A recent news report from Colorado provides a real-life illustration of a little-discussed off-duty problem that a southern police chief spoke about at the IACP’s annual conference last fall. An officer for a small Rocky Mountain town reportedly got into a late-night squabble with neighbors while he was off duty because they were “too loud.”
Tempers flared, the exchange “grew heated,” and the officer allegedly shoved one of the participants in the spat, injuring that subject’s wrist.
“At some point during the incident,” the news story states, the off-duty cop “identified himself as a police officer.” And that’s when his problems potentially escalated to a whole different level.
In an emotional off-duty confrontation, it can be tempting to invoke your police status and “take care of business” in an effort to bring matters to an emphatic halt. But that’s a temptation founded on quicksand. You’re far better off taking a deep breath and backing off, even if you have to take some lumps to your ego in the process, says Chief Louis Dekmar of the LaGrange (Ga.) P.D.
Dekmar, chairman of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, participated in a panel on “Current Issues in Use of Force” during the IACP conference and elaborated on his remarks afterward in an interview with PoliceOne.
“As soon as you say ‘police’ when you’re off duty, you are now acting ‘under the color of law,’ ” Dekmar explains. “This potentially creates liability for you and your agency and, among other things, may open up the opportunity for a federal 1983 Civil Rights action. If there’s an injury, you can be sure there’s going to be a lawsuit.
“The burden will be placed on you to articulate why you had a compelling reason to act in your official capacity. If your judgment was impaired because of emotion or alcohol, your position becomes all the more difficult. In court, you’ll have to defend your conduct and you’ll be on trial rather than the person who perhaps should be.”
If you find yourself in an emotional confrontation off duty — and “everyone does, going through the course of life,” Dekmar says — “you need to recognize that this is a personal matter, not a police matter.
“If there’s a violation of law involved, you are not the right person to make the decision on how to enforce the law if you are a party to the dispute. If you act, you jeopardize the integrity of the investigation, in effect. Unless you’re in imminent danger of serious injury or death, you’re best off doing what ordinary citizens should do: call the police.”
Agencies, Dekmar says, “need to communicate their off-duty expectations” to their personnel in the form of official policy. His department’s policy states, in part, that off-duty officers “must consciously evaluate whether [their] involvement is necessary or desirable, given the circumstances, and after determining the importance and urgency for officer intervention.”
He has had “very candid conversations” with his officers on the subject and they understand that the agency will not be supportive when they overstep boundaries in personal clashes.
As for the Colorado officer mentioned in the news report, he has been charged with third-degree assault. If convicted, he could face up to 18 months in jail and/or $5,000 in fines. At this writing, no civil action has yet resulted.