For a police officer, being off-duty does not necessarily mean that they can distance themselves from providing a service to the public but rather that they are not performing a scheduled work shift. However, the boundaries in which they should engage have been debated for many years. Some legislation and policies have been enforced to counteract the growing number of liability cases against law enforcement authorities and their personnel in relation to actions as off-duty police officers.
Although there are many schools of thought in relation to the authority allowed for off-duty police officers, the police department does have the authority to declare the boundaries in relation to the involvement of their officers in law enforcement activities while they are off-duty. A model policy drafted by the National Criminal Justice Institute in Section 67 addresses the issue of off-duty police activity and neighborhood disputes. Based on this, the following are some of the actions allowed for an off-duty police officer in relation to different circumstances.
One of the important points mentioned in the model policy is the ‘conflict of interest’. According to the proposed policy, an officer has a conflict of interest towards an activity if the outcome of such an activity is of interest to the officer in question. In such cases, the officers are forewarned to distant themselves and request an officer on duty for that particular area to get involved if it concerns public safety and interest.
Furthermore, the policy recognize the right of the chief of police to summon or place in emergency duty of those officers who are ‘off-duty’ at any time when the need arises. This indicates that, even when a police officer is off-duty, they are obliged to respond to a ‘call of duty’ from their authorities.
One of the first instances where an off-duty police officer is expected to use the power of law-enforcement authorities is when he “observes an incident requiring law enforcement action in which time is of the essence, or if his action will safeguard life or property or prevent the escape of a criminal.” This answers the earlier debate on the boundaries within which a police officer should act during off-duty hours, if they encounter incidents needing police intervention.
At the same time, these officers should not take action other than to safeguard the life and the property in instances where the activity would be considered a ‘conflict of interest’ to the off-duty police officer.
In relation to disputes where there could be a substantial risk of injury to the officer or to others, the off-duty police officers in plain clothes should not intervene, although they should contact the department to deploy uniform personnel to the scene, if necessary.
Apart from the above authority which can be exerted by an off-duty police officer, the proposed policies also authorize them to take their duty weapon and official identification at all times, even in instances where they travel outside their area.