The dilemma of being armed and off duty

Baltimore officer's death stirs debate on police weapons policy

April 26, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

Even off duty, a cop is still a cop.

That's the policy of the Baltimore City Police Department and many other forces around the country, and it's the reason Officer Norman M. Stamp was carrying his gun while out drinking with friends Wednesday night. He was shot and killed in the parking lot of an East Baltimore strip club early Thursday after he drew his weapon. The on-duty police officer who killed him didn't know he was a colleague.

Most police departments expect or at least allow their officers to carry guns while off duty, the idea being that they should be able to swing into action if they see something illegal. Those policies sometimes contribute to tragic ends, such as in Stamp's case, but law-enforcement officials say the risk of leaving officers unarmed can be great.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's editions about police shootings misidentified the spokesman for the Annapolis Police Department. His name is Hal Dalton.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

"It's a double-edged sword," said Hal Dutton, a spokesman for the Annapolis Police Department, where the choice to carry a weapon off duty is discretionary. "Our general rules say that if we encounter an emergency situation like a serious crime in progress, we're expected to take action - so if you're not armed, that can be pretty difficult."

In Baltimore, sworn police officers "shall be suitably armed" when off duty within the city limits, the department's rules say, except when they are engaged in activities - swimming, say, or playing softball - in which wearing a gun would be impractical. They are allowed to carry a weapon elsewhere in Maryland but are not required to.

Many police agencies - though not Baltimore's - invoke the adage that guns and booze do not mix and specifically forbid off-duty officers from carrying their weapons into bars and other establishments that serve alcohol. The Annapolis department is one of them.

In Carroll County, Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning said yesterday that he subscribes to the idea that being off duty means just that, and therefore does not obligate deputies to be armed at all times. If one of his deputies chooses to carry a weapon while off duty, he must also carry his badge and credentials.

In California, state law assumes that off-duty officers will be armed and gives them so-called "peace officer authority" whenever they see that a public offense has been committed, according to the Los Angeles Police Department's regulations, posted on its Web site.

Off-duty officers have often stopped violent crimes by drawing their weapons. For example, Kenneth Hammond, 33, of the Ogden, Utah, police department was having dinner with his pregnant wife, Sarita, at a restaurant in a Salt Lake City mall on Feb. 19, 2007, when 18-year-old gunman Sulejman Talovic opened fire, killing five people and wounding nine.

Hammond, who was carrying his off-duty weapon, a .45-caliber handgun in a so-called pancake holster under his shirt, jumped to his feet and drew the gunman's attention until other officers arrived and shot and killed the suspect.

In Baltimore, police point to an incident last year in which two off-duty officers at a strip club thwarted an armed holdup and fatally shot one of the attackers.

But in other instances, the use of weapons by off-duty police has drawn scrutiny and criticism. A Chicago Tribune probe of off-duty shootings of civilians in that city over the past decade found that some officers had been drinking at bars and nightclubs before the shootings - much as Stamp was in Baltimore early Thursday.

"Some were in traffic disputes," the Dec. 6 article said. "Others were quarreling over women or fighting in the street."

About one-quarter of police shootings each year in Chicago occur while officers are off duty, out of uniform and often engaged in nothing that resembles police work, the Tribune said, adding that those officers rarely face serious punishment.

In March, an off-duty San Diego police officer shot a woman and her 8-year-old son after a traffic altercation in a shopping center parking lot, officials said. One round struck the boy in his knee, and two others struck the woman in the arm, a report in The North County Times said.

Also in March, according to news accounts, a 42-year-old off-duty Detroit police officer was arrested and charged with hitting his girlfriend with a baseball bat and firing three shots from his service revolver. No one was struck, and the officer surrendered when police arrived.

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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