A Cover Officer must remain ready to use deadly force to protect the Contact Officer. Photo Steve Albrecht
A Contact Officer performs a search while the Cover Officer watches over the suspect and the scene. Photo Dale Stockton
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It's been 17 years since the publication of Contact & Cover: Two-Officer Suspect Control, which I co-authored with now-retired Lieutenant John Morrison of the San Diego Police Department (SDPD). I'm grateful and proud this police officer survival text has become an operating guide for dozens of municipal, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies and academies. I've learned many of the street safety principles discussed in Contact & Cover from Morrison and SDPD Sergeant Chuck Peck, men who know police work on an instinctive, practical and realistic level.
Don't Modify the Method
There's no secret to why Contact and Cover works. It makes sense, allows both officers to take a complete tactical advantage, and it's easy to implement. But there's still much work to be done to make these methods used more widely and more wisely with new and even veteran officers. It's not because Contact and Cover is difficult to follow or not applicable for nearly every field contact with unsecured suspects, but because too many officers feel the need to modify the ironclad rules that make the method so effective.
This tendency to add or subtract to tactical procedures remains all too common. We hear officers use phrases such as, We did a modified hot stop to make the arrest or I used a modified version of the standard FBI handcuffing technique to justify deviating from approved arrest and control policies or time-tested field tactics. Officers often rationalize these changes from what works by describing the suspect s actions as unique, out of the ordinary or somehow so different that the usual arrest methods didn t or wouldn t work.
Nearly as popular an excuse for deviating from the proven method is wanting to save time. The old maxim speed kills applies in many ways to police work. There's a built-in tendency to want to get to the next radio call, the next citation or the next traffic or ped stop. Perhaps this comes from the culture or management of the police organization or from city or county leaders worried about response times and citizen complaints. Maybe it s drilled into new officers heads during field training. But if we sacrifice safety for our convenience or elevate our awareness of the rushing passage of time above our partner s desire to do a thorough job, it can mean the difference between a safe, successful encounter and one where an officer gets killed.
What many officers like best about Contact and Cover is that while they go about their business with the suspect, the other officer devotes their complete attention to watching over them. That s a comforting feeling. Many officers use the Contact and Cover techniques faithfully, adapting it to different situations as necessary. But for the procedures to work effectively, all officers must use it, all of the time.
It's time to blow the dust off the Contact & Cover guidebook and redefine the rules of engagement during any street stop, from the usual, low-risk stop on up through high-risk suspect arrests and potentially lethal encounters.
Before the Encounter
Officers should use Contact and Cover during any situation in which there are one or more unsecured potential or actual suspects in the immediate area. One officer takes the role of Contact Officer and acts as the on-scene leader of all law enforcement activities. The other officer takes the supporting role of Cover Officer with different responsibilities. The officers should verbally establish who will take each role prior to any meeting with suspects, either at the start of a shift, in the same car together (the driver-officer usually takes the Contact Officer role), or, more typically, as the Cover Officer arrives to help an on-scene solo officer with a stop or radio call.
The Contact Officer's Role
The Contact Officer initiates the discussions and conducts all of the business of the encounter with the suspects, witnesses and victims, from initiating conversation to making arrests. The Contact Officer writes all of the suspect, victim, witness, accident or incident information; writes citations, reports or field interview slips; runs radio checks for warrants, stolen vehicles, etc.; notifies the dispatcher of relevant information; performs pat-downs, searches and seizure of evidence, including inside suspect vehicles; removes weapons, contraband or evidence from people, bags or vehicles; and handcuffs and makes the arrests. The Contact Officer is the primary field investigator and holds responsibility for the chain of custody with evidence. The Contact Officer has sole responsibility for all these actions.
The Cover Officer's Role
The Cover Officer (and any subsequent arriving Cover Officers) has two main responsibilities: 1) to constantly observe the suspects from a position of surveillance and control, and 2) to establish a sense of force presence that will deter assaults or escapes while the Contact Officer conducts the business of the contact. The Cover Officer observes all suspects and their associates; prevents escapes and the destruction of evidence; monitors the radio for any pertinent information the Contact Officer may have missed; and, most importantly, discourages any assaults on the Contact Officer.
Because the Cover Officer remains undistracted by the business of the contact, they can concentrate on the actions, movements or conversations of the suspects or any other nearby or approaching people, in cars or on foot. At no time should the Cover Officer directly engage in the information-gathering or enforcement activities that are the responsibility of the Contact Officer. Nor should the Cover Officer get distracted by suspects peripheral conversations or movements these things are sometimes done intentionally to prepare for an escape or assault.
The Cover Officer must also be ready to intervene to prevent assaults, ambushes, gun takeaways or any other threats to the Contact Officer s life. The Cover Officer may need to use hands-on techniques, impact or chemical weapons, or open fire from a better tactical position. At the same time, the Contact Officer must know how, why and when to disengage from the suspect to allow the Cover Officer to intervene. In some situations, it s best to let the Contact Officer regain control of a suspect who fights; in others, the Cover Officer will have to stop the assault before it escalates into a disarming.
Work as a Team
The officers can reverse their roles at any time to reinforce the safety of the contact based on each individual s expertise or experience. One officer may know the suspect from previous contacts, have established rapport, be bilingual in the suspect s native language or have additional field expertise in narcotics, gangs, prison tattoo evaluations, stolen vehicles, etc.
The Contact and Cover Officers should always communicate with each other in a way not understood by the suspects. They can use hand signals, 10 and 11 code, jargon, slang, nicknames or police shorthand (i.e., cop talk ). They can even develop their own set of code words unique to their partnership.
Stick With It
The key to the system is staying in your designated role. Too many Cover Officers get impatient and decide to switch hats and become the second Contact Officer. This often happens when there are two or more suspects and the Cover Officer tries to speed things along by whipping out a pad and firing some questions at the suspect who is not engaged with the Contact Officer. Maybe the impatient Cover Officer breaks from their observation position and begins a pat-down search on an unsecured suspect, or worse yet, searches the suspect s vehicle while the Contact Officer is busy at the curb.
This can lead to the kinds of unnecessary distractions armed or assaultive suspects like to see one cop busy with one crook and another busy with the other. Disarmings, foot pursuits, fights, escapes, evidence destruction and similarly unpleasant things can occur when Cover Officers start seeing ticking stopwatches in their heads. In their haste to get things moving or help the Contact Officer gather information, recover evidence, test for field sobriety or handcuff suspects, they forget their sole responsibility to observe and protect.
Time is Your Ally
One of the advantages of street policing is that time is your ally. As long as you can justify a legal detention or related investigation, you have the time you need to be thorough. The Cover Officer doesn t need to assist the Contact Officer unless the suspect(s) become violent or the Contact Officer misses something, such as critical information relayed from dispatch or a suspect dropping a drug bindle on the ground.
One veteran officer who uses Contact and Cover religiously puts it right in the faces of his Cover Officers when they lose sight of their duties: Would you like me to search a car, talk on my radio, type on my mobile data terminal or start a field-sobriety test with a suspect if you were being punched, stabbed or shot at? No? Then why do you create that possibility during my field contacts by forgetting your role? Your job is to watch me work and protect me so I can work safely.
For all its strengths as a tactical policing principle, Contact and Cover is only as effective as the officers who put it to good use. Whether you are the Contact Officer or the Cover Officer, stay focused on your primary role and responsibilities. Don t let your natural instinct to take some kind of action interfere with your need to keep yourself and your partner safe.
If you and your partner officers will correctly use Contact and Cover as your operating plan, you can feel more secure and safe during even the most difficult field encounters. Many officers use the principles of Contact and Cover with great effectiveness. Many crooks have told the arresting officer later, Yeah, I d have tried to jump you or kill you, but I knew that other cop was watching your back, and I never got the chance.
Let's try to make this comment the standard for today s street crooks. Use Contact and Cover with your beat and car partners whenever necessary. Encourage officers from other agencies to use it when they cover you as well. Above all, remember that Contact and Cover was designed with one goal: to help you survive.
A Few Good Reasons to Contact & Cover
More than half of officer assaults happen in front of other officers.
More officers are being killed with their own guns than ever.
More drugged, drunk and mentally and emotionally disturbed people are on the streets than ever.
More suspects are armed than ever, some with firearms, a few with high-powered assault weapons and too many with edged weapons and knives.
High-risk arrest situations in front of potentially hostile crowds (some armed with guns or knives, others with cell-phone or video cameras) also pose a threat.