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December 04, 2013
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Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. Passion for the Job
with Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

My problem with contact and cover

The problem with people like me is the central failure of contact and cover as it is frequently practiced — I want to be the co-contact!

I’ve been doing some review of contact and cover. I’ve been reading the archives of PoliceOne commentary on the topic, and it has pricked my conscience. (If you’re not using the PoliceOne columnists archive you’re missing out on tons of great stuff — including all my old articles!)

I need to confess I haven’t been very good at it. I’ve been a supervisor and trainer since I was about two years on the job. I am so habituated to being in the role of assisting, correcting, and helping that I want to engage the suspect along with the other officer. 

I just want to help!

Albrecht and Morrison
I don’t think I’m alone. Since San Diego PD Officers Albrecht and Morrison published Contact & Cover: Two-Officer Suspect Control in the early '90s, the tactic has been a standard police practice. Whether it is well practiced is another question. 

I’ve also recently reviewed the significant use-of-force study done in Phoenix in which contact and cover is correlated to higher rates of use of force by officers. 

The report concedes that the incidents in which contact and cover is documented may tend to be more volatile and therefore lend themselves to higher probability of use of force. Concurrence doesn’t necessarily mean causation. But the researchers could not ignore the significance of the correlation. In fact, the number of officers or arrival of additional officers were all associated with increasing the likelihood of force.  

On the one hand, our first thought might be, “Duh, more cops means it was a bad situation in the first place.” 

On the other hand, shouldn’t a greater show of force mean that resistance would be less and compliance would be greater? As a researcher myself, I know that there are always too many uncontrollable variables in social research to make definitive, “when this happens, it causes that to happen” conclusions. 

But since suspect use of force is the primary predictor of officer use of force, we must wonder how suspect behavior is affected by contact and cover.

Science of Fight, Flight or Freeze
When I overlay contact and cover with brain research, I do see a possible pattern. 

The key is divided attention. We like to say we multi-task well, but the biological reality is we can’t do multiple things simultaneously. Our brains simply shift attention from one thing to another. 

Although our skill is in the speed at which we can make those transitions, there is a time delay during the shift. We want divided attention in our suspects to increase, and in our officers to decrease. Both of these are accomplished by disciplined contact and cover practice.

Another brain function of interest that is whirring in the mind of a suspect is his fight, flight, or freeze (F3) chemistry. Submission provides a relief from the F3 impulses because such a decision provides certainty and stress relief. Until then, the multiple stressors of a police contact create tension that increases the F3 chemistry. With our radios buzzing, lights flashing, bystanders watching, and more cops showing up, the suspect’s F3 bio-cocktail keeps ramping up. 

If the mind of the contact officer is calculating what interaction he or she might have with the cover officer — this can be happening below the conscious awareness level — then the contact officer’s attention is divided, lowering his or her reaction time at the same time our suspect may be getting closer to fighting. 

Providing clear communication with a contact can reduce the uncertainty of the outcome, and therefore reduce the suspect’s F3 chemistry. 

Here’s My Problem
The problem with people like me is the central failure of contact and cover as it is frequently practiced — I want to be the co-contact! 

This not only divides the attention of me and the real contact officer, it creates mental confusion in the suspect (especially if he or she is trying to listen to conflicting commands) and, to some degree, in the contact officer. This adds a little more adrenaline to the mix. It is counterproductive and perhaps the key to understanding higher incidence of force during contact and cover. 

I am now in the process of reframing my mental outlook on cover, distinguishing cover from “assistance” or “backup.” 

Cover is a specific assignment for operational safety at a scene where the first officer is engaging a suspect. I am not assisting him or her in the contact, I am being their eyes and ears, keeping a 360-perspective — especially if there are bystanders — intercepting distracting radio traffic, deploying and staging additional assets if needed, and being ready to employ deadly force. 

I’m still large and in charge — just not in charge of the contact, only operational safety for this particular mission.

Thanks for hearing my confession. I feel better now. 


About the author

Joel Shults operates Shults Consulting LLC, featuring the Street Smart Force training curriculum. He is retired as Chief of Police for Adams State University in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults





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