07/09/2007

Cover: Myths, realities & the importance of spotting it early

By Mike Rayburn
Adjunct Instructor, Smith & Wesson Academy

If an officer is able to reach cover during a shooting situation and use it effectively, then the chances of that officer surviving the incident are greatly increased. Given this fact, it only makes sense that we should be locating  and when necessary using cover whenever possible. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done.

The biggest problem with trying to use cover is that in many cases, there is no cover available to the officer. [In fact, in the "Cover" section of the Force Science News article, New study: We're getting better prepared to win on the street and in court, it's reported that only 15% of officers polled in a new study on officer-involved shootings had the luxury of using cover. The rest were caught unprotected and even if they tried to move to cover, they didn’t have time to reach it before the shooting was over.] We work in close proximity to the people we deal with on a daily basis. Whether we’re making a field interview contact, handling a domestic, handcuffing an arrested person, or just generally dealing with the public, we have to get in close to these people to interact with them. This is true whether this interaction results in some type of enforcement action or not.

When was the last time you asked the operator of a motor vehicle for his driver’s license from 21 feet away? Or how about trying to handcuff someone from 10 feet away? I know it sounds silly, but I’m trying to make a point. We deal in close proximity to people on a daily, almost routine, basis. It’s that word “routine” that tends to bite us in the nether regions. We tend to forget about looking for cover during the contact should things suddenly go bad and we need it.

This brings me to the second biggest problem with cover. Most officers don’t think about it until it’s too late. The time to start thinking about cover and how you’re going to move to it is not when a gunfight erupts. The time to think about cover is always…to constantly have it in the back of your head. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, you should always have a sense of what cover is available to you and how you can move to it.

Once you’ve determined the cover available to you, you have to decide whether you’re going to be able to move to it quickly under stress should a shooting occur. A concrete wall across the street is good, but a big tree three steps away from you is better. If there isn’t cover available, which unfortunately is the case in a lot of officer-involved shootings, then at the very least, you should move. Movement in a gunfight is essential.

If you’re behind cover, stay there and use it effectively. Remember, a large percentage of officers who do this survive shooting incidents. So if you’ve got cover and you’re using it, the odds are in your favor.

Another aspect to consider when talking about cover is visualization -- planting a mental image in your head as to where that cover is located and how you’re going to move to it quickly and with sure footing. This will better prepare you to act quickly if things suddenly go bad. If you don’t have that image pre-planted in your brain, it’s not going to come to you when you’re suddenly under fire. Your brain will be too occupied with processing everything else going on to think about what is—and isn’t—cover and how to move to it.

A simple way to demonstrate this fact is to set up a training scenario where an officer has to walk past simulated cover placed off to the side during an approach to a “subject”. The cover should be placed such that the officer must move backwards and laterally to reach it once he is within close proximity of this subject.

Now have the officer walk up to the “subject” with his or her handgun holstered and as he gets to within a yard or two of the mock person, yell “fire!”

If the officer didn’t already make a mental note of where that cover was, he or she will turn their head and look for it as they’re shooting and moving backwards. No problem, right? WRONG! Do you really think that during a firefight, with someone shooting at you from three to six feet away, you’re going to be able to take your eyes off the shooter to look around for cover?

Now have that same officer go through the course again, but this time have him make sure to mentally note the cover and where it’s located before the drill begins. If he does this, you’ll see him move flawlessly to it, without ever taking his eyes off of the target. It’s as simple as that. Just a quick mental note.

This is so simple that you can practice this mental imagery in the comfort of your own home. Stand directly in front of your television set. (Do this when the kids aren’t home so you don’t have to listen to the complaints.) Now without looking, move back to your sofa without tripping over the coffee table, while keeping your eyes fixed on the television set. Easy right?

Now have someone move the coffee table to one side or the other. If you don’t make a mental note of where that coffee table is, you’re going to trip over it as you try to move back to the sofa.

It’s the same thing on the street. If you don’t make a mental note of where that cover is, you will not be able to move to it smoothly and flawlessly while keeping your eyes on the threat.

One last thing about looking for cover: the first place you should look for it is on your strong side. Why? Because for most of us, this will be the side you automatically (dare I say “instinctively”) move to under stress. To prove this, run a force-on-force scenario.

Have the bad guy suited up in his protective gear with a rubber knife. Have the officer stand approximately 10-12 feet, (the average distance in an edged weapon attack), away from the bad guy with his Simunitions or Air Soft gun in his holster. Tell the officer that he or she is required to move laterally, (because moving backwards is too slow and awkward) to one side or the other and fire some rounds into the charging assailant.

Now, without warning, have the suited up aggressor run at the officer. You’ll see for yourself that well over 99% of the time officers will move to their strong side. They do this automatically without ever being told, or trained, to do so. If this is the case, then we need to train our officers to look for cover on their strong sides first, and then look for additional cover from there.

If you doubt the validity of this drill, let me give you one last fact. Get up and walk over to a set of stairs. Your first step up will be with your strong side foot. Walk a little further away from those same stairs and try it again. Your first step up will be with your strong side foot. We do this automatically and instinctively. If this is the case, then why not train this way? Why not train the way we’re going to fight.

Keep these facts, and problems, about cover in mind whenever you’re dealing with anyone, and you’ll win that fight.

About the author:

Michael T. Rayburn is a 29-year veteran of Law Enforcement and is currently an adjunct instructor at the Smith & Wesson Academy. He is the author of three books, Advanced Vehicle Stop Tactics, Advanced Patrol Tactics, and Basic Gunfighting 101. His video, "Instinctive Point Shooting with Mike Rayburn" is a top seller in the law enforcement and combat shooting communities. Mike can be reached at www.pointshooting.org.

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