Off-duty police navigate ‘gray area’ of when to intervene in potential crimes
Duane Fisher had the day off, so he wasn’t wearing his police uniform.
Then in his mid-20s, Fisher has just finished doing laundry and was heading out to meet friends in South Fayette when he heard something that jolted him — the blast of a gun firing not more than 75 feet away.
Fisher turned toward the source of the gunshot and saw two men outside a business. One was lying on the ground, writhing in pain.
The other man jumped into a car and sped off.
“The first thing I did, like any off-duty officer if they’re not in their home jurisdiction, is to be a good witness,” Fisher, now chief of Allegheny Township police, recalled of that indelible incident nearly 20 years ago, when he was employed as a Mt. Lebanon police officer. “I immediately called 911, let them know that I was there and described myself and that I’m in plain clothes.“
Fisher took note of as many details as he could to describe the fleeing man and his car. After alerting 911 dispatchers, he rushed over to the victim. Fisher performed first aid until medics arrived and took the wounded young man to the hospital.
For Fisher, encountering the shooting demonstrated a clear-cut need for intervention until local police could get there.
‘Never really off duty’
The line between taking action and backing off while off duty is not always so clear.
“It’s a very, very challenging set of facts and circumstances for individuals to work through when they’re off duty,” Penn Township police Chief John Otto said. “The good ones will insert themselves when the time is right.”
The investigation continues into last week’s killing of 36-year-old Pittsburgh police Officer Calvin Hall, who was shot three times in the back about 1:30 a.m. July 14 while off duty at a block party at a friend’s house in the city’s Homewood neighborhood. The Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Hall’s death a homicide.
Family members of Hall told the Tribune-Review that it appears an argument had broken out at one of the house parties and spilled onto the street, and Hall was trying to de-escalate the situation when he was shot.
Police have not named suspects or released further details. It’s not clear whether Hall was armed or precisely how many people were involved in the altercation. Police detained several witnesses the morning of the incident and took into custody “a person of interest” who lives on the street of the shooting on an unrelated charge.
Pittsburgh police Chief Scott Schubert said the initial investigation shows that Hall appeared to be “acting under the color of the law.”
“Whether on duty or off duty, they’re still an officer, and they’re still trying to protect us,” Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said Wednesday outside UPMC Presbyterian hospital, hours after Hall died of his gunshot wounds.
On April 4, 2009 — the deadliest single day in the history of Pittsburgh police — Officers Eric Kelly, Stephen Mayhle and Paul Sciullo II were gunned down while responding to a domestic dispute in Stanton Heights.
Kelly was off duty when he rushed over to assist fellow officers.
In 1995, Pittsburgh police Sgt. James Taylor was killed by a 17-year-old boy while he was off duty in the city’s Lincoln-Lemington neighborhood. Taylor was confronting a group of youths vandalizing the street and sidewalk with graffiti when one of the teens took Taylor’s gun, shot him and ran off with the weapon.
Just last month, two off-duty police officers were killed in separate incidents in southeastern Wisconsin. In one incident, a Racine officer jumped over a bar to try to stop an armed robbery at a tavern. In the other, a Milwaukee officer was struck and killed by a speeding driver who ran a red light.
A police officer is “never really off duty,” said Dom Costa, a retired state lawmaker, 27-year law enforcement veteran and former Pittsburgh police chief. “If there’s something going on, it’s your job to intercede if you have the ability to do so. You took an oath to protect the peace.”
Each officer must make that decision using their training and experience, Costa said. Often, it can be “a very gray area, when you get involved and when you don’t,” Costa said.
An off-duty officer likely will wait until a certain threshold has been crossed to intervene while witnessing a potential crime, said Otto of the Penn Township department. In other cases, community members who know an officer will request help from that person, even if they are out of uniform.
“I can work a 3-to-11 shift and take the family to a movie early. And I will get four or five phone calls from people,” Leechburg police Chief Jason Schaeffer said.
Guidelines for off-duty policing
Typically, sworn members of law enforcement retain most powers while off duty, including the right to make arrests and use force if there is an imminent threat or danger of bodily harm.
“As police officers, we’re prepared for it,” Schaeffer said.
In Pennsylvania, even when outside one’s law enforcement agency’s boundaries, “if there’s any type of crime where there is a misdemeanor level or felony level crime, under the municipal police jurisdiction act, officers can take action,” Fisher said. “But as soon as practicable, they are to turn over to the presiding local jurisdiction.”
Many local policies discourage off-duty officers from getting involved — especially in circumstances involving neighbors, family or other conflicts of interest — unless there is an urgent need to prevent harm or make an arrest.
“You can encounter anything from a fight or a domestic disturbance, whether you’re out in public or within a business, perhaps,” Fisher said. “Unless there is imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death, it’s best to let the more objective authorities that have primary jurisdiction handle the case..”
Some policies say that officers should identify themselves as off-duty police as soon as they begin to intervene, but Fisher said not every situation allows time for that.
“If somebody is acting hostile, you’re not going to stop and pull your badge and try to talk. You may have to take immediate action,” Fisher said. “Things can happen so quickly. Things can, in a split-second, change from perfectly calm to catastrophic.”
The University of Pittsburgh’s police manual cautions, “Off-duty officers are often faced with situations involving criminal conduct that they are neither equipped nor prepared to handle in the same manner as if they were on duty. This may lead to unnecessary injuries to off-duty officers, and confusion for those on-duty officers arriving at the scene trying to correctly assess the facts,” the policy states.
“A fair amount of police carry a weapon off-duty, a firearm or something, and so they’re prepared to take action if necessary,” Fisher said. “But the biggest concern you have is being recognized — whether it’s by the people that are conducting the act or the bystanders or even by other responding police — that you are, in fact, an officer and you are taking action off duty.”
The Little Rock, Ark.-based National Criminal Justice Institute warns of not attempting “to intervene in neighborhood quarrels or disputes involving their neighbors.”
“These disputes shall be handled by disinterested persons, and the officer assigned to patrol the area shall be called when necessary,” the model policy states.“Officers shall not make arrests in their personal quarrels or those of their family or neighbors unless such action is warranted by the immediate threat of serious bodily harm or property damage.”
Costa said an officer probably should intervene if they get that nagging thought, “I need to do something here or this is going to get ugly.”
“We live and breathe the job most of the time,” said Marcia Cole, a former police officer for Pittsburgh and Arnold who runs training programs at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania police academy. “Officers are going to react to diffuse situations.”
Remembering Officer Hall
Staff writers Tom Davidson, Chuck Biedka and Renatta Signorini contributed.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .