habitual.  Doing something the same way call after call, especially when it becomes reflexive and standardized behavior, automatically creates safer behavior.  Safer behavior can be defined as giving the officer more time to assess a subject’s compliance or threat levels and then to beneficially react to possible assault with less surprise. 

TRAINING POINT: Habitual tactical response employing the Universal Tactical Principles© creates time to make better, safer decisions.  In the case of responding to a shots-fired or man-with-a-gun call, some of the Universal Tactical Principles© are:

  • Superior Numbers: work in the “we” mode, not the “me” mode.  Employ backup routinely.  If more officers might be needed, call for help early rather than during an emergency. 
  • Surprise: invisible deployment. Officers deploy on-scene unobtrusively and reveal their presence at a time, place, and timing to their advantage. The subject(s) should be surprised to find an officer contacting them, rather than anticipating where and when the officer will appear.
  • Optimize distance.  Stay as far from the suspected problem as you can and still be able to conduct business. Distance equals time and, as Clint Smith says, “Time equals marksmanship.” While the “optimum” distance is a subjective matter that must balance efficiency and effectiveness with safety, generally the farther you can get from a weapon problem, more time will be available for you to make safer decisions.
  • Corners: minimize exposure.  Working from behind corners (a foundational tactical principle), become as small a target as possible. Cover stops bullets and the effects of bullets (ricochet and spall from the backside of the material) from harming you. Concealment prevents observation but permits bullets to pass through.  All approaches to high-risk, weapon-related calls should be from corners to corners.  All contact with armed/possibly armed-subjects should be from behind a corner.
  • Keep subjects in a narrow field of view.  If you are part of a multiple-officer response, your objective is to contact the subject(s) from positions providing a wide triangulation for you and your fellow officers, giving you intersecting fields of fire as well as a narrow target.  When combined with the Universal Tactical Principle of “invisible deployment,” this method of contact creates an instant, extreme vulnerability for the suspect.  Essentially, it “flanks” the suspect and gives him wide and diverging angles in order to get firing solutions on each officer—a very difficult and unlikely proposition.
  • Hands kill cops.  Hands operate weapons.  Visually clear the subject’s hands as quickly as possible as early as possible.
  • Communicate clearly.  One officer gives commands.  This prevents conflicting orders (“Don’t move!”  “Get down!”  “Come here!”).  Stop yelling at people.  This creates communication that can’t be understood.  Worse, it also projects fear, not only giving the perception of being emotionally out of control but contributing to it.  The rule is: one shout to get their attention (e.g., “Police!”); then speak to the subject loudly enough to be heard.
  • Make the subject come to you.  In all cases, call the subject to your position, even if it is a few steps.  This gives you several advantages: 1) You are able to gauge the subject’s compliance; 2) It establishes your authority over the subject; 3) You are able to take the subject away from his ground (with its possible advantages or weapons) and bring him to yours.
  • Put resisting or threatening subjects to the ground immediately.  When in doubt, everyone goes to the ground.  It is far safer to have one or more subjects on the ground, face down with their hands empty and placed where you want them than it is for them to be standing with their hands up.
  • Move your weapon quickly, aim certainly, hit and put the suspect down.  Survival in a gunfight should not be based on volume and rate of fire.  Surviving a gunfight is about hits.  Tactical response gives you time, and time permits a certainty in aiming.

While some may counter, “This is just another list to remember,” it is actually a practice of response that functions throughout widely diverse tactical circumstances.  Each is employed as needed.  Acting upon each principle provides you with more time to evaluate the situation and to react to the threat-based behavior rather than simply the hardware.

By basing your response to all calls (including those “routine” non-threatening calls that turn into scary-OMG-I’m gonna-die! calls) on threat recognition provided by Early Orientation Markers© gained through the habitually employing Universal Tactical Principles© and creating decision-making time, the likelihood of mistakenly shooting another officer decreases.

While the off-duty officer needs to adopt a safer mindset of assisting responding officers to identify his or her status, so, too, is there a need to respond to all calls for service through habituated tactical principles.  Force response is always behaviorally based.  Responding with deadly force is especially so.  Having the time afforded by habituated tactics to assess whether or not the armed subject is acting like a crook or a cop may save the life of an off-duty officer. 


by George on November 20, 2011 11:29

Another in a series of never-ending shootings of officers on traffic stops just landed in my e-mail box.  In this one, gratefully, the officer was uninjured--not because of what the officer did, but because of what the suspect did not do.  A brief review of this particular incident, and the catalyst for this discussion, is the following:

  • The officer, after having made a traffic stop, walks up and contacts the driver at the driver's window.
  • The driver, in this case, engages the officer with a lie, to which the officer bluntly responds, "No.  I was right behind.  I saw you..." (slowing his perception-reaction time to anything the suspect might do). 
  • The officer asks how much the driver’s had to drink, whereby the driver petulantly answers, “Plenty.” 
  • As the officer says, "Plenty, huh?" the suspect produces a handgun (“out of nowhere”).  

This video is, thankfully, different than most of its kind—the suspect is A) too drunk to realize he has not chambered a round; B) is incompetent; or, C) both.  The loud “click” is the officer not being murdered from the muzzle 12 inches away from his face.

The officer’s reaction to the muzzle in his face and the very loud click (which is the second loudest sound in the world from that side of the muzzle) is similar to every officer who has survived this type of event:

  • Hands go up to his face as his body crouches in a startle reaction.
  • Expletive uttered.
  • Change of balance to the rear (directly in-line with the trajectory of the round). 
  • Amazement he isn’t dead.
  • Realization that he is not finished with the gunfight and must take action occurs when the suspect fires a round at him.
  • Response with deadly force. 

It is also similar to every officer who is unexpectedly shot and injured or murdered:  hands go up at the sudden movement of a handgun shoved at the officer, the expletive if there is time, and the change of balance in response to the fright and muzzle blast.

It's been common knowledge for decades that traffic stops are extremely dangerous.  That this type of shooting unfolds as it does is typical.  This is because we now have so many in-car video systems and recordings of these terrible, violent events.   We know the process and what happens during this shootings--officers walk up to contact the driver, and are shot before they can react.  Every officer, regardless of his age, fitness, tactical awareness, experience, or any other factor any officer believes exempts him from the limits of being in a human body and the attentional capabilities it posseses, is at the mercy of the driver upon approach for approximately one second of the contact.  And if the suspect decides to put a gun through the window and shoot the officer, it cannot be stopped because there just isn't time to observe the weapon, orient to the fact that a muzzle is now pointing at the officer, and to decide to do anything while acting in time to make a difference.  Typically, the suspect gets off two or more shots before the officer reacts with anything other than an instinctive flinch. 

This repeats itself over and over and over, the same way, year in and year out.  And still, trainers in academies keep teaching their recruits to walk up on unknown suspects in situations that commonly cause officers to be murdered.

So, as trained, cops keep walking up, and continue getting shot and murdered.  Even when an officer is hit in the vest, we see the suspect minimally get 2 rounds off before the officer reacts with anything other than shock and surprise.  The end result of every one of these is that the officer is either shot at and hit, or shot at and missed through no counter-assault action on the part of the officer.  If the officer walks up on an occupied vehicle, the suspect either does not shoot or he does—there is nothing the officer can do that changes this variable:  it is a roll of the dice.

To emphasize this, a State Trooper teaching a traffic stop class at a state academy put his recruits through a simunition/FX cartridge scenario.  The recruits were being graded on their approach and positioning as well as their contacting the driver appropriately.  Each recruit knew there was a gun involved, and knew the subject was going to attempt to shoot the recruit-officer contacting him.  Regardless of the efforts to properly position themselves, 100% of the recruits were shot.  Now, the purpose of this exercise (other than wrongly training the recruits to purposely walk up on a man-with-a-gun) was not, as I thought it was going to be, a caution against walking up on a traffic stop to contact the driver.  Instead, the Trooper, straight-faced and intense, told the recruits, “That’s the risk you take being a cop.” 

Uh…what?  So we teach officers to walk into a no-win situation; a crap shoot that could mean they are shot and murdered every time they walk up on a traffic stop?  Yup. Some well-known "tactics" instructors advocate that as officers approach the violator's vehicle, that they touch the brake light cover in order to have the officer's finger prints on the suspect vehicle for identification purposes should the officer be shot and killed!  Really?

BOTTOM LINE:  The walk-up (a.k.a. “I-have-no-idea-who-I’m-stopping-and-I-cannot protect-myself-so-please-don’t-shoot-me”) traffic stop presents an indefensible tactical problem for which the only safe option is to stop using it.  It is a violation of every officer safety principle there is, and is solely performed because “That’s how we’ve always done it.”  HOW MANY MORE MURDERED COPS DO WE HAVE TO BURY BEFORE WE STOP THE INSANITY?

There is no defense to a driver or passenger shooting the officer from either a driver’s side approach, or a passenger side approach.  It is time to get consistent with the tactical principles we teach to officers for every other citizen contact other than traffic stops:  Make the subject come to you. 

The "Call-back Traffic Stop"

Call the driver back to the side of the road with their documents, and make it a “Ped stop.”  Conduct business where the suspect is not in his environment where his hands and what is within reach cannot be seen by the officer until it is too late.  This gives the officer the advantage of noting the subject's compliance and apparent armed status prior to gaining proximity where time-distance factors mitigate against any effective response.

The usual objections to this much safer practice?

  • “I’ll get complaints.”  Umm, not so much.  In fact, people will do what you tell them to do, and the courts have permitted getting the driver out of vehicles for years.  Officers who are practicing the call-back T-stop for two decades report no increase in the number of complaints related to their conduct of a traffic stop.
  • “I won’t get my ‘plain-view’ arrests.”  Umm, again, not so much.  Nothing stops an officer from conducting the interview, issuing the cite, and then following the subject back to the car to get a look inside at anything that might be in plain view.  The question might be asked of these officers, “If you are up at the driver’s window or front passenger window and are busy looking around the interior of the vehicle, then who is monitoring the driver’s/passengers’ hands?”  We know that humans can focus on one task at a time, and the visual focal area is very small.  Attentional loads being what they are, if the officer is looking at the interior for drugs or guns, he’s not looking at the suspect’s hands, and (let’s say it together) “Hands kill.”
  • “He could attack me just as he steps out of the driver’s door.”  Yes.  He could.  And he is 25+ feet away.  And the officer is back at his vehicle, with much more time to react, with a greater likelihood of being missed at that distance rather than 6-18 inches.  The suspect is also in the officer’s primary field of vision, where the officer’s attentional focus is.  As Clint Smith says, "Distance is time, time is marksmanship, and marksmanship is hits.")  Micro-threat cues should be alerting the officer’s spidey-senses that something is wrong simply by the way the subject is exiting the car, giving the officer a jump on his perception-reaction time.  This is a good time to focus on the driver’s hands (although EVERYONE first focuses on the subject’s face) because…well, you know why focusing on the subject's hands is a very good idea. 
  • “He could physically assault me at the side of the road.”  Yes.  He could.  So could every person you contacted on your last shift.  Physical assault, like deadly assault, does not exist in a vacuum.  Violence is a process.©  Assaults (punches and kicks and being tackled), guns, and knives do not “come out of nowhere.”  There are threat cues in every assault.  And having this person walk up to you gives you an opportunity to assess their compliance and glean something of their intent.  
  • “I’m not going to have 80-year old grandmas and soccer moms get out of their car.”  Good.  Don’t.  It is always your choice to intentionally violate the safety principles IF you believe it is in your best interest and furthers your mission.  Think about this:  if you feel it is safe to approach because you don’t want to get grandma or mom out of the vehicle in the rain, take the conscious risk and approach the vehicle.  However, a routine unconscious violation of safe Universal Tactical Principles© doctrine (approaching an unknown, unsearched, and unidentified subject, and dealing with him in his environment) is an invitation to be assaulted and/or murdered, like that of the officer in the video, and every video of a police officer being shot on a traffic stop. 

There is simply no excuse for continuing to conduct the unsafe and dangerous traditional "walk-up-please-don't-shoot-me traffic stop."  I've been teaching the call-back traffic stop since 1996. Others have been teaching it well before that. It is time to stop this insanity of doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result.  Just because you spent 30 years walking up on cars and weren’t shot, only means that you didn’t walk up on someone who wanted to shoot you.  If you had, he would have shot you without warning in spite of anything you did or didn’t do.  That is not “safe” or “tactical.”  That’s luck, and luck should not be considered to be a skill set.