The fatal shooting of an off-duty federal agent apparently by a retired police officer in Seaford Dec. 31 is the sort of potentially deadly confrontation involving out-of-uniform officers that happens often, according to documents and experts.
"Those confrontations occur every day, and while most are defused without injury, each contains the seed of tragedy," concluded a 2011 report from the New York State Task Force on Police-on-Police Shootings.
And the nature of the job means these cases will keep occurring, said John Grebert, executive director of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police. "As long as there's so much violence, so many guns, [off-duty] police officers are going to want to carry a gun and at some point help out some other cop who's in a bad situation."
While there are no statistics on the frequency of such encounters, the report said, "There are a lot of anecdotes."
There was the former New York State trooper who said that while making an undercover drug bust, he was faced down by a local officer responding to a 911 call that mistook the arrest for an armed robbery.
And there was the former NYPD lieutenant who was working patrol in Brooklyn when he encountered a disorderly, intoxicated man who made a motion toward his pocket. As he was about to squeeze the trigger, the lieutenant said, several men, apparently intoxicated, came out of a nearby bar with raised police shields and said the man was an off-duty officer.
One unidentified sergeant told the task force that "the vast majority of such incidents are simply resolved 'on the street' " and not reported.
Confrontations rarely fatal
While numerous, such confrontations are rarely fatal, said the report, which came out in May. Nationwide, there were 26 fatal shootings of a nonuniformed officer by another officer between 1981 and 2009, averaging one a year, but sometimes none in one year and three the following year, the report said.
"We found that fatal police-on-police shootings are merely the tip of an iceberg of confrontations between on-duty police officers (usually in uniform) and their off-duty, plainclothes, or undercover counterparts," the report said.
Most of the fatal shootings were by on-duty officers. "Many of these deaths are preventable," the report concluded.
The task force was created by then-Gov. David Paterson after two cases in which black police officers -- one in New York City and one in Yonkers -- were taking police action while off-duty and were mistakenly killed by other officers.
The Seaford shooting differed in that the victim, John Capano, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was white and that he was killed by a bullet fired from the gun of a retired officer.
Nationwide, most local governments allow law enforcement retirees to have weapons, although they must get a carry permit in many jurisdictions.
And federal legislation in 2004 gave the right of both retired and off-duty officers to carry their weapons to other states as long as they have updated firearms training and comply with local laws.
Retired Massachusetts state trooper Ronald Scott, a specialist in firearms issues, said he knows some retirees who always carry their firearms and others who don't.
"I've lived in Phoenix for 13 years now and I haven't taken it [his weapon] out of the house more than two times," he said. "I feel that the use of a gun by a retired police officer is more of a headache than a help."
Stricter rules for retirees
Wayne Fisher, director of The Police Institute at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, said regulations about retired officers should be even stricter than for active-duty officers. "They're not police officers," he said. "They're not doing police work day in and day out. They ought to be even more careful getting involved."
The Seaford case has renewed debate in law-enforcement circles, in part because it came less than a year after a plainclothes on-duty Nassau County police officer, Geoffrey Breitkopf, was mistakenly shot and killed by a uniformed MTA officer at a crime scene in Massapequa Park.
Most experts agreed that more annual, hands-on training would be a help, but most existing training has been left up to local police agencies.
"When we draw on the range, we all yell: 'Police! Don't move!' It reinforces the need to shout the command," said William Brooks, chief of police in Wellesley, Mass. "The problem is that it is up to individual agencies to incorporate the training."
Training in firearms use
The task force report said such cases "can and often do escalate quickly" when training has been lacking, protocols are unclear and the officers are from different police agencies.
Retired NYPD hostage negotiator Frank Bolz of Dix Hills said it is more imperative to train officers who usually work in uniform because they are more accustomed than detectives and plainclothes officers to being recognized as officers and might not be immediately aware of the additional danger when drawing their weapons while off-duty.
But training cannot prevent some tragedies, Bolz said. "Not too many people have had the opportunity, or the misfortune, to have a shot fired in anger," Bolz said. "That creates a tremendous adrenaline rush. How are you ever going to deal with that? I don't know. People smarter than me have to figure that out."
The Nassau County Police Department said its officers undergo 12 hours of refresher training in firearms annually and a portion is devoted to officer-on-officer confrontations where at least one of the officers is in street clothes or off-duty.
The Suffolk County Police Department said that in the wake of the Seaford shooting, it will make a training video on such cases part of its annual firearms refresher course, and it reissued to all officers a copy of its training bulletin on "Off-Duty and Plain Clothes Police Encounters."
The New York State agency responsible for overseeing the training of most local police and peace officers, the Municipal Police Training Council, issued new regulations 14 months ago that required enhanced training in such incidents for new recruits but no requirement for annual refresher training.
Others are unsure what lessons, if any, can be drawn from the Seaford shooting, given the unusual circumstances. "What could you possibly do, at a policy level? Any policy or training solution tool would probably . . . have nothing to do with the facts of this case," said William A. Geller, an author and public safety expert from Glenview, Ill. "If you had a blank check and you could do all the training you wanted based on this incident, what would you tell officers to do differently?"
Proposed protocols for law enforcement officers taking action while not in uniform:
Officers taking off-duty action:
1. Only intervene to protect human safety.
2. If possible, call 911 or inform dispatcher before taking action.
3. Display your police shield prominently.
4. Identify yourself frequently and loudly as a police officer.
1. Be aware that a criminal suspect might actually be a fellow officer.
2. If possible, take cover.
3. Shout: "Police! Don't move!"
4. Broaden your visual focus beyond the suspect's weapon to see whether there are indications, such as a badge, that you are dealing with another officer.
Nonuniformed officer being challenged:
1. Don't move.
2. Avoid the usual reflex of spinning around to see who is challenging you.
3. Identify yourself loudly as a police officer.
4. Obey the commands of the confronting officer.
SOURCE: Report of the New York State Task Force on Police-on-Police Shootings, May 2011