Considerations for Off-Duty Encounters – Keeping Yourself and Your Family Safe

BRIAN DICKEY
Sergeant

Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office

While the common primary focus of law enforcement training involves the use and deployment of an extensive array of tools, off-duty issues are rarely addressed. The uniformed peace officer has not only their command presence, but also weapons and a radio for instant communications. For the most part, suspects contacted are usually cooperative and exhibit no threatening behavior to law enforcement, due in no small part to the very image of the modern peace officer.

This article is by no means meant to relax officer safety or ignore the small percentage of criminals who murder peace officers every year. Its purpose is to recognize an area many have not trained for or given much thought to. How many officers have had a “what if” talk with a ride-along or a new partner? How many have had a similar talk with their significant other, especially when carrying off-duty?

As critical as it is to know what a partner is going to do on patrol, isn’t it even more critical for a family to know what their role (and yours) is? Obvious consideration for the ages of family members must also be given. Some officers may adamantly refuse to get involved in any situation with family members present; others may evaluate each given situation and weigh the risks. These decisions are the individual’s to make, and the information provided below can serve as a template for that important discussion.

Because both the family and the officer have set parameters and roles, there are separate issues identified for each as they relate to the listed topic.

Pre-Planning and Situational Awareness

Officer:

  • The 5.11 cap and other off-duty accoutrements are a dead giveaway of our vocation. Tactically themed clothing items, and even window stickers on a vehicle, are clues for the observant criminal. Hopefully, the days of the black fanny pack are gone.
  • What is worn off-duty enables or can inhibit the carrying of firearms, ID, a reload, phone and other tools that might be needed.
  • Off-duty activities need to be addressed, such as drinking alcohol if carrying a firearm. (This may also be an agency policy requirement.) Being a peace officer, especially in this day and age, is more a lifestyle and frankly requires an increased commitment.

Family:

  • What is a safe area and where is it located? If something were to happen and the family was separated, where would they meet?
  • Scenario-based training works, and providing it to family members increases safety. It can be as simple as: When the family is returning to their vehicle after a movie, they see a suspect breaking into it. What does the family do? If the suspect runs, what happens? This is an example of the types of scenarios that need to be discussed.

9-1-1/Emergency Services

Officer:

  • Communication is as important off-duty as it is on-duty, if not more so. The inherent weakness that comes with the loss of equipment and the presence of family members makes a speedy uniformed response a safety priority.
  • Does the officer entrust communication of information to a family member? Does it matter how old the family member is? This enables priority focus of the officer.
  • Does your agency train to use a cellphone when the officer’s weapons are drawn? What are the safety considerations with this?

Family:

  • Jurisdictionally, do they know who to contact in an emergency?
  • What kind of information does 9-1-1 need? Where is the location? What is a direction of travel? Vehicle and suspect identifiers? While this information can be second nature to a peace officer, it usually is not to civilians, no matter their relationship to law enforcement. Again, this might be dependent on age.

Cover Versus Concealment

Officer and family:

  • Depending on the weapon used by the suspect(s), if any, what in the area will protect you? If ballistic protection is not available, hiding is the next best thing.
  • Off-duty usually means no body armor; recognize that.
  • What will protect family members from bullets?

Familiarity With Off-Duty Firearm/Drawing/Equipment

Officer:

  • Most peace officers train the majority of their time with their primary duty handgun, and from a standard duty-type holster. This holster normally presents the weapon for what is referred to as a clear configuration (no covering/concealment). The officer needs to practice drawing (sometimes unobtrusively) from the position of carry. This needs to be done while seated in a vehicle or a chair, walking, standing and even prone. The carry option that allows these varied draws is the one to use. Ankle carry, while great for concealment, can be very difficult and sometimes impossible to reach. Think of when you are most vulnerable, whether it is sitting in a car or a theater.
  • There are two classic arguments in the realm of gunfighting: large number of rounds versus large caliber. Agency requirements notwithstanding, a .22-caliber handgun can kill, but the skill to consistently do so under stress removes it from normal consideration. While the larger calibers may afford more incapacitation probability, the bulkiness of the weapon may cause one not to carry it, or may cause it to be seen by a suspect. Keep in mind, firearms performance is directly related to the type and components of the ammunition used. While agency specifics need to be followed, the selection of ammunition is critical, requiring training and as much research as the choice of weapon carried.
  • The strength of concealed carry is the concealment. If the off-duty officer can “hide” in plain sight, they are afforded options. The uniformed officer walking into a bank robbery has fewer options. The phrase “be a good witness” is often good advice.
  • As important as the firearm is, the presentation of agency identification and ensuring responding assets know a peace officer is on site is critical to everyone’s safety. Training needs to involve the displaying of credentials and verbal announcements to be realistic.
  • Carry a reload that is accessible.
  • The carrying of restraints and other force options needs to be addressed. Recalling personal experience in instructing a law enforcement academy, while the cadets deal with armed suspects safely and tactically, they’re most often “killed” during the handcuffing, when they close that critical gap and approach a dangerous suspect. How is that going to be accomplished, if at all? Is the off-duty officer going to, in essence, wear full equipment? Absent employing agency requirements, is the officer able to utilize hands and feet as intermediate options? Does resorting to these personal weapons place the officer too close to the suspect? Is there only one suspect?

Family:

  • Tactical evolution of equipment has seen a wide variety of holster materials and retention mechanisms. With obvious safety concerns, are family members able to draw the firearm if the officer is incapacitated? Are they able to reload it? Obviously, this is an age/maturity-dependent issue.

On-duty and off-duty are two separate worlds. The equipment and clothing are different, but most importantly, the mindset can be catastrophically different. Family, vacations and the need to decompress from our shared stressful occupation are all factors that may place us and our families in jeopardy. While the myriad concerns raised in any off-duty incident can compromise a safe outcome, coming up with a strategy before it’s needed can benefit all concerned.

Editor’s note: This article is for informational purposes only. Please make sure you abide by your respective department’s policies and procedures.

About the Author

Sergeant Brian Dickey is a second-generation sheriff’s deputy with over 33 years of service with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. He is a recognized firearms instructor and armorer, having spent 14 years as the agency’s rangemaster. He is currently assigned to patrol.