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Off-Duty Intervention

Most agencies do not provide formalized training on how to take enforcement action when in plainclothes. Tragedies have occurred when officers in plainclothes have taken enforcement action and have been mistaken for the bad guy. When taking action in plainclothes, think from the perspective of the responding uniformed officer when they arrive and see someone in street clothes with a gun. Ask yourself several questions before you act.

Am I Prepared?

You must know what your capabilities and limitations are. You must know what you are willing to do. You must have a plan. When alone and carrying little police equipment, you are at a disadvantage, so you must adapt. The first step is visualization/mental preparation. Visualization allows you to design an incident and play it out in your mind. Create a scenario.

It is 2030 hours. You are in plainclothes at a café when an armed robbery occurs. There is one suspect, customers and a backstop of customers if you engage. How can you prepare using this concept? While having a coffee, visualize the scenario you have created. Ask yourself. What equipment do I have? Am I outnumbered? Where am I sitting in relationship to the cash register? What is my backstop? What actions will I take and when? Do I let the robbery unfold if no shots are fired? What will cause me to take immediate action?

When involved in a real-life incident, your assessment coupled with previous situational visualization and mind play may provide the answers you are seeking as the incident unfolds. You will react as if you have practiced that scenario before. Your mind has!

Police Equipment

Most off-duty officers and plainclothes detectives only carry a firearm unless mandated to carry additional equipment. When either takes police action they are found less equipped than a patrol officer taking similar action. An on-duty plainclothes detective may carry a reload and handcuffs, but usually no more. You may deem it impractical or just don’t feel like you need the reload, handcuffs, radio or intermediate weapons. This is a personal choice you must live with, but you must consider the limitations of the equipment you have.

Ammunition: No matter what type of firearm you carry in plainclothes, you should always carry a reload. If you carry a five-shot revolver, you must know that five rounds is simply not enough. If you carry a semi-auto pistol, a malfunction could be the result of a magazine failure. The more ammunition you have, the longer you can sustain a firefight and the higher probability you will have of striking the target.

Handcuffs: If you work as a plainclothes detective, you must carry handcuffs. Going back to the unmarked car for handcuffs is unrealistic. If you are off-duty and don’t have handcuffs when taking action, you must have a plan once the suspect is detained. Are you hoping the suspect will wait at gunpoint until backup arrives with handcuffs? Are you going to seek assistance from the public and hope they will hold the suspect? What will you do if he attempts to disarm you? Utilize deadly force? Either carry handcuffs or have a plan.

Identification: It is the policy of most agencies that authorize plainclothes carry to have the officer carry his identification and badge. If on duty in plainclothes, the badge must be affixed to the belt adjacent to the firearm for rapid identification. When taking any action in plainclothes, it is imperative that you can identify yourself when challenged by the arriving officer, the suspect and the public.

Intermediate force options: An expandable baton, TASER or pepper spray is more likely to be carried by a prepared, on-duty plainclothes officer with a tactical mindset than an off-duty officer. A can of pepper spray or compact expandable baton can easily be attached to a belt or carried in a pocket. These options are not usually part of the “kit” but should be considered. Not everything will be a deadly force encounter, and we want to have options.

Communications: If you are on duty in plainclothes, not undercover, your radio should be no further than an arm’s length away. If you have your radio and a crime occurs, you’re probably in your home jurisdiction, have more equipment and are likely close to your vehicle, making for a more effective response. Whether you decide to follow the getaway car until backup arrives or you decide to take immediate action, you must communicate.

If you are off-duty at home or in a mall, you must communicate when you see a crime. We are professional witnesses, and as a watch commander, I want a cop on the inside giving me real-time, accurate intelligence. Whether we call 9-1-1 on a cell phone or call from a house, we must immediately identify ourselves as an officer, identify what agency we are with, advise if we are armed, and describe our clothing. Communication versus immediate intervention may be the best option.


When taking plainclothes action, it may lead into a dark room or outside into the darkness. Having a small light that clips to the belt or fits in a pocket can make all the difference. The light can be utilized to illuminate a hallway or to conduct a quick peek around a corner, clearing it or identifying a threat.

Body Armor: When in plainclothes, body armor is not normally worn, thus there’s no protection from flying lead. This is protection we normally have when on patrol or taking planned enforcement action. One option for on-duty plainclothes officers is a tactical vest carrier with identifying logos and pouches for magazines, handcuffs and a radio. This vest can be rapidly donned in an emergency, providing ballistic protection and equipment.

Risk Assessment

When in plainclothes and a crime occurs, or when on duty in an undercover capacity, we must do a risk assessment, weigh the pros and cons, and decide if and when to intervene. Officers have an obligation to protect the citizens. However, we are not obligated to take immediate and haphazard actions, nor are we going “freelance” when a narcotics operation plan is in place. We have to “save the rescuer first.” If we become a casualty of the event, we have compounded the problem and cannot help to bring it to a safe resolution.

When an incident occurs, we must conduct a threat assessment and determine what action we will take, if any, or communicate and wait for backup. An active shooter incident, where shooting is ongoing, qualifies for immediate action. But if you are in the mall and see an armed robbery at a jewelry store with no shots fired and a suspect fleeing, what would you do?

Do you engage, creating a potential firefight in a highly-populated environment where the backstop of the bullets cannot be controlled? Are you better off covertly observing the fleeing suspect and communicating with police dispatch via a cell phone until responding officers arrive or engaging when appropriate? The decision is yours to make. It is a risk versus benefit assessment, similar to what we make during a pursuit.

Observe & Communicate

A crime occurs in front of you, and you decide that you will observe and communicate by cell phone or radio. Or you are off duty on the other side of the mall, prepared and attempting to locate the active shooter. Or you are awakened in the middle of the night by your car being burglarized, dressed in boxer shorts and a T-shirt. In these cases, you are ill-prepared or cannot effectively engage, but you can be part of the solution. Officers are professional witnesses and communicate clearly when under stress. A call to 9-1-1 does not preclude taking action in the event the threat has been located, or if the circumstances change. We must always act in the face of danger.

Tactical Assessment

Mental preparation is a large part of your response, but so are your tactics. When taking action, you must consider your tactics and get answers to a lot of questions. How do you communicate the emergency? What are the suspects’ locations and descriptions? Are they wearing body armor? What weapons are they armed with? Do they have the ability to sustain the firefight? How do you identify yourself as an officer? What is your ability to sustain the firefight? What are the effective ranges of all the firearms at the scene, both yours and theirs? Where is cover or concealment? Are there multiple suspects? What am I going to do with my friends and family?

If an incident occurs, create distance between the problem and your family. Instruct them to leave the building, get as far away from the entrances as possible and hide. Have them call 9-1-1 and advise the dispatcher that you are an off-duty officer taking action, what agency you are with, yours and the suspect’s clothing description, and any additional information.

Confronted by Responding Officers

When involved in a plainclothes police action, you must have a plan to identify yourself. The most important aspects of plainclothes intervention is the perception of the responding officers. What will they see when they arrive? You and the suspect with guns? How are you going to stay safe and differentiate yourself from the criminal and diminish their initial threat assessment that you’re an armed threat to them?

When confronted by responding officers, you should 1) immediately drop your firearm, 2) limit your movements, 3) ensure that both hands are visible, 4) verbally, repeatedly identify yourself as a police officer, 5) immediately comply with all commands, 6) advise them what you know about the suspect, 7) tell them where your police identification is but do not attempt to retrieve it unless told to do so, and 8) don’t assume they know you, should know you or even believe you.

When deciding to take plainclothes police action, you are usually doing so when alone, under-equipped and almost cut off from effective communication. You must compensate for these deficiencies, and the resulting added stress, by evaluating the equipment you have and carrying out the plan you have already formulated. Many incidents have occurred where both off-duty and plainclothes officers have been shot or killed by our brothers in blue. Being able to identify yourself when in plainclothes is paramount. We must plan and train to prevent from becoming another law enforcement tragedy!

Lt. Darin D. Dowe is a 21-year veteran of the Broward Sheriff’s Office (FL), a veteran SWAT operator, former sniper, tactical WMD program coordinator and a SWAT instructor in multiple disciplines. He can be reached via e-mail at

Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2009

Rating : 9.7

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