Police departments rethink ‘always armed’ policies in wake of officer deaths
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – An old police tradition of requiring off-duty officers to carry their weapons – “always armed, always on duty” – is being scaled back in police departments nationwide following the shootings of off-duty officers by colleagues who thought they were criminals.The policies require officers to respond to crimes even when they’re not on duty. Supporters say that also protect officers from criminals bent on revenge.But critics point to the shooting of officers in Providence, R.I., Orlando, Fla., Oakland, Calif., and elsewhere as reasons for change.Providence’s policy is now at the center of a $20 million civil rights lawsuit over the shooting of Sgt. Cornel Young Jr., who was killed in 2000 while he was off duty and trying to break up a fight. He was dressed in baggy jeans, an overcoat and a baseball cap, and he was carrying a gun.”Our situation is the extreme example of what can go wrong,” said Sgt. Robert Paniccia, president of the Providence police union.Young’s mother, Leisa Young, says the rookie officer who shot him was not adequately trained to recognize off-duty or plainclothes officers.The International Association of Chiefs of Police has called “always on duty” policies a costly tradition. The group, which has more than 20,000 members, recommends that off-duty officers who witness a crime call for assistance rather than pull a weapon.According to the FBI, 43 police officers have been killed since 1987 by friendly fire. Some were caught in crossfire, or killed by firearms mishaps. A handful, like Young, were mistaken for criminals and shot by fellow officers.Earlier this year, an Orlando, Fla., police officer fatally shot a plainclothes officer who was investigating underage drinking outside the Citrus Bowl. The plainclothes officer had gotten into a scuffle with tailgaters and fired his gun into the air when the Orlando officer shot him, witnesses said.In 2001, two uniformed officers shot and killed an undercover detective when he pointed his gun at a suspected car thief in Oakland, Calif.In 1994, an off-duty police officer in New York City shot and seriously wounded an undercover transit officer who was chasing armed suspects through a subway station. The transit officer survived.In Providence, carrying a gun is now optional for off-duty officers, who are encouraged instead to be good witnesses if they see a crime, said Paniccia. The police union in Washington, D.C., succeeded in securing similar rules after three off-duty officers were killed in separate incidents, said Officer Gregory Greene, the union’s chairman.The Los Angeles Police Department allows its officers to carry their weapons off duty but doesn’t require it, department spokeswoman April Harding said.David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, formerly worked as a Los Angeles police officer and said he usually carried a gun off duty. If police officers are properly trained, officers should have the option of carrying a gun for their own protection, he said.”I don’t want to be driving through the ghetto without a gun,” he said. “What if some knucklehead I arrested spots me?”Threatened officers instinctively focus on the perceived threat and tune out other information that could be crucial to split-second decision making, Klinger said. That’s why it’s important to have protocols in place to identify each other, he said.New York City officers now use standard challenges and responses to prevent friendly fire accidents, according to James Fyfe, the department’s former deputy commissioner for training. Fyfe died of cancer this month, shortly after testifying by video at the Young trial.He said every time New York officers confront an armed suspect, they are trained to yell “Police, don’t move!” Off-duty and plainclothes officers are told to respond “I’m on the job!” and to never turn their hand or gun toward a uniformed colleague.”Unless police officers are trained, they do stupid things on both sides of the coin,” Fyfe said.