Some 25 years ago, while I was a deputy sheriff with the Union County, Ohio, Sheriff’s Office, I had an opportunity to assist a Newark, Ohio, police officer who was chasing what I later learned to be an armed robbery suspect. This encounter reinforced what I had been teaching my police cadets concerning off-duty encounters. And it provides a bit of insight into some of the dynamics involved in intervening in ongoing law enforcement situations as an off-duty law enforcement officer or a lawfully armed citizen.
In a 40-year law enforcement career, I’ve only had two opportunities to assist uniformed officers in making arrests using an off-duty firearm. Situations like that just don’t happen all that often, but when they do happen, you need to be ready. It is crucial to know the proper response as an off-duty officer in street clothes or a plainclothes detective assisting uniformed officers in jurisdictions where you’re an unknown. It is one thing to be off duty in your own jurisdiction and assist an officer from your own agency. It’s quite another to be a “stranger in a strange land” while trying to do the right thing — for cops or private citizens.
A Shopping Trip Interrupted
This encounter occurred about eight years before Ohio’s shall-issue concealed carry law passed. So, the only persons carrying guns out there were cops and crooks. Officers in those days assumed that a person running at them, gun in hand, was most likely the latter. Crooks always have and always will outnumber cops.
I’d just finished some Christmas shopping on the square in downtown Newark and was carrying a Colt 1991A1 Compact .45 in an inside-the-waistband holster. I’d just turned onto the entrance ramp to State Route 16 and was beginning to merge onto the highway. I was driving a 4×4 Toyota pickup truck, which gave me a commanding view of what was about to unfold.
I detected unusual movement out of the corner of my right eye: An individual had just hopped the chainlink freeway security fence and was running rather excitedly. The suspect was not quite dressed for December, apparently having lost some of his winter apparel while on his little jog. (Another clue that something was amiss.) He was moving roughly parallel to my direction of travel down the entrance ramp some 50 feet away from the edge. Being the nosy cop type, I quickly slowed down to a stop to better observe the unusual activity.
I detected unusual movement out of the corner of my right eye: An individual had just hopped the chainlink freeway security fence and was running rather excitedly.
I looked back toward the direction the “jogger” had come from and saw a young Newark police officer jump the fence and begin running after the suspect with his gun drawn. Obviously, I was witnessing a pretty serious situation. The older officers who had been attempting to participate in the foot pursuit stopped on the other side of the fence, doubled over, huffing and puffing and radioing to get more help. I knew the younger Newark officer would be on his own unless I assisted him.
He was chasing what was now obviously a suspect, parallel with the road and above my position, ordering the suspect to stop and get on the ground. I exited my truck, drew my .45 and began running up the hill, triangulating my position with the Newark officer, all the while yelling “SHERIFF’S OFFICE!” for both the suspect and the officer to hear, hoping to make them aware that another law enforcement officer was involved in the situation.
“Blue-on-Blue” accidental shootings sadly do happen, and incidents involving intervention by well-meaning concealed carry permit holders can happen just as easily, especially since permit holders can’t (and shouldn’t) yell something like “SHERIFF’S OFFICE” as they try to assist. As it turned out, I either wasn’t yelling loud enough for the officer to hear or he couldn’t hear me through his own adrenaline-induced auditory exclusion. The suspect, however, may have been able to hear me.
A Favorable Outcome
The Newark officer and I had closed to within 20 feet of the suspect’s still-moving position when he suddenly stopped and turned with his hands up. The officer — who was by this time breathing heavily after a long foot chase — ordered the suspect to the ground and on his stomach. Since the suspect was out of gas and had given up, and because no other officers had yet made it over the fence, we moved to handcuffing the suspect.
I told the officer I would cover the suspect while he cuffed since I didn’t have cuffs on me. I moved into position above the suspect’s head as he applied the cuffs. After the cuffs were on, the Newark officer looked up at me and puffed in a halting manner, “I sure hope … you’re a … cop.”
I smiled, holstered my .45 and told him I was a Union County Deputy Sheriff. I showed him my badge and ID, which relieved him greatly — and for good reason. The officer didn’t want to have to potentially arrest me for, well, choose any or all of the following: carrying a concealed handgun on my person, carrying a loaded firearm in a motor vehicle or brandishing a weapon after I’d been nice enough to help him apprehend a suspect who had an outstanding warrant for armed robbery.
Since the suspect was out of gas and had given up, and because no other officers had yet made it over the fence, we moved to handcuffing the suspect.
After that, the three of us — officer, deputy and suspect — stood up and were engaging in a friendly exchange about why this had all happened. None of us were upset about the incident, the foot pursuit provided me with some excitement to perk up a rather dull afternoon, and the suspect knew he had been nabbed fair and square. He explained that he’d been at a convenience store more than a mile away when a Licking County Sheriff’s cruiser passed through the lot. He knew he had the open aggravated robbery warrant and his guilty conscience got the best of him, so he panicked and ran. The sheriff’s deputy called it in, got help from Newark police officers since this occurred in their city, and the chase was on.
Finally, backup units began to roll up along the freeway, and one of them took control of the suspect. The Newark officer thanked me for the help and away we all went. With the exception of the suspect in custody, we were all happy an armed robber was off the street.
Here are some of the more salient points about the incident that are also applicable to a private citizen and a concealed carry permit holder:
• If the Newark officer had pointed his gun at me and ordered me to drop my pistol, I would have flung it to the ground without hesitation. I would always rather clean mud off of a pistol than blood — especially mine. I knew I was a good guy, but the officer had no way of knowing. The events unfolded too quickly, preventing me from getting my badge out to aid in identification.
• Even though I was yelling “SHERIFF’S OFFICE” as I joined in the chase, the Newark officer apparently didn’t hear me, otherwise he would have demanded to know my agency or see my identification rather than saying what he did. I am not sure what the suspect heard, but I knew he saw me with Colonel Colt in-hand and decided to give up, as the odds were now stacked two-to-one against him. However, never count on being heard in the heat of the moment by police officers or suspects. Auditory exclusion is a powerful protective reaction to extreme danger.
• Carefully evaluate and determine if you really need to be involved. Many years before this incident, I was in police academy training not far from where it occurred. One of the instructors, whom I admired, burst all of our collective recruit bubbles during a police response presentation. The sergeant told us that after we completed our training and were actually working officers, our best off-duty response to a crime — such as witnessing a bank robbery in progress — might be nothing. Simply be a good witness rather than attempt to intervene. This meant — and we couldn’t even imagine such a thing — not drawing our concealed off-duty handguns and intervening with deadly force. It took a few years before his advice really sank in. Assessing a situation and making your best determination as to what is really happening is critical for your safety and the safety of anyone else present. Waiting just a few moments for the clearest picture of what is going on could save everyone a lot of trouble. It also reduces the risk of unnecessary injury to all parties involved.
In my case, if I had observed the other officers jumping the fence along with the younger officer and continuing the pursuit as a team, I would have had no reason to get involved. The only reason I did was because I clearly saw that the Newark officer was alone and facing a potentially dangerous suspect. While my temporary partner fortunately did not see me as a threat, there is no guarantee that someone in a group of officers wouldn’t have reacted differently with a potentially tragic outcome. And, unlike the Newark officer, I was not wearing body armor.
Intervening in the affairs of someone else is one of the riskiest actions a person can take. And doing it for all the right reasons won’t make a difference in what might happen. In my case, the incident turned out very well. And had I not been a law enforcement officer at the time, there might have been consequences for my well-intended actions.
Fortunately for me though, the stars were all in alignment that day.