Recent stories where the non-sworn (usually referred to as a “citizen” or “civilian”) successfully assisted a police officer caused me to write this post.  One “all’s well that ends well” scenario involved a man who took shots when he witnessed an in-progress armed robbery and believed a responding officer was in danger of being ambushed. The officer took cover and the robber was captured later.  (See here and here). Another, a more common scenario, involved bystanders who helped subdue a subject who might have overpowered the officer.  (See here).  Similar stories and videos on topic pop up on TV news reports and officer interest websites from time to time. (See examples, here and here).  As an MSW reader, you likely already know that being a “hero” aiding police is, like policing itself, dangerous business.  Thus it is no surprise; not every “hero” comes through unscathed.  (See here).  Also not surprising; simply having a cup of java in public with an officer is not risk-free.  (See here).  Finally, would it not just plain suck to aid an officer .  .  . and then someone else gets the credit? (See here).

Scenarios where a non-sworn might come to the aid of a street cop include a traffic accident (possibly officer involved), traffic stop “gone bad,” fight arising from a subject resisting arrest or escaping custody, apprehending a fleeing criminal, unruly crowd, or an officer facing multiple assailants or ambush.  Most cops will tell you that they abhor being distracted when they are “involved,” and do not want or need “backup”  from the public, with some universal exceptions — when it is clear they are incapable of administering medical self-help or are disabled, need substitute comms, are losing a fight, when outnumbered, about to suffer the loss of their sidearm, or have been disarmed.

I admit I am inclined to and have come to the aid of a lone officer more than twice. I will analyze the decision whether to render aid using my deadly force paradigm: CAN ~ MAY ~ SHOULD ~ MUST.

CAN: My considerations would include: Mentally and physically up to the task (e.g., can exhibit command presence/voice, able to engage in foot pursuit, grappling, fighting, shooting, use improvised weapons)? Possess the necessary knowledge and experience with LE duty gear and equipment (e.g., handcuffs, radio, OC spray, collapsible baton, retention holster), traffic, animal, or crowd control, trauma/medical aid (splint, wound pack, tourniquet)? Have/carry your own equipment and kit that can be deployed for another? Able to improvise for universal precaution?  Familiar with TCCC “care under fire” and “tactical field care?”  Know how to extract a wounded officer to safety using an improvised drag device? Can you operate a patrol rifle or shotgun? Make a precision “rescue” shot? Corral a loose K-9? Follow directions from an AED and integrate it with CPR? Administer an emergency OC decon? If you render aid, should you pursue the bad guy(s) or remain with the officer until relieved by sworn LE or medical personnel?

MAY: Yes, it is true that absent a specific statute or special circumstances, there is rarely a legal duty to come to the aid of a stranger who has been injured or is in immediate peril. That is not entirely true when an LEO is involved.  In many states, it is a civil infraction or criminal offense (usually lesser misdemeanor) not to assist an LEO (may include all sworn peace officers or just state police) who has requested or commanded assistance.  (The criminal offenses are rarely charged).  A statute may be general or impose parameters on request for assistance (e.g., only to help effect an arrest, or to thwart an escape or in-progress crime), and may state when the request or demand of an LEO may be refused or ignored.  Such statutes (or case law) may provide that a person aiding an officer may employ levels of force like an LEO, and may be granted the same or other criminal and/or civil immunity as an LEO.  Civil immunity may also be achieved under a broader “Good Samaritan” statute when aid is entirely voluntary. Examples of state statutes requiring assistance and/or granting immunity to those who aid LEOs, include (in no particular order and without analysis of elements): Florida (Stat. §§ 776.05; 843.06); Kansas (Revised Statutes § 22-2407); Ohio (Revised Code § 2921.23); Alabama (Code § 13A-10-5); Maine (Revised Statutes § 402); Oregon (Revised Statutes § 181.190); New York (Penal Code § 195.10); Oklahoma (Statutes § 21‑537); Delaware (Code § 1241); Arkansas (Code § 5-54-109); Idaho (Code § 19-205); Hawaii (Penal Code § 703-307); Massachusetts (General Laws Ch. 268, § 24): Indiana (Code Title 135, § 35-44.1-3-3); Nevada (Revised Statutes § 199.270); Washington (Revised Code § 9.01.055); Georgia (Code Annotated § 16-3-22); Virginia (Code § 18.2-463).

SHOULD:  As with this element of my paradigm to use deadly force, only you can decide whether you wish to risk all you are/have and will be/have to help a stranger. Under consideration here is whether you would feel more obligated because the beneficiary of your being a Good Samaritan is a public servant who has taken an oath to put his or her life on the line for you and yours. Another question for this element of the paradigm is whether you can aid the officer under circumstances that you will be recognized by witnesses and others responding as a Good Samaritan who has come to the aid of an in trouble or downed officer, not a miscreant’s confederate. Communication is critical, especially when deploying a weapon or securing one from or returning one to the officer.   If you decide to render aid, I suggest (if possible) you first communicate with the officer to see what is needed, to diminish immunity issues. And, always make sure 9-1-1/dispatch knows someone not in uniform is aiding their officer.  Be prepared, when response arrives to an officer needs assistance call, it will be dramatic and overwhelming.

MUST:  While your state law may recognize that one must aid an LEO, the rare enforcement of such laws suggests it is above and beyond what is in reality demanded of the non-sworn.  If you are caught in the middle of a gunfight between an officer and the bad guy(s), your interests are aligned with the officer and thus it is fairly obvious what you must do to survive.  If you know you will never “forgive” yourself for not rendering aid to an officer whose life may depend on your rendering aid, keep calm and be a hero.

Asking for help or offering it to someone in distress is difficult for most of us. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t readily be done.  The risks of aiding police can be uncertain and considerable, and the public reward limited (shaking hands with some police chief or sheriff and smiling wouldn’t necessarily make my day; I would rather be out on the agency’s range training with free ammo).   Heroes do not always get the obligatory handshake and press conference, but so what. The unsung are equally worthy.  Unlikely heroes do it all the time.  We are all made better when they do.

Disclaimer: No MSW post constitutes particularized legal advice, or creates an attorney-client relationship with a reader.

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About Steven Harris

Steve Harris is an experienced attorney (member of Florida Bar, 1979) who has represented federal agents and local LEOs in duty related matters. He has written and lectured about officer involved shootings, self-defense, and use of force law, including "Stand Your Ground." Steve has been a seasoned and active competitive handgun shooter for over 20 years.


  1. As always, an excellent post. Read through it several times, as my perspective as a retired LEO and a member of the always-concealed-carry-club, makes a lot of sense.

  2. I see videos like the last one, from Eureka, and I’m left scratching my head. Without any volume, it’s difficult to understand any extra circumstances. But just from the visual clues, if I were the officer attempting to restrain the first subject and in my peripheral, noticed a man running towards me, then my first thought would be, “new immediate threat!”

    • Good observation on that video. I assumed there was some communication to the officer before the approach, as I recommend in the post. After the on-the-spot decision to “help,” deciding precisely when and how is no easy task. Hence the “keep calm.”

  3. I am a career firefighter working for a department that covers a very large, very rural area along with several small towns. Law enforcement resources are stretched very thin. A backup police officer maybe 40 to 50 miles away I have assisted both our local deputies and State Police subdue suspects. The majority of the time they are dealing with an intoxicated driver who is not cooperating.

    My agency works closely with area law enforcement. We have received training on how and when to assist an officer and when not to. Since we see each other often we have an advantage of recognizing each other and knowing skill levels.

    When off duty and especially out of my area, I certainly would assist a law enforcement officer in need. But I would be cautious and try to identify myself and my intentions as quickly as possible.

    Thank you for an excellent post and giving food for thought regarding skill level and training prior to jumping in. Many people believe they must do something without considering the outcome of their actions or the aftermath.

  4. From Arizona DPS’ CCW-instructor resource, (p. 58):1. Execution of public duty (A.R.S. § 13-402)(
    b. Assist a police officer (§ 13-402.B.2)
    EXAMPLE: Sig Sauer, a CCW permittee, observes a police
    officer trying to make an arrest, and the suspect suddenly
    turns and disarms the officer or fights with the officer for
    control of the officer’s gun. Sig may assist the officer with
    deadly force, if necessary. It does not matter whether the
    officer was acting legally, so long as Sig reasonably thought
    the officer was acting legally.
    NOTE: Sig’s conduct must be such that a “reasonable
    person” would believe the conduct was required or
    authorized by court or to assist a peace officer in the
    performance of official duties.
    EXAMPLE: Sig Sauer sees an unmarked car with flashing
    red lights beside the road, with a pickup pulled over in front
    it. A man exits the pickup and begins exchanging gunfire
    with the driver of the unmarked car. Would Sig be justified
    in firing at the driver of the pickup? Maybe, but what if the
    person from the unmarked car is driving a fake police car?
    Not likely, but it has happened. The point is that if Sig’s
    assumptions are wrong, he proceeds at his own risk. Even if
    Sig justifiably intervenes, if he recklessly shoots someone
    else in the process (e.g., a passing motorist), Sig would not
    be justified in shooting that third person.
    d. Examples of cases concerning use of physical and deadly
    force during arrest or detention involve police officers.
    There are no “published” Arizona cases (printed in a
    recognized legal “reporter” to give them legal precedential
    value) where this statute has been applied to non-peace
    officers. In general, leave arrests and detention to police
    officers. One’s potential liability for arrests and detentions
    which do not involve one’s house or property are too great
    for one to get involved, unless another justification is
    present. If the life of the police officer or oneself does not
    appear in jeopardy, one should not even think about using or
    displaying one’s firearm to capture an escapee or assist in
    an arrest (unless asked by the officer – see below).
    If one believes it is appropriate to aid a police officer,
    but one is unsure, follow this procedure if the circumstances
    permit: (1) inform the officer that you are armed, (2) ask the
    officer if he wants your assistance, (3) if the situation does
    not dictate the assistance that is needed, ask the officer how
    he would like you to assist, (4) follow the officer’s
    instructions, and (5) stop assisting the officer when he tells
    you to stop. A.R.S. § 13-2403.B provides that a person who
    acts reasonably and aids a police officer at the direction of
    the police officer shall not be held liable to any person for
    damages resulting therefrom. A.R.S. § 13-3802 gives a
    police officer, sheriff, etc. the right to “command” you to aid
    him in the execution of process in order to overcome
    resistance.See also:
    ARS 13-2403. Refusing to aid a peace officer; classification: 13-3802. Right to command aid for execution of process; punishment for resisting process:

  5. Fortunately my off duty assists have been limited to changing flat tires on cruisers and t.c.
    I’ve been nearby when things have been on edge, in situations like that I observe and keep my distance (ready to respond if things go south.) The problem withoff duty dust ups is that you may not be covered under work comp, your agency, etc. or may end up complicating the scene, be erroneously mistaken by responding units, etc. Don’t get me wrong, if I see a LE on the bad end of an incident, I’m going all in, consequence be damned. My rule for “go all in” or not comes down to… If I got shot, severely hurt, killed, etc. can I still look back and know I did the right thing… And would do it all over again? If the answer is an emphatic yes, then that’s my answer.

  6. Additional Florida statute of note respecting aiding in an arrest:
    Fla. Stat. 901.18:
    Officer may summon assistance.—A peace officer making a lawful arrest may command the aid of persons she or he deems necessary to make the arrest. A person commanded to aid shall render assistance as directed by the officer. A person commanded to aid a peace officer shall have the same authority to arrest as that peace officer and shall not be civilly liable for any reasonable conduct in rendering assistance to that officer. [Hat tip: Aaron Grassi]

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