Blauer - Tactical Clothing & Equipment

Off-Duty: "Should I Do Something?"


Thankfully, most of us don’t live our lives as public safety professionals in uniform 24/7. (Apologies to those who spend most of their off time on details.) As a result of what we do, however, many of us consider ourselves to never really be “off duty” when it comes to intervening where necessary should a scenario present itself to us. Serious concerns come up when we do take action while not in uniform, however, and we’d like to talk about some of those today.

Who’s Around?
Let’s say you’re out to dinner with your family at McDonald’s. As an off-duty police officer in the town where the McDonald’s is located, your head is always on a swivel when it comes to watching for illegal or otherwise dangerous activity — because it’s your job to do so, but also your calling.

Suddenly, your “bluedar” goes into high-alert status as a masked man enters the restaurant, brandishing a firearm and threatening the cashier, telling them to give him the money in the till. Time stops as you have to make a decision: do I intervene, with the risks to my family and others, or do I not, and instead try to act as a good witness by calling it in and awaiting backup?

Tough call, even amongst the difficult decisions that you make as a police officer every day — there’s no way to know for sure if the guy will shoot someone, or won’t, if you intervene, or not. Only he knows that. So many of us will choose to do what the actual officer in this situation did in 1997, and vacate as many people as possible before engaging the suspect.

In that scenario, at the Barstow Station McDonald’s in Barstow, CA, 25-year-old Kenneth Harold Lemond, a man with a history of violent robberies, was engaged immediately by an off-duty officer right after he grabbed the cash from the terrified cashier. The officer identified himself, and a gunfight ensued immediately – in which a round from Lemond’s gun struck a 9-year-old girl in the head, killing her instantly.

Should I Do Something?
Obviously, it’s easy to look back at an incident and say that something might have been done differently. In the scenario above, it was later determined that the emergency exit doors near where the young girl lost her life were locked, preventing her from escaping with her family – something the officer couldn’t have known beforehand. But incidents like this raise the fact that the question of whether or not to engage, or for those in fire or EMS, to intervene, must take into account as many factors as possible before being answered.

Part of what makes us different, and makes us professionals, is that we are the ones trained not to react, but rather to respond, to an emergency situation. What’s the difference? Most of those who are on a scene will act based upon an emotional response to what they perceive to be going on, allowing their own filters to stand between what they perceive and what’s actually going on. For us, however, our training and experience allow us to be a little bit more objective (ideally) – taking that mental step back by placing ourselves outside of the situation, and looking at things from the perspective of an uninvolved party. In EMS, we call it assessment, in fire, a survey, and for police, a size-up.

Does This Shirt Make Me Look Big?
When you’re off-duty, however, something else comes into play: the question of whether you yourself will be safe when intervening. To look at an example, most of us don’t drive around a marked vehicle, or even one with warning lights, when we’re not at work. Those vehicles afford us protection by making us visible, which is why the trend today seems to be towards lighting every possible angle of a vehicle (I wouldn’t be surprised if someone comes out with tire-stem LED’s soon), and making us identifiable.

Now, I’m guessing that most of you wouldn’t want to stop your personal vehicle in the middle of a highway to help out at an MVC, because chances are someone’s going to crash into it – there’s nothing to tell them that they need to slow down or even that anything out of the ordinary is going on, other than the accident scene itself. The same reasoning should apply to choosing to intervene in any scenario. Ask yourself: will it be obvious to others (or can I make it obvious) that I am NOT just another “car” at the scene, in such a manner that I can then safely intervene without further causing risk to myself or others?

Many times, the answer to that question will be yes – but the more dynamic the situation, the less likely you are to be able to make it clear to others that you are someone trained, and able, to help, and that it’s your place to be doing so. EMS may think that this doesn’t apply, but I can tell you from personal experience that people with a loved one in cardiac arrest may think that CPR is in fact assault, and try to fight you off despite your showing them a city-issued EMT badge when in plain clothes. Again, emotion rules action for most people in an emergency situation.

Step Back Before You Step Up
Whether or not you choose to intervene, take the time to really step back and assess what’s going on around you with open eyes and an open mind before doing so. Even if you’re an officer dealing with an active-shooter situation, rushing in could mean that you don’t see the other shooter, who takes you out and therefore adds you to their “kill count” before going on to take other lives. There must always be that pause, even if only for the smallest of moments, because ultimately, you can’t help anyone if you become another victim.

That also means choosing to identify yourself in a conspicuous way, perhaps by having a uniform item such as a safety vest or jacket in your vehicle, and not just by showing a badge, which many people may not even see if they’re amped up – including other responders, by the way, who may see you with a gun and think you’re part of the problem and not the solution. We all know how that one has played out in the past, with tragic results.

Remember: unless others know you’re a professional, you’re just another bystander to them, and making the decision to intervene must be something done with an eye towards that fact – because all of us were meant to help others, but those others may not realize that until it’s too late.


Greg Bogosian is certified as a Reserve/Intermittent Police Officer by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and spent twelve years working as an EMT-Basic, including four years as a field EMT and dispatcher for the City of Boston EMS.  He was additionally a member of a Federal medical disaster relief team for ten years, with experience responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the pre-deployment of resources for Hurricane Ike.  Greg currently has a passion for educating public safety professionals about matters which impact their lives every day, and welcomes feedback and suggestions in the spirit of ensuring that best practices make it out there for all to benefit from.

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