A recent article published in the “Chicago Tribune” has asked a question that has been stirring debate within the law enforcement community, “Should cops use patrol cars while off duty?”
While yes, philosophically officers are on duty “24/7”, and would intervene in life or death scenarios such as an active shooter scenario, there is a clear distinction between being 10-8 on official duty and 10-7, off duty. Most off- duty officers are not going to bother with a civil traffic moving violation and while not in uniform, probably should refrain from doing so.
This question, however, has created some heated debate among not just law enforcement, but civilians as well. The article speaks specifically about some police chiefs who are strong advocates for the practice of using marked take- home patrol cars, as POV’s (personal occupancy vehicle) for personal use.
Dave Cincoski, Chief of Chesterton Police Department has stated “I believe the safety factor and benefit outweighs the cost of personal use.” This statement raises an interesting question worthy of debate and a closer look. While studies do show that take home vehicles provide more visibility and therefore help in providing an illusion of more marked units on the road, there is a big difference between strictly using a marked unit while on duty or for official use, go to and from shift, and using it while off duty for personal use. Some argue that by doing so, the pros of such a practice far outweigh the cons, but do they truly? Before a department decides to adopt such a policy, let’s take a hard look at the potential pros and cons of using marked units as POV’s, and if such a practice, really is worth the risk.
The benefits being claimed for the practice of using marked units as POV’s are as follows,
• More visibility, which serves as a deterrent to crime.
• Vehicles are better cared for, which prolongs use.
• More police officers in marked units are able to respond to those in need or crimes when needed.
That pretty much sums up all the stated benefits overall by those in support of the practice. After careful review, here is a breakdown of many obvious issues that come along with driving a marked unit while not officially on duty.
Officer safety is paramount when it comes to patrol. Would you go on patrol wearing no vest? Chances are the answer is no, and driving while in a marked patrol car while not in uniform or wearing a vest is not far from doing just that. Lt. Richard Hoyda, spokesman for the Hammond Police Department, stated, “Officers with take-home units are required to carry their service weapons and police radios with them while the vehicle is being operated,” he said. “The officers have discretion on whether or not to respond to police calls for service.”
Bluntly put, this department is allowing officers to drive a marked unit, requiring them to carry a radio and service weapon, and allowing them to respond to calls for service while off- duty. This raises an interesting question; do they require 10-8 officers on patrol to wear their Kevlar? Are they ok with officers 10-8 not wearing body armor? At this point, an officer who is not “officially on duty” and yet chooses to engage in calls for service in a marked unit is exposing themselves to just as many risks and danger as that of an on duty patrol officer, only they are at a severe disadvantage. They have no Kevlar, no duty belt, no OC spray, no Taser, no baton. Even if it’s in their vehicle, it’s not on their person, which does the officer no good in the moment when needed. They literally have no tools to aid in handling the unexpected. They may choose to stop a vehicle for a traffic violation, only to get a combative suspect and have no other means then a radio and firearm on them. What may be able to be handled with less lethal tools is now a non-option, with only a lethal firearm in their place. The liability of that alone should scare any department away from such a practice.
So far this year, in 2015, officer fatalities and violence against police is up 40%. There is a war on police in this country, and simply wearing the uniform makes us a target. Examples of such realities are not hard to find. Recently, officers Rafael Ramos, and Wenjian Liu, were both killed in their patrol car while parked in an ambush style attack. In August of 2015, Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth, was killed while pumping gas. He was shot from behind 15 times by 30 year old male, Shannon J. Miles.
The harsh reality of law enforcement is that police are always at a disadvantage. They are reactionary; and in cases of ambushes such as this, it is dependent on the perpetrator to slip up affording the officer a chance to react. If not, the outcome is grave. While this is an accepted risk that comes with the job, we take all possible steps to prevent such an outcome, which includes every possible tool, such as wearing Kevlar. The simple act alone of being in a marked police car makes you a target, no different than an officer on official duty. This is also the reason for the old and common practice of going to and from work in plain cloths, and changing in and out of uniform at the station.
It also puts extra work load on dispatch. Not only do they have to worry about units that are 10-8, now they have to log and track those who are driving around in their marked units for personal errands, or in some cases, dispatch may not be notified at all.
There are countless examples of routine traffic stops which turn into a fatal hail of gun fire. The idea that officers would be permitted to conduct a stop while not in uniform, not wearing Kevlar, and equipped only with a side arm and radio is a frightening prospect.
The liability of officers, while off duty, driving in marked units should be of serious concern. What happens if a civilian runs to a patrol car seeking help, only to find it not occupied because the officer is off duty inside the store buying groceries? Some officers drive their marked cars with their kids in the car. What happens if someone wanting to target police chooses to do so while they have young children or friends and family in the vehicle? This places not only the officer in unnecessary harm’s way, but civilians who signed no waiver, passed no background check, and made no acknowledgement of any risks involved with riding in a marked unit. The liability that places on a city and police department is enormous.
What happens if an officer while off- duty is involved in a motor vehicle accident in their marked cruiser? Does the tax payer through the city have to cover the cost as well as the city’s insurance? If the officer is hurt in such an accident, will Worker’s Compensation cover the cost and medical? What if a civilian is riding in a department vehicle and is hurt as well? Who is liable? If the officer is at fault and the other party is hurt, who covers their cost, the tax payers?
What happens if an officer resorts to lethal use of force because they conducted a stop off- duty and did not have OC spray, a Taser, or baton on their person? Will that officer and department be liable for an excessive force or wrongful death suit?
This barely begins to scratch the surface of the staggering amount of liability concerns and serious issues that are opened by simply allowing officers to use their marked units as POV’s while off duty.
Public Perception and Officer Presence
The Chicago Tribune article speaks to the frustration of members of the community. The article states the following,
“Portage police officer Kathlyn Crook has been a full-time cop for only a few months, but she’s already heard enough complaints from citizens about driving her patrol car while off duty.
“I just got asked today if it was nice to run my errands on taxpayers’ money,” she told me on her day off. “I thought, how rude.”
This brings up an interesting angle when it comes to using marked vehicles as POV’s. There is an old saying, “perception is reality”, and police departments are in a constant battle when it comes to the headaches of the media and perception. In this particular case, one should ask, does it look professional if a police force has an off- duty officer getting out of a marked unit in plain clothes and then walking into the store to go shopping? It’s also worth asking, does the tax payer have a right to be upset by this? It’s understandably easy to get attached to a vehicle, feel its “yours,” or even gain a sense of entitlement to your assigned vehicle. Technically speaking, however, the job is that of public servant, and the vehicles are bought and maintained by the taxpayers of the communities in which we serve. While it may be an issue of frustration to the officer, the taxpayer does have a legitimate say and sentiment when it comes to how their money is spent. Like it or not, that also includes the use and maintenance of police vehicles. While many tax payers don’t take issue with such use per say, the negative perception held by many can’t be ignored.
The larger issue of perception regarding this practice is that of officer presence. Since day one, it’s drilled into an officer’s head about maintaining a professional image and officer presence. Everything from the crease down your uniform to the shine on your boots has an impact on officer presence. In fact, studies have found that good officer presence and image helps serve as a deterrent. Years ago, when conducting an inmate convicted of killing a police officer during a traffic stop, they asked why he did it. The inmate replied “The officer’s boots were dirty, his uniform wrinkled and overall appearance was sloppy, and he just did not seem alert and professional”. According to this killer, the officer’s appearance emboldened him, making him more confident that he would be able to succeed in his offense. Projecting an appearance of not being on the ball could mean the difference between inviting an attack and deterring one.
If an officer responds to a call or conducts a traffic stop, and they are encounter a dangerous individual, how would it be perceived by said such individual if this officer is plain- clothed? Would they be emboldened to carry their actions further?
Another issue regarding perception is legitimacy of the officer. In years past, there have been police impersonators stop people on the highway and commit rape. In the day and age of being able to buy a badge, lights, surplus police cars and decals, it’s not unreasonable for someone being stopped to question and worry if the person getting out the vehicle is not wearing a uniform. Based on events that have taken place before, this is not an unreasonable fear or suspicion if faced with a marked unit but no uniform.
One other major issue that should be addressed regarding perception is the fact these policies give the officer discretion whether or not they “want to respond”. If an officer is in a marked unit off- duty at an intersection, and somebody blows through a red light for example, and they choose not to respond by conducting a traffic stop, how would this be perceived by the public? They have just witnessed a blatant violation in front of a marked unit, which failed to respond. They don’t know whether or not the patrol vehicle is “on or off- duty,” they simply know they just saw an officer fail to respond. This is not a perception that would serve the department well.
Separation of the Job and Home
On day one, it is often hard- pressed into cadets the importance of not taking your work home. Once you go 10-7 you turn the radio off and are home with your family. It is taught to not allow the job to interfere or take over daily home life. A healthy balance between work as a law enforcement officer and home is a fine balance- and failure to do so often consumes many officers ultimately leading to heartache, turmoil, and relationship issues. Yes, being an officer is a “24/7” job in the sense that if something catastrophic is taking place, or someone needs help, an off- duty officer will respond. This, however, is very different then taking on routine calls for service and conducting stops while 10-7. If off- duty officers are driving marked units as POV’s while conducting personal affairs, it obligates them to respond to things more often than not- and most certainly intrudes into private life, blurring the lines between work life and home life. This no doubt will only lead to further strained relations for many if they choose to go this route.
In conclusion, this is a very complex issue and one that goes much deeper than simply being more visible and having more officers on the ready. It comes with a massive host of serious issues that should be examined closely, and considered from many angles. While it may seem like a good idea at first, and some might think the “pros outweigh the cons”, it is clear this practice comes with extremely serious and potentially grave consequences. Every department practicing such a policy or considering in doing so, should take a hard look into whether they truly have anything to gain in doing so.
Nick is a former Arizona police officer and deputy. He is a Kaplan University Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security graduate, graduating with highest honors. Nick is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, The National Society of Collegiate Scholars, the Golden Key International Honor Society, Alpha Betta Kappa Honor Society, and Alpha Phi Sigma Criminal Justice Honor Society. He has appeared as an expert commentator on Fox News Radio, and has been published in academic journals as well as Police One. Nick Can be reached on his public Facebook page,
or at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Dialn0911
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