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Plainclothes Officer Safety

Early in my undercover career, I shot and killed an armed assailant. In the immediate aftermath of this traumatic encounter, I paused and focused with tunnel vision on the dead man, completely unaware of the world around me. With long hair and full beard, wearing a stocking cap and full-length woolen coat, I was standing over the assailant's body with my smoking pistol still in my hand. Suddenly, I realized two uniformed Boston Police Department (BPD) officers were approaching, cautiously, with weapons drawn. Instinctively, as trained, I froze in place. Without moving, I identified myself, verbally. I could see by their expressions that they relaxed, momentarily. I told them my shield was in my pocket, and they removed it, warily.

I was fortunate that day. Two experienced professionals answered the call to a shooting and evaluated the situation correctly. I reacted rationally and calmly in a chaotic situation because of my training at the academy. Knowing that the burden was mine to establish my identity, I spoke clearly and professionally. It was a lesson, a baptism by fire, so to speak, that I never forgot. The lesson: If we train and practice correctly, we will react properly when we find ourselves in dangerous situations.

The anonymity and non-descript appearance that allows plainclothes officers to mingle and disappear undetected into a crowd can lead to dangerous encounters with citizens and other officers. There is no greater tragedy than the accidental death of an officer or civilian at the hand of another officer because of mistaken identity. The unfortunate case of Sergeant Cornel Young, an off-duty Providence (R.I.) Police Department officer who was shot and killed by fellow, on-duty officers responding to a call for a man with a gun, comes to mind. Young drew his weapon and ran outside a restaurant when a fight involving a pistol-wielding suspect broke out. The investigation determined that although Young announced his identity to the restaurant patrons, he neglected to announce it to the responding officers, and did not heed their demands to drop his gun. The uniformed officers saw a man with a gun. They had no way of knowing he was Sergeant Cornel Young because he did not identify himself.

In another recent incident, Norfolk, Va., Officer Seneca Darden, in plainclothes, was shot and killed by fellow officers as they all responded to a shooting scene. Subsequent investigation determined, once again, that Darden had no visible identification.

The latest occurrence involving plainclothes officers the shooting of prospective groom, Sean Bell, outside a strip club in Jamaica, Queens, after he struck an undercover officer with his vehicle and then rammed into a surveillance vehicle has captured the public s attention. Conflicting accounts of NYPD officers and witnesses in this case have incited a furor. Due to circumstances beyond anyone's control, some of these events may have been unavoidable, but many of these mishaps can be prevented by proper training, common sense and open communication.

Mistaken Identity
By its very nature, plainclothes policing is inherently dangerous. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial estimates that 82 officers have been killed by other officers. Twenty eight of those deaths were caused by mistaken identity. Approximately 20 percent of the officers killed were out of uniform.

Deputy Chief William G. Brooks of the Wellesley (Mass.) Police Department, a certified instructor, explains that the majority of these situations arise when a plainclothes officer takes enforcement action and the nature of the incident causes the officer to draw their weapon. Brooks notes perceptively that when uniformed officers draw their weapon, they are often safer. Conversely, when plainclothes officers draw their weapons, they are often exposed to increased risk.

Uniformed and plainclothes officers should be routinely reminded that these deadly encounters may be prevented by being alert if they plan and train properly. With the murder rate on the upswing in Boston, plainclothes officers of the elite BPD gang unit are well aware of the potential for violent encounters. Ken Conley, a veteran BPD officer with 17 years experience, feels that he and the other gang unit officers are well trained. They consider officer safety to be a priority. Conley explained that he and the other officers make sure that their shields are visible and that they identify themselves, always, by announcing, Police, whenever they approach a suspect.

Your Department Policy–What Is It?
Check your department's policy and guidelines for plainclothes officers. Some departments have well-defined guidelines, while others have conflicting rules and procedures. For example, some departments require that officers be armed while off duty, but have no written procedures for them to adhere to while operating in that capacity. If you find that your department's policy is lacking, make suggestions or volunteer to develop a better policy. You could save lives.

Recently retired BPD Superintendent Joseph Driscoll remembered the early days when plainclothes officers were known to most of the uniformed officers in their districts. Cases of mistaken identity were not a major cause for concern. When officers operated out of their districts, however, they could no longer rely on being recognized by uniformed officers. And as the department grew, so did the possibility of mistaken identity. Driscoll cited the case of Michael Cox, an off-duty officer, who was beaten by fellow officers answering a call for a man with a gun. The Cox incident, an embarrassment to the BPD, ended up in federal court. This unfortunate case of mistaken identity, in the heat of the chase, led to allegations of wrong-doing and ruined lives and reputations of good officers. With proper safeguards in place, this incident may have possibly been avoided. Driscoll recalled that the BPD has experimented with different methods of identification for the plainclothes officers, such as colored arm bands and passwords, to avoid mishaps. Specific procedures such as these must be written and implemented.

Defer to Uniformed Officers
Dangerous confrontations can often be avoided. Plain-clothes officers in smaller or mid-size departments should make themselves known to uniformed personnel. In the private sector, this is known as networking. Policing is not a solitary affair; it's a team effort. We are all on the same team, so make sure everyone on the team knows their teammates.

Whenever a situation arises, however, in which there are questions regarding the identity or authority of on-duty or off-duty plainclothes officers making a stop or an arrest, the plainclothes officer must always defer to the uniformed officers. This simple, almost universal rule is probably the surest way to avoid dangerous confrontations.

Plainclothes officers must communicate. They should make themselves known, and familiarize themselves with their counterparts in uniform. Many times, plainclothes officers from the drug, gang, burglary or homicide squads cross from one precinct or area into another. Plainclothes officers should make it known to the uniform branch when and where they will be operating.

Plainclothes officers also must communicate with the dispatcher. If they're making a spontaneous stop or arrest, they must advise the dispatcher, who will advise patrol officers when and where plainclothes officers are operating in the area.

Realize that your radio is your friend. This is crucial. A radio announcement reminds patrol officers of the lessons learned in the academy and prepares them mentally for the possibility they may run into plainclothes officers. If plainclothes officers are executing an arrest or search warrant, they should arrange for uniformed officers to accompany them whenever possible.

Identify yourself. Take cover. Take charge.
The single most important thing uniformed or plainclothes officers can do when approaching a suspect with weapon drawn, is to identify themselves, take cover and take charge of the situation with the phrase "Police! Don't move!" The NYPD affixed stickers with these words to every officer s locker. This statement does two things: It identifies you clearly, and it stops the subject s movements.

If you are in plainclothes, you should also have your shield displayed prominently, either in your free hand, clipped to your clothing or hanging on a chain around your neck. Take cover, if possible, behind a telephone pole, car or doorway to gain extra seconds to evaluate the situation. If you anticipate the action in advance, put on a raid jacket.

Think before you act, and always think safety first. If you are in uniform, remember that the person with the weapon could be another officer. Speak clearly, calmly and professionally. Do not use slang. Remember: Police officers do not drop their weapons. They are not trained to do that. Ask the suspect a question only a police officer could answer to verify their identity.

If you are in plainclothes, remember that it's your responsibility to identify yourself as quickly and clearly as possible. Be professional. When responding to a call, uniformed officers know only what they see a person with a gun. Do not make any sudden movements a uniformed officer could misinterpret as a threat. Identify yourself: I am a police officer! I work at such-and-such a precinct. My identification is in my breast pocket. Remember, safety first.

FBI Report on Violent Encounters
Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our Nation's Law Enforcement Officers, a current report by the FBI, examined a number of violent incidents, and its conclusions seem to agree with the findings suggested in this article. With regard to incidents involving plainclothes police officers, the FBI report found that wearing some easily identifiable sign or symbol that denotes a person as a police officer actually saves that officer from injury or death, and that effective communication saved officers from being injured or killed. The report also emphasizes the need for effective training that can enhance the communication skills of all law enforcement personnel.

If we make officer safety a priority in the commission of our duty, we will get to go home at the end of our day. Good luck and stay safe.

Paul E. Doyle, retired DEA special agent and chairman of the New England Chapter of the Association of Former Federal Narcotic Agents, is the author of Hot Shots and Heavy Hits: Tales of an Undercover Drug Agent. Visit his Web site at www.pauledoyle.comor contact him at

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