According to a 2010 report from a New York State Task Force, incidents of police-on-police shootings occurred 26 times between 1981 and 2009. Even with a recent line-of-duty death in San Francisco in late January, such accidental violence remains thankfully rare. Law enforcement agencies provide training to prevent these deadly events, but human error and unusual circumstances can still lead to tragedy.
Accidents are preventable, but require foresight
Public safety training includes extensive instruction on protocol, whether officers are off-duty, undercover, in plainclothes or uniformed. According to The Police Chief, about 75 percent of agencies say officers receive basic training in the police academy. Of those agencies, more than half report individuals were subject to additional in-house training. However, 12 percent stated that no such training was provided by the individual agency, meaning that training never evolved beyond the most basic level offered at the academy.
In instances where training was completed, the information was not always applicable to real-life scenarios. Officers follow specific protocols to identify themselves to each other, especially when out of uniform. However, unanticipated subtlety and surprise may get in the way of those procedures, leading to tragedy.
“You can train for a lot of possibilities, but there’s always the impossible that occurs that you didn’t train for,” Don Cameron, a former California officer who now trains officers, told The San Francisco Chronicle. “There’s one variable that wasn’t there in the training, and you never know what it is. Unfortunately, when the scenario comes up, it’s like, ‘Whoa, we didn’t train for this.'”
Agencies must learn from past mistakes
Identifying areas where improvements can be made is the first step toward revamping training practices. For example, when statistical trends and shooting simulators inferred that race may influence police-on-police accidents, the New York State Task Force recommended altering the training plan to emphasize diversity and rational decision-making. In addition to increasing the diversity within the law enforcement units themselves, these variables were addressed through changes to testing and training practices.
Since the report, several of the recommendations were implemented in some capacity, and New York City officials have reason to believe the new system is working. According to The New York Times, internal investigations into all police shootings found that nearly 90 percent of incidents in 2012 occurred within formal guidelines. Additionally, the number of fatal shootings involving police officers declined in 2013. Other cities report similar trends.
“It’s our goal to make sure that the investigation [of a police-on-police shooting] looks at every aspect of the incident, from start to finish, for anything that can be improved as far as tactics, safety or any other matter,” Mark Smith, and independent auditor for BART Police Department, told The San Francisco Chronicle.
Identifying off-duty or plainclothes officers is a critical skill
According to The Police Chief magazine, about 83 percent of “blue-on-blue” incidents involve an off-duty officer. Nearly half of these incidents include an undercover or plainclothes officer. To address these trends, some agencies incorporate out-of-uniform encounters into training programs, helping officers to see beyond the firearm to assess if the person holding a gun is a threat.
“A lot of shooters will work on shooting fast, but they don’t work on discrimination. Your target discrimination skills have to be on par with your shooting skills,” Paul Howe, a combat instructor and Army veteran, told Officer.com. “We teach our shooters to first observe the whole person, then the hands and the waistline. Shooters must take in the entire situation, not just, ‘Is he holding a gun?'”
A challenge protocol is one way to determine whether an individual with a gun is a friend or foe. Officers “challenge” the unknown individual, informing him or her of their presence and status as law enforcement, all while maintaining a positional advantage. According to The Police Chief, this etiquette is an effective way of identifying a fellow officer on the scene.
Training to prevent blue-on-blue shootings goes beyond the academy
Preparation may begin at the police academy, but significant gaps in knowledge grow without further practice for officers. Continuous training is needed to keep skills sharp enough to avoid blue-on-blue deaths, and that training should be consistent across local, state and federal curricula. Should multiple agencies arrive on the scene, everyone present needs to know how a fellow officer will react.
“The most important way to stop [police-on-police violence] is planning,” Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor who has participated in blue-on-blue shooting studies, told The San Francisco Chronicle. “The more communication and more training you have, the less likely this is going to occur.”
While the majority of prevention tactics will focus on the individual officer, The Police Chief magazine noted that family members should be trained as well. If they accompany an officer into an emergency situation, or see a family member on duty in plainclothes, loved ones need to be aware of how to react. Unfortunately, this is not something that can be easily taught at the police academy, which means agencies will have to take the lead with outreach programs to inform these individuals about what to do.
There is a time and a place for off-duty officers to intervene, and law enforcement officials are taught to survey the scene to determine how they would be most useful. There are instances where having a reputable witness is more important than putting oneself in harm’s way, and these circumstances should be known by officers and their family members to avoid miscommunication.
These scenarios create challenges for training coordinators because many variables are not known during the preparation and planning stages. As a result, the best agencies can do is build off of past events to equip officers with the knowledge and procedures needed to make informed decisions in the heat of the moment.
Preventing blue-on-blue shootings is a complex problem. Instruction must be reinforced over time for officers to be able to carry out proper procedures when encountering peers in the field, regardless of their role. These protocols extend beyond the individual officer to include family members and other agencies who could negatively impact the outcome of such incidents. Law enforcement duties are dangerous enough without turning an ally into a threat. For all, continuous and consistent training is essential to officer safety and survival.
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- Officer Safety during Police-on-Police Encounters (Spawn, 2010)
- Police-on-police killings rare, hard to avert with training (Lee, 2014)
- Blue on Blue Shootings (Markel, 2013)
- Reducing Inherent Danger: Report of the Task Force on Police-on-Police Shootings (Stone et al, 2010)
- Force Science® Institute, Ltd. News Issue #216 (Letters to the Editor, 2012)
- Report Documents a Rise in Fatal Shootings by New York City’s Police Officers (Goodman, 2013)