By Detective (Retired) Martin Swirko Manchester, NH PD
A recent discussion that I had on a FaceBook group chat got me thinking about the issue of off duty arrests and reminded me about several events that I had become involved with over the years when I was off duty.
The topic of getting involved with off duty incidents when you make the decision to identify yourself as a police officer and then use your police authority when you are not on duty was never a simple decision to make for many reasons. The more obvious rationale for this include the fact that you are usually in civilian clothes, people may not recognize you to be a cop even if you identify yourself as one, and you have no back up and may be unarmed.
When I was still working, the police department I worked for had a written policy about using your police powers when you are off duty. Basically, they discouraged it. The stated policy as I recall it said that unless the incident you get involved with was serious, we should not get involved and gave some options available to us if we happen to see a minor crime or incident occur while we are not on duty. During my time as a union rep, I saw more than a few cops I worked with who, for whatever reason, got involved with an off duty arrest or confrontation, and the department went after them and tried to discipline them for their trouble. I called bullshit on that and the official discouragement by the PD to prevent cops from acting appropriately off duty when the need arose. Beyond that, there are reasons why police officers powers of arrest are not limited to the time they are officially on duty. Those reasons include personal safety of the officer, that officer’s family, as well as overall public safety. I lost track of the number of times I’ve been threatened by the people I’ve arrested, the number of threats made against my family. I also know that my both I and my family have been stalked and placed under the surveillance by members of a drug distribution organization and who knows how many times that has happened throughout my career that I don’t know about.
As time went on during my career, I made the decision to start carrying my weapon off duty more and more often. One reason that did that involved an off duty Manchester detective who, on his way home from the day shift, stopped at the Cumberland Farms on Webster St. and found himself interrupting a robbery. I also decided that after seeing the guy on the Long Island Railroad walking up and down the train car shooting innocent people, stopping to reload while passengers and their loves ones cowered and quivered waiting for their turn to be executed. When I was with my family in places like Boston or New York, on the subway, wherever, I was not going to allow myself or me family to be slaughtered like sheep if I could help it.
One problem was, as cool as it may sound to some people to be able to carry a gun whenever you want, it was often uncomfortable and not always practical to do so. That was especially true in the hot weather when you may not be wearing a jacket or long pants. I remember going to a Mets game at the old Shea Stadium in Queens, and when I approached the entrance before I was searched I found a cop, identified myself and told him I was an out of town cop and carrying my pistol. I was kind of taken aback when the cop asked me with a straight face why I felt the need to be carrying at all. I asked him if he carried a gun off duty, he told me he always did so I just responded by saying “well, there you go.” He didn’t say anything else and just let me go in with my pistol, which of course was concealed.
I found NYPD cops in particular to be very friendly when it came to out of town cops being armed when visiting their city off duty. One time I was in Battery Park with my then 14 year old daughter, along with a friend and his 14 year old son. I wanted to go up to the Bronx Zoo and asked a cop if it was safe to take the subway with the kids up to the Bronx. He asked me if I was carrying (a pistol). I told him I was, and he told me then it was safe. He did caution me to get out of the Bronx before dark.
I was also involved in an arrest in Cleveland, Ohio. I was at a bar where I had to intercede and assist a Cleveland cop trying to quell a fight and was trying to make an arrest. I ended up taking his combative prisoner out of the building and holding her down on the street while the officer called for help and my brother helped him hold off the crown that surrounded him. More arrests were made. The first cop to show up was a sergeant, and as he saw me wrestling with the combative prisoner, he asked me who I was. I told him I was an off duty cop and his officer was inside and needed help. Finally, when the dust settled and I put my prisoner in the back of a cruiser, my brother and I identified ourselves as Manchester NH Police Officers. They were pretty surprised and told us they figured we were cops from one of the surrounding districts or towns. I offered to do paperwork for them for these arrests, but they declined my kind offer telling me I had done more than enough and they were thankful for our help.
As far as Manchester PD goes, the only restriction placed upon us about carrying a gun off duty was that we had to carry a gun that we had qualified with on their range. Fair enough, I always thought. However there were many off duty incidents and arrests that I was involved with over the years at times when I wasn’t carrying a gun, or handcuffs or even a radio to call for help with.
As time went on, I learned to stay away from certain places in Manchester when I was off duty because I just didn’t want to get involved. Also, I didn’t want to take the chance of getting injured nor did I look forward to the possible inquisition that I may be subjected to by the PD. Two of those places included the old Wal-Mart and the Market Basket on Elm St. here in town. It was bad enough that I was regularly responding to the Wal-Mart when on duty collecting video and other evidence of credit card and check fraud, robberies and so forth. Going into that store, which was kind of dingy and dirty, I never knew what I was going to see.
One day, I was walking down the aisle behind two guys who were having a discussion about committing a theft or thefts. One was trying to talk the other into stealing a few things that they could either sell right away or return for cash at the customer service counter. The other guy was trying to talk him out of it because he was on parole and he didn’t want get pinched and end up back in prison. I followed along and listened while looking at my watch, and I was happy when the guy on parole talked his buddy out of grabbing anything that day. Between that, domestic disputes and hit and run accidents in the parking lot, I decided to stay out of that Wal-Mart and frequent the one the next town over in Bedford. The Bedford Wal-Mart was bigger, cleaner, and besides, the customers were better looking. But, even there one day, an on duty Bedford cop came across a domestic dispute in the parking lot and when he approached the couple, the male drew down on the cop and the cop ended up shooting the male subject dead. So you never know.
As far as the Market Basket went, I was responding to that store almost daily at one point with lights and sirens to assist the store detectives who were getting assaulted regularly while trying to apprehend the heroin addicts who were stealing steaks and baby formula. Many of the suspects detained there, after fighting with the store personnel admitted to me when I questioned them that they were HIV positive or had HEP C. If that shit wasn’t bad enough, I went in there a few times off duty and one guy tried to fight me in the men’s room for no reason that I could discern, and someone stole my brother in law’s cane off his shopping cart when he turned away to grab something off the shelf. So, I placed the Market Basket in Manchester on my stay away off duty list along with many of the bars and restaurants in the city.
There was a time when Stop and Shop had two stores in Manchester, and one of them was on Lincoln St. That store was having multiple strong arm robberies occur weekly. Most times, when their store detectives tried to apprehend a shoplifter, it turned into an assault escalating a misdemeanor shoplifting pinch into a felony level strong arm or forcible robbery. The store found themselves hiring police details to keep the peace. It was the only Stop and Shop in New Hampshire that had to hire police details most afternoons and evening. I also stayed away from that supermarket when I wasn’t working, even though it was across the street from the then new police headquarters.
One day, I was working night shift in Detectives, and I decided to stop into my credit union on my way to work. I was in civilian clothes, and after parking I then headed to the front door. As you approach the door, there are two handicapped parking spots on either side of the entrance. As I walked towards the door, I saw a car pull into one of the HC spots. After you’ve been on the job for a while, you notice everything going on around you, quite often subconsciously, on duty or not. In this case, I saw the car was driven by a woman and a man got out of the passenger seat and headed into the credit union in front of me. I saw that the car did not have either a HC plate of HC placard. I let it slide. The last thing I wanted to do was get involved in an off duty incident over a parking violation. It just wasn’t worth it.
As we entered the bank, a middle aged woman told the guy, who appeared to be in his twenties, politely but sternly that he should not be parking in a HC spot. The guy looked at the woman and told her to go fuck herself. That was too much for me. I then tinned the guy (showed him my tin or badge, identifying myself as a police officer) and asked him to step outside with me. I decided I didn’t want to confront or chew him out in front of everyone in the bank. The guy came outside with me, and I told him to get back into the car and move it out of the spot. At that point the woman in the car, who was the guy’s girlfriend, started in on me.
She started yelling and giving me crap about how they were only there for a minute and he was going to run in and run out quickly and they would have already been done and gone if I hadn’t started harassing him etc. etc. They guy, who was pretty loud mouthed and brave to the other woman, was quiet around me and tried to persuade his girlfriend to just drive away. But she was having none of it, and kept at me. I was actually starting to feel bad fo the guy who started this all based on his girlfriend’s behavior. Finally, I had enough. I then told them “now you can’t leave” and ordered them to stay put. I walked over to my car and grabbed the police radio I had in my gym bag. I called in, and asked dispatch if they could send a nearby unit that was free with a book of parking tickets. About five minutes later, who pulls up but the Chief of Detectives in an unmarked cruiser.
I was a bit embarrassed that the Chief responded for something so minor. I apologized to him, but he just waved me off saying it was no trouble and handed me a book of parking tickets. I explained the situation to him, a little timidly, but he told me to hell with them and that he’d hang around while I wrote a $240 ticket out.
Now I always considered myself a reasonable cop, and I was always judicious before I’d hang a $240 ticket on anyone, especially a working person. Often times when I caught someone committing a minor violation or some other bad behavior, I’d make them stop, and after a verbal warning send them on their way. That wasn’t happening this day. I gave the woman the ticket. She was still pissed at me. I didn’t care. The guy wasn’t happy because the car was registered to him. “Oh well” I said. “Get in the car and go. Now.” I then threatened to arrest the female for disorderly conduct if she didn’t leave immediately. She finally got the message (I think) and left.
Now I was late for work. Fortunately, the Chief commanded the division I worked in and he just chuckled and told me not to worry about it. Later that night I got myself a ticket book and placed it into the glove compartment of my personal car. Just in case…
Another memorable off duty confrontation happened one quiet Sunday night some time later. I was driving and my wife was with me and we found ourselves downtown. I decided to pull into the BP station located at Bridge and Chestnut Streets. While I was pumping gas, this guy worked his way over from across the street towards me. I kept an eye on him while at the same time I tried to ignore him hoping he would just continue on his way and leave me alone. No such luck. The guy started to give me this long sob story about his living in Rhode Island, and his car ran out of gas and he asked me for $20 for so he could get home. This was a common ploy, and these cretans had come along way from asking me for a quarter for a cup of coffee. No, this guy wanted a double sawbuck. I saw that he did not have a gas can with him, and asked him where his car was. He said it was some distance away and kept pushing me for the 20 bucks. I told the guy to take a hike. He kept at me, and finally I told him to fuck off. He got really surly and finally walked away from me.
However, during this time another guy pulled up at the gas pumps across from me, and when the driver of that car got out to pump gas, this guy went right over to him and started. He tried to convince him to give him money, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Unlike me, this poor guy tried to ignore him which only emboldened the pan handler. I could sense the citizen was feeling intimidated while the vagrant kept pressing him. Finally I thought to myself, “Here we go. I’m going to have to get involved in this”. Reluctantly, I walked over to the guy, pulled out my badge and identified myself as a police officer. I then told him to screw, and I wasn’t going to tell him again. The guy stood there, and I immediately knew he was sizing me up. I could feel his eyes bore into me as he “Eye Fucked” me, then looked me over from top to bottom. I knew instinctively he was trying to decide whether to continue to challenge me, take off or attack me. I stood there and finally walked towards him. After what seemed an eternity, he decided to walk away and keep his mouth shut. I went back to my car. My wife was sitting in the front seat of our car and had been watching the whole episode unfold.
The citizen who had been accosted then came over to me to thank me. He said he felt intimidated by this guy and was afraid the guy was going to rob him. “Thank you so much, Officer” he said. I went on to tell him it was not a problem andI sympathized with him and said it was getting harder and harder go downtown without being accosted by these jerks. They walk a very fine line where they act in a threatening manner, but don’t actually come out and openly threaten the people they beg from, but they do intimidate them. As time went on, the courts in this state ruled that begging for money, unless they utter a clear threat that violated the Criminal Threatening law, or use force, is not a crime. In fact, it is protected speech under the First Amendment.
I walked back to my car. I had been ready for a physical confrontation, but as I told me wife, I had no handcuffs, no radio and no way to subdue this guy and hold him if I had tried to arrest him or if he assaulted me. The next day, I put a pair of handcuffs into the glove compartment of my car next to my book of parking tickets and never went anywhere without them. And oh yeah, I also stuck my pistol in an off duty holster and stuffed into in my waist band more and more often when I was off duty.