Off-duty Cops: What Powers Do They Have? 

 The fundamental duty of a police officer is to enforce the law. Officers serve as protectors by safeguarding our communities. They are given the behest to catch the bad guy, sometimes putting their own lives in danger. 

Off-duty cops: what powers do they have? Police officers have authority over their jurisdiction on and off the payroll time clock. They carry the power to arrest, the power to use force, including the power to shoot at all times. When and how an off-duty police officer intervenes to enforce the law depends on a number of circumstances.  

Choosing to be a police officer means shouldering the responsibility of maintaining order in a restless society wherever you go. Police officers have an obligation to step in when they witness a crime being committed regardless of their duty status or present location. Unfortunately, there is the occasional abuse of these powers that puts a strain on the delicate relationship between law enforcement and the people. 

Primary Objectives of the Police 

According to The American System of Criminal Justice, police agencies have three main operations they perform in society. The first role of the police officers who work in the United States is to keep the peace and maintain order in their respective jurisdictions. Police officers intervene in situations where the behavior of someone is directly disturbing others. 

Peace Keeping 

Off-duty Cops: What Powers Do They Have? 

Keeping the peace may involve responding to a neighbor’s complaint of a loud party or a barking dog. An example of maintaining order would be breaking up a fight in a public location. In these examples, the police officer’s goal is to handle the situation discreetly. Tactics used are intended to settle disputes and de-escalate any volatile conditions. 

Ideally, situations involving keeping the peace and maintaining order end without incident or the need for citations or arrests. The role of the officer in these instances is to assess the problem and find a resolution that is amicable. This requires police officers to have the ability to remain calm while trying to instill tranquility so that the peace is quickly and quietly restored. 

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Community Service 

The second primary function of the police is service to the community in which they work. Police officers are one part of the first responder teams that arrive at accidents, fires, and other emergencies. They are trained in how to administer first-aid as well as safety tactics involving crowd control. 

Police officers also extend assistance to people in general need of help. They may direct a lost tourist onto the right path, keep a look-out for a missing dog, or check-up on a resident’s home who is on vacation. Outreach to the community from the police department often comes in the form of educational programs. 

The most familiar of these educational programs began in 1983. The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program taught children about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, It grew to include topics of gangs and violent behavior. Unfortunately, science discovered the DARE program to be ineffective. 

On the bright side, the new DARE (Define, Assess, Respond, Evaluate) program, established in 2009, is teaching youth valuable skills. This problem-solving strategy shows kids how to think things through when making a decision about anything in their life. Thus, giving them a stronger foundation on which to build their future.  

Building a strong relationship with the community begins by caring about the people who live there. Police officers who engage with youth create a dialogue that builds trust. When officers listen to the needs of a community, improvements can be made which benefits everyone involved. 

Law Enforcement 

Off-duty Cops: What Powers Do They Have? 

The final objective of police agencies is the enforcement of the laws. Law enforcement officers use their authoritative powers in instances where a law has been disobeyed or disregarded. Traffic stops are the most recognized form of law enforcement and the most common form of interaction with the public. Police officers are responsible for enforcing the long list of traffic codes in order to keep roadways safe. 

They have the authority to pull a vehicle over in order to alert the driver of the violation that has occurred. What happens next depends on a number of circumstances. Factors such as the severity of the infraction, the driving record of the vehicle’s occupant, and the attitude of the driver in question can influence the outcome.  

Traffic code police officers have the option to let drivers off with a warning for minor offenses, especially if it’s the first occurrence for the driver. They are not as likely to be so lenient if the driver is a repeat offender or gives the police officer an attitude for the traffic stop. Being civil is the best way to handle the high-anxiety of a traffic stop for all parties involved. 

Police officers spend a portion of their time identifying and apprehending suspects during crime investigations. Off-duty police officers, while not actively seeking out suspects, may encounter someone by chance. In situations such as this, the officer would follow department procedures as to the level of involvement they should take. Innumerous factors play a role in the police officer’s decision-making process as to how to proceed. 

Quick Facts 

  • The United States has approximately 18,000 independently operated law enforcement agencies, employing 900,000 officers. 
  • American law enforcement agents solve fewer than 25% of all reported crimes. 
  • The percentage of the U.S. population aged 16 and older who have had contact with a police officer has dropped to around 20%. 
  • The safest state in the union to work as a police officer: Vermont with only 23 total deaths in the line-of-duty. 
  • Deadliest state: Texas has a total of 1,731 deaths since statehood. 

Authoritative Powers of Police 

Both off-duty and while working on the clock, police officers carry authoritative powers to use when enforcing the law.  

Power of Arrest 

Law enforcement officers have the authority to detain an individual when there is reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred. Police use this tactic of brief confinement in an effort to obtain more evidence and probable cause. Once an officer has probable cause that a person committed the crime an arrest can be made. 

Removal of an individual’s freedom through the use of handcuffs is used when an officer witnesses the crime or there is probable cause the person committed a crime, resulting in an arrest. Handcuff restraints are also used on persons as protection from hurting themselves or others. Cuffs are occasionally needed to prevent a person from causing property damage.  

Off-duty Cops: What Powers Do They Have? 

Those two instances may or may not result in the person being put under arrest. In these scenarios, the handcuffs are merely a safety measure being taken by the police officer(s) on the scene. There are occasions where these situations de-escalate, charges are not pressed and the detained/cuffed individuals are released.  

Reasons for Arrest 

In the United States, police officers arrest people for both violent crimes and property crimes.  

Use-of-Force Power

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has defined the use-of-force as how much exertion it takes for a police officer to obtain compliance from an uncooperative individual. The United States does not have set rules governing the police’s power of use-of-force. However, after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, changes needed to police department policies were brought to light. 

The media coverage of what unfolded in the Midwest that year portrayed police officers as being at war with the members of the community. New policies work toward restoring the police officer’s role as being a guardian of the community. The old ways of using any force necessary are being replaced with using tactics to deescalate the situation and using force as a last resort. 

Every agency creates its own use-of-force policies befitting the needs of the community it serves. These policies are designed to ensure the safety of law enforcement officers and the safety of the people in the community. Emotions can escalate situations quickly which is why police need special training on the power of use-of-force. 

No two police encounters are the exact same making it difficult to draw clear lines as to when to use force and how much force to use. There are three progressive levels of force an officer can use when engaging with a combative individual. The initial level of force used by law enforcement officers consists of basic verbal commands and simple physical restraint. 

When an officer is unable to get compliance after level one, they can proceed to the second level of force. This use-of-force employs less-lethal forms of gaining compliance. Examples of this type of use-of-force include tasers, pepper spray, bean bag rounds, and rubber bullets.  

The final level of use-of-force is one no officer ever wants to have to use. A police officer’s job is to regain control of the situation as quickly as possible by de-escalating the situation without the loss of life. Only as a last resort should a police officer have to take out his or her service weapon and fire it upon a member of the community. 

Guidance on Creating Use-of-Force Policies 

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) created the Guiding Principles on Use-of-Force and released the report in March 2016. The guide is a culmination of research, work in the field, and national discussions on use-of-force by law enforcement officers.  

The guidelines the forum created pertain to situations or incidents involving: 

  • Individuals armed with a weapon other than a gun 
  • Unarmed individuals 
  • Persons with mental illness 

Based on the 18 months of research and data collection, PERF established there to be 30 principles that guide policies of police procedures. First and foremost, the sanctity of human life should be at the heart of every law enforcement agency’s actions. Both the lives of police officers and those of community residents hold immeasurable value. 

Other guiding principles for creating policies include: 

  • Is the officer’s response proportionate to the threat? 
  • De-escalation is the top priority. 
  • Intervene when a fellow officer is seen using excessive force. 
  • Render first-aid when needed or requested. 
  • Only shoot at or from moving vehicles if deadly force other than the vehicle is being used against the officer(s). 
  • Do not use deadly force on someone who is only posing a threat to themselves.

Law enforcement officers should also receive regular training as teams on: 

  • Handling people with mental health issues. 
  • Selecting non-lethal use-of-force options. 
  • Using the Critical Decision-Making Model. 

From Off-duty to Guard-duty 

Off-duty Cops: What Powers Do They Have? 

Off-duty police officers frequently supplement their police department income by working as security guards for private companies. Businesses like shopping malls, sports venues, and event centers will hire uniformed police officers to work security. In some cases, city ordinances mandate police officers to be hired. Large events, like music festivals and activities that involve traffic flow, like parades, require uniformed police officers to be contracted as security. 

For businesses like malls, the difference between hiring an off-duty police officer and hiring a security guard comes down to liability. Law enforcement officers, both on and off duty, hold hire authority than the average citizen employed as a security guard. As such, they are able to perform the duty of law enforcement whether they are on-duty, off-duty, or working in uniform as a security guard. 

Law enforcement officers in the United States have the power to arrest and the power to use force, including deadly force when their actions are performed under the color of law. While some security guard jobs can require getting licensed, police officers go through special training with regard to civil rights as it relates to apprehending and detaining suspects. These police procedures are in place to ensure all persons are treated fairly and constitutionally. 

 In order to understand this issue regarding liability and constitutional rights, let’s take a closer look at an actual case. 

Case Example 

Abraham v. Raso, U.S. District Court of New Jersey, 1998 

The incident in question: Mall security officers witness two men shoplifting in a Macy’s department store. Security officers follow the men out of the store to the parking lot. An off-duty police officer dressed in police department uniform, employed by the mall as a security guard, engages with the suspects as they enter their vehicle. The officer identifies herself as a law enforcement officer and gives commands to get out of the car.  

According to testimony, the suspect behind the wheel ignores demands and tries to run down the officer who has drawn her service weapon. The officer fires a single shot as she dives for safety to avoid being hit by the suspect’s car. The bullet strikes the driver in the arm before entering his chest. A mall vehicle continues to pursue the suspect’s vehicle as it continues traveling through the parking lot, hitting another car, a parking lot island curb, a sign, and a tree before coming to a stop. The suspect is pronounced DOA at the hospital. 

The lawsuit: The widow of the suspect filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging the violation of Mr. Abraham’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The claim states the right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure was violated when the officer used deadly force to apprehend the suspect. In addition, the suspect was not given due process of the law for the crime in which he had been accused but instead was killed during the altercation with authorities. 

The ruling: The court found that regardless of whether or not the officer’s use-of-force was done in self-defense, the suspect’s actions posed an immediate threat of harm to the public. If an off-duty police officer takes action in the same manner as he or she would do while on-duty, they are said to be acting under the color of law.  

In this instance, Officer Raso was in police uniform and had identified herself as a police officer. When looking at the facts under the scope of the law, Officer Raso’s split decision to discharge her service weapon was deemed objectively reasonable and the shooting was ruled as justified. Had the shooting been done by a security guard that was not a uniformed officer, the ruling would likely have been much different. 


Best Course of Action 

Off-duty or on, law enforcement officers are held to higher standards when it comes to their conduct at work and out in the community.  There is an expectation that comes with being a law enforcement officer to serve the community whenever the need arises. In most cases, it’s a simple task that most anyone would do anyway like giving directions to someone who is lost. 

Sometimes the circumstances require an officer to be more hands-on by administering first-aid or serving as a witness to a crime. There are factors that play a role as to how involved an off-duty officer gets. Police departments have their own standard operating procedure. Well-trained officers know what they need to do, how they need to handle different scenarios, and when to take control of a situation. 


Related Questions

Are the number of arrests in the United States increasing or decreasing? 

Statistics show that the number of arrests declined significantly between the years of 1998 and 2002. The rate plateaued for several years. Then a steady rate of decline has continued. In 2018, there were just over 10 million arrests compared to more than 13 million arrests in 2010. 


Where can I find more statistics on the number of crimes committed in the United States? 

The website of the Bureau of Justice Statistics has an arrest data analysis tool that lets users select a year beginning with 1980 up through 2014 to view arrest statistics for the selected year. The site creates a table showing the number of arrests broken down by age groups. The table can also be separated into males, females, and broken down by race. 

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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.