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Contact & Cover

The supervisor's critical role in officer survival



Steven Albrecht | From the October 2009 Issue Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sept. 14, 2009, marked the 25-year anniversary of the deaths of two San Diego police officers, Tim Ruopp and Kim Tonahill, who were shot to death at the same incident. This event proved a watershed moment for the department, and the tactics implemented as a result haven't lost their relevancy over time.

How the Murders Happened

While driving through Grape Street Park near midnight, Ruopp had encountered two adults who had given alcohol to two female minors in their company. Ruopp began writing misdemeanor citations to each of the men; Tonahill arrived later to provide cover.

While Ruopp cited the first suspect, Tonahill decided to conduct a pat-down search of the second, Joselito Cinco. When she put her hands on him, Cinco knocked her down, pulled a 9 mm pistol from a shoulder holster under his jacket and shot her to death. He moved toward Ruopp and shot and killed him by his patrol car. Cinco was captured later that morning, and, following his conviction for the double murder of two police officers, he hanged himself in prison.

The Outcome

The murders of Ruopp and Tonahill forced the San Diego Police Department to take a hard look at the way its officers conducted business in the streets. The agency decided to go back to a field control technique called contact and cover, which had been around for many years, but had mostly fallen out of use, except among some of the old-school personnel.

As Detective Lt. John Morrison put it, We had always taught the contact-and-cover concepts in an informal way. But we moved away from the tactics as the number of radio calls rose over the years. After the Grape Street Park incident, we clarified the roles and reintroduced contact-and-cover tactics as part of our new and advanced officer training.

Contact and cover (C&C) has always been a simple concept to explain to officers and deputies; putting it into operation is the challenge. For field supervisors, success in implementing C&C, both with their squads and department-wide, starts by modeling the concept in the field themselves, coaching and teaching the movements, and, most importantly, by measuring its use in performance evaluations.

If officers and deputies aren t held accountable for their officer safety decisions, the outcome can be fatal. C&C has been added as a field performance anchor for many federal, state, and local agencies around the country, and the language describing the methods has been put into many law enforcement reports and courtroom testimonies. Why? Because it works now and like it did in the good ol days.

Contact & Cover Basics

Let s boil down the concept of C&C: The contact officer is responsible for the stop, the questioning, the pat-down, the citing or field interview writing, the radio usage, the physical arrest and the search of one or more suspects. The cover officer is responsible for watching the contact officer from a safe distance from which the officer can see and hear what s happening without getting involved in the encounter. The cover officer uses force presence to prevent suspect escapes or destruction of evidence and active offensive measures, when necessary, to prevent the contact officer from being assaulted or disarmed.

If the C&C idea is simple Watch me while I do my work and as I talk to this potential crook then why do we still see officers and deputies ignore or modify (a common theme in police work) the approach, even to the detriment of their safety? The answer: To paraphrase Navy jet jock Tom Cruise inTop Gun, "They feel the need for speed."

The desire of some officers and deputies to split up the work (dual searches, two conversations, separate arrests) and thereby take their eyes and ears off each other is often rationalized by the demands of the police radio (or their own supervisors or commanders) urging them to get to the next call.

The calls are really starting to stack up tonight, says an overworked dispatcher, late on a busy Saturday. With this in the back of their minds, units in the field can get swept up in the moment and feel compelled to move things along and start hammering calls. Whenever you see or hear officers say, You talk to this guy, and I ll talk to that one. Let s get this show on the road, in a field interview situation, you know C&C is not first in their thoughts.

Perhaps we have the very nature of our own profession to blame as well. We seek to hire assertive, aggressive and curious people, who are not often content to stand by while things are going on around them. It can be hard for a sergeant or field lieutenant to tell young hard-chargers to ignore their instincts to help their partners along by confronting suspects, talking to victims or witnesses, searching people or cars, or grabbing a pen to get the paperwork going faster or even more likely, whipping out some cuffs and start applying them to wrists.

Your Role as Field Supervisor

As a field supervisor, you have the opportunity, either through direct observation as you cover your people or from a distance as you observe your people in action, to evaluate and then later influence their successful use of C&C.

This isn't a chance to spy on your employees; it s a way for you to fine-tune their officer safety performance not through criticism and harangues, but through coaching. These conversations can and should take place away from the officer s peers and suspects, but must occur soon after you see the behavior you re seeking to correct. This could include:

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Steven AlbrechtSteven Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999 and is the author of Streetwork; Surviving Street Patrol; One-Strike Stopping Power; and Tactical Perfection for Street Cops. The first edition of Contact & Cover: Two-Officer Suspect Control was published in 1990 by Charles C. Thomas Publishers. He can be reached at


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