Never Off Duty

Never Off Duty

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

People may ask “Do you always carry a gun?” For many, if not most officers, the answer is yes.

An off-duty New Hanover County, North Carolina Deputy was shopping at Food Lion. Kenneth Alan Stout, age 63, was being sought by the U.S. Marshals Service as a dangerous fugitive wanted for a West Virginia murder. The deputy’s sharp eye recognized Stout as looking like the wanted poster photograph of the murder suspect and called 911. He assisted arriving deputies in capturing Stout.

John Hetland, an officer with the Racine, Wisconsin Police Department was off duty at Teezer’s Bar and Grill grabbing a bite to eat with a friend when he confronted a masked, armed man who was robbing the establishment. Hetland struggled with the gunman and was shot and killed by the robber, who then fled.

Off-duty officers are just as vulnerable to a random criminal attack as any citizen. In July 2020 a Colorado Springs officer was in his personal vehicle when a man unknown to the officer entered the vehicle claiming he had a gun. The officer was able to shoot the invader who was later found to have been under the influence of methamphetamines and amphetamines.

A 26-year-old New York City Police Officer Adeed Fayaz was off-duty with his brother-in-law and meeting a person ostensibly to purchase a car that had been advertised on the Facebook marketplace. The officer was shot and killed in what turned out to be a robbery. The brother-in-law used Fayaz’s weapon to fire shots at the suspect, who fled and was not injured. A 38-year-old suspect was subsequently arrested for robbery and murder.

Areanah Preston, a Chicago Police Officer was killed during an apparent robbery outside of her home in the South Side area. Five suspects have been arrested. Preston had been an officer for five years and was a few weeks from graduating from Loyola University with her master’s degree.

In rural areas where officers are known by many residents, an off-duty officer may be a target of revenge by those whom they may have encountered on duty. This can happen even in metropolitan areas, too, but a trip to Walmart or the park can result in confrontations with malcontents or wanted persons in smaller jurisdictions. These officers may also be recognized by citizens who need help and call on the officer to take action on a complaint or in an emergency when they are recognized.

This reality requires officers to be vigilant even while enjoying the normal daily activities of life and even in their own homes. Officers’ homes and even families have been attacked. Even retired officers often continue to carry their weapon to ensure their safety.

Federal legislation allows retired officers in good standing to carry their sidearms throughout the U.S. with proper ID and regular firearms qualification. Many officers also obtain concealed carry permits, but are subject to reciprocity agreements when traveling out of their home state just like any other concealed carry permit holders.

Some law enforcement agencies require officers to carry their weapon off-duty and be available to intercede even out of uniform and off shift. Fewer agencies have this requirement since it carries their liability to each officer 24/7, but the mandate isn’t required for most officers who are conditioned to be prepared to act. The general rule is that officers best serve by being a good witness. Having no backup nor the resources normally available in their patrol vehicles, acting alone and off-duty has extra perils attached. The decision to take no immediate action can be the wisest course.

One of those is being sure to be able to identify themselves when on-duty officers arrive on the scene so that they are not mistaken for an adversary. In January of this year, an off-duty officer who engaged a robbery suspect was shot by an arriving deputy who mistook the officer for the suspect. The deputy was cleared of charges and considered to have acted in good faith given the totality of the circumstances in the tragic death.

When a person takes on the role of a law enforcement officer it can be truly said that they are never really off-duty.