Preventing Police Friendly Fire Incidents

Working undercover or in plain clothes puts police officers in danger of being shot by one of their own. This happened to a narcotics officer I had worked with from a nearby drug task force back in 2001. Officer Willie Wilkins was trying to apprehend two suspects while he was in plain clothes when he was shot and killed by two rookie officers from his agency.

Willie was killed by two rookies from his agency while he was in plain clothes.

Real World Incidents of Police Friendly Fire

My good friend and former co-worker Dave Blake is a use of force expert and just published an article on how to prevent these blue on blue shootings. First Dave looked at past shootings and real world incidents to find commonalities in blue on blue shootings. Specifically, Dave wrote:

  • No agency is immune as blue-on-blue shootings have occurred all over the country in both small and large agencies;
  • Almost all the victim officers had firearms displayed, and many reportedly failed to comply with commands when they were shot;
  • A portion of the officers shot had some type of police identification displayed upon their person;
  • There is an indication that black officers are at a higher risk when off-duty and engaging in armed enforcement.

2016 Federal Law Enforcement Training Center Study evaluated the interaction between “on-duty” and “plain-clothes” officers using the Force Options Simulator (FOS).

The plain-clothes officer in the simulation had several different badge configurations (e.g., neck and waist) and used different verbal responses to on-duty officer challenges. The results provided important information for policy, procedure and training that may reduce these types of incidents.

The FLETC study findings matched the real-world events reviewed by the NY State Task Force:

  • Many plain-clothes officers engage in a “reflexive-spin” when confronted by a uniformed officer;
  • A portion of the plainclothes officers failed to comply with commands while providing varied verbal responses such as “police,” “friendly,” or giving their agency name;
  • Eye tracking data found that on-duty officers always looked at the plainclothes officer’s gun/face, but often did not look at their waist or chest (where badges are sometimes displayed).

8 Things You Can Do to Protect Yourself

Based on Dave’s research, he came up with 8 things police officers can do to protect themselves from a blue on blue incident.

  1. Do not take enforcement action off duty if there is an alternative; be a witness unless someone’s safety is at stake.
  2. If you must intervene off-duty, notify the local jurisdiction (e.g., 911) and provide your description, that you are armed and in plain clothes (if possible).
  3. Display your badge prominently and frequently communicate that you are a police officer in a loud and clear voice. An outer garment with 360-degree police markings is recommended.If you are confronted by on-duty law enforcement officer:
  4. Assume commands such as “Police, don’t move” or “Drop the weapon” are meant for you.
  5. Resist quickly spinning to face the officer, or reaching toward your badge to identify yourself.
  6. Identify yourself as a police officer (loudly) and obey all commands – to include dropping your weapon.Training:
  7. Officers should receive evidence-based training on how to conduct themselves when engaged in law enforcement activities while in plain clothes. FLETC indicates that the Undercover Investigations Training Program contains training based on its research findings.
  8. Officers should receive reality-based scenario training in which they are both the off-duty officer and the responding officer.

If you want more information on this subject, I wrote an earlier article on how badge placement by plain clothes officers can save their life. The original article that Dave wrote can be viewed here.

Author: Keith Graves
Keith is a retired Police Sergeant and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for 29 years. Keith was named as California’s Narcotics Officer of the Year and is a prior winner of MADD’s California Hero Award. He has years of experience as a Narcotics Detective and a Narcotics Unit Supervisor and is a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor (IACP #3292). Keith teaches both the DRE course and the Drug Abuse Recognition Course and has taught at the Police Academy. He has developed several drug courses for the California Narcotics Officers Association, California POST and California Colleges and currently consults POST on drug investigation procedures. Keith has held other assignments besides narcotics including Training Sergeant, Patrol Sergeant, COPPS Officer, Traffic Officer, and 20 years as a SWAT Team member and Sniper Team Leader. Keith has taught thousands of officers and businesses around the world about drug use, drug trends, compliance training and drug investigations. He is recognized as an international drug expert and has testified as an expert in court proceedings on drug cases, homicide cases and rape prosecutions. Keith earned a BA in Business Management from Saint Mary's College of California and a MA in Criminal Justice. Keith is the Founder and President of Graves & Associates, a company dedicated to providing drug training to law enforcement and private industry.

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