If you ever hear the command “Police, don’t move!” or “Police, stop!” spoken in a loud and authoritative tone, know that you could be seconds away from losing your life if you fail to react appropriately — and for good reason: These commands were designed for law enforcement officers to distinguish between undercover or off-duty law enforcement officers and everyone else.
An officer knows how to respond appropriately to these commands to avoid being perceived as a threat. While law enforcement officers are trained for this, most legally armed citizens lack training and experience. They risk mistaking a plainclothes or off-duty officer for a criminal or being mistaken by responding officers for an armed attacker. That’s why it is vital to know how to respond appropriately in these kinds of situations.
Evolution of Commands
During the 20th century, tragic events occurred in which law enforcement officers armed with handguns and wearing “civilian” clothes were accidentally shot and killed by fellow officers. These incidents occurred because the officers who encountered out-of-uniform colleagues believed they were engaging armed criminals and not fellow officers.
In order to prevent such incidents from occurring, the law enforcement profession developed training protocols to focus on how to react to perceived threats as well as how to react when a plainclothes law enforcement officer is challenged by other sworn personnel. The phrase “Police, don’t move!” became the universally accepted command to use when an officer challenged anyone who was deemed by circumstances to be a potential threat. An important part of this officer-survival training included a set of easy-to-remember instructions on how to act and react when challenged.
The phrase “Police, don’t move!” became the universally accepted command to use when an officer challenged anyone who was deemed by circumstances to be a potential threat.
On the receiving end of a challenge, off- or on-duty law enforcement officers who were out of uniform were also instructed how to react to being challenged. This was especially crucial in situations when an off- or on-duty law enforcement officer in private-citizen attire had taken enforcement action and displayed his or her firearm. The following protocols were included:
- When armed and displaying a firearm while off duty, or while working plainclothes, including and especially while performing any enforcement action, you must be prepared to be challenged by other on-duty or off-duty law enforcement officers.
- While out of uniform, you must always display your badge whenever you take action and display a firearm.
- The command “Police, don’t move!” (or some other variation, such as “Federal agent, don’t move!,” “U.S. Customs, don’t move!,” “State police, don’t move!,” “Sheriff’s Office, don’t move!,” and so forth) is a recognized command that relays in no uncertain terms that you are being challenged and you must not move. Failure to react appropriately to this command means that you will likely be viewed as a threat.
Prior to this training, the natural response of an officer out of uniform being challenged by uniformed officers was to immediately turn toward them and say, “Hey, I’m a cop.” Unfortunately, between the stress of engaging in an armed encounter and distractions caused by approaching sirens, flashing lights and street noise, all the responding police officers might see in a situation like this is someone who has a firearm turning toward them. Once that action is viewed to be a perceived threat, the challenging officers could respond by using deadly force, only to later find out that the person they engaged was not an armed criminal.
Human beings have evolved over time to react to certain threats in certain ways in order to maximize chances of survival.
During a more serious threat, a reaction commonly known as “tunnel vision” can automatically take over. It is your body’s way of fine-tuning your response to certain perceived or actual threats. Anyone who has ever experienced tunnel vision knows that you lose clarity on just about everything that’s happening around you in order to concentrate on what needs to be accomplished — which is to ensure your survival. In fact, once tunnel vision sets in, you will likely not feel pain or be distracted by noise or certain verbal exchanges until the effects of tunnel vision begin to dissipate.
To ensure survival, law enforcement officers are trained to react in certain specific ways — depending on the circumstances — when challenged. In addition to not making any sudden moves or facing anyone who is challenging him or her while he or she is holding a firearm, an off-duty officer is instructed to use a loud voice when identifying himself or herself and to display his or her badge to responding law enforcement officers as they arrive on scene.
Anyone who has ever experienced tunnel vision knows that you lose clarity on just about everything that’s happening around you in order to concentrate on what needs to be accomplished.
However, situations can get dicey if an officer is challenged by surprise when he or she is taking enforcement action and wearing private-citizen attire. This can easily happen to an undercover officer or an on- or off-duty officer who is not in uniform but also to a private citizen who intervenes during the commission of a serious crime.
A legally armed private citizen lacks law enforcement experience and credentials and (obviously) thus cannot identify himself or herself as an active-duty or retired law enforcement officer. Moreover, he or she certainly means well but almost just as certainly lacks the specialized training required to intervene in such a circumstance.
Even though this type of law enforcement training has been modified over the years, the basic tenets remain the same. “Police, don’t move!” was adopted during my career, but law enforcement officers in my oldest son’s generation were trained to use the phrase, “Police, stop!” Regardless of which generation you’re in, the message is the same.
Today, law enforcement officers are trained to holster their firearms as soon as possible when they are off-duty or operating plainclothes. Law enforcement officers of my generation were also taught to place their firearms on the ground if need be, especially when law enforcement units arrived at the scene. This would be especially applicable if an officer in question was kneeling or taking cover, recovering from struggling with a suspect, or actively exchanging gunfire when units responded.
Clearly, some of this training can and should be used by legally armed citizens. Two of the most potentially dangerous encounters that any armed individual might face are an active shooter situation or when a violent criminal is being detained at gunpoint. The latter scenario includes a situation when a homeowner encounters an intruder and is holding him or her at gunpoint until the police arrive.
Unlike the so-called “good old days” — when pay phones were the only way to call 911 when you were away from your residence or workplace — cellphones make it possible to contact emergency services as events occur. If you are forced to draw or display a firearm and challenge or actually engage anyone who is confirmed to be involved in criminal activity, you should immediately call 911, preferably before you take action.
When you contact 911, your first priority should be to identify yourself and state the facts as succinctly as possible. Provide your name, location, if you are armed (and a description of the gun) and a description of yourself. It is equally important to describe the criminal(s) involved and the situation at hand. Provide the type of firearm with which the criminal is armed; his or her race, build and estimated height; his or her hair color and length; what clothing he or she is wearing; his or her age; and the location of the individual. The more details the better.
If you are forced to draw or display a firearm and challenge or actually engage anyone who is confirmed to be involved in criminal activity, you should immediately call 911.
If you are holding the person at gunpoint, note this as well to the dispatcher. To ensure your preparedness for situations like this, you should practice engaging targets at varying distances one-handed while holding your cellphone up to your ear. (This type of training is best done under the supervision of a qualified instructor.)
If you are forced to discharge a firearm, you should holster that firearm as soon as the threat at which you were firing is no longer present. Again, remain on the phone with the dispatcher so he or she can relay information to the responding units. In other situations, you should place your firearm on the hood of a vehicle or flat surface. As the police arrive, keep your hands in plain view — with palms open — to show that you are not armed and are not a threat. Immediately identify yourself. For example, say, “I called 911. My name is Nick. I have a concealed carry license. My firearm is on top of the refrigerator.”
Respond the Right Way
Never fail to put yourself in the shoes of the law enforcement officers or the legally armed private citizens who respond to the scene and challenge you. In other words, if you are ever forced to shoot in defense of self or others, or even display a firearm, you must consider how others will view your behavior. The best way to prevent a “friendly fire” incident is to keep your head on a swivel and remember that when someone announces that he or she is a law enforcement officer and orders you not to move, that is not the time to spin around to look at whoever said that. It is time to not move and await that officer’s instructions.
Once that initial moment passes — once that officer understands that you are not a violent criminal — only then can you start sorting out the particulars.