Unless you work in a very rural area and are truly on your own, with no backup available, many times when we make contact with individuals, another officer is there (or will soon show up) to assist. When backup arrives, whether it is a squad member or an officer from another agency, we tend to feel safer during the investigation we’re conducting.
It makes sense that if there are two or more officers on scene, then the safety, security and investigation are all enhanced. However, unless you and your cover/backup officer(s) are disciplined, more than one officer on the scene can lead to confusion and possibly compromise safety).
I’ve been guilty of getting involved during investigations when I was supposed to be the cover officer. Since most of us are ‘Type A’ personalities, it’s hard to stand back and watch someone else work. But that is exactly what we should be doing.
Off-Duty Incident Got Me Thinking
Recently, I was told of a call that one of my officers was involved in while off duty. While he was at home, my officer heard someone yelling that a male was beating his wife. This officer responded quickly and was able to make contact with the male and female.
It turned out that the male was armed with a pistol, but would not exit the house. As a perimeter was established, my officer began kicking down a wooden fence so the female could escape and he could have access to the backyard.
After hearing the loud noises in the back yard, both officers in front of the house left their positions on the perimeter, allowing the male to escape the residence.
Thankfully, he was arrested without incident, but this story demonstrates the importance of doing the specific task to which we’re assigned. Just as the officers on perimeter should stay on their posts until relieved, the cover officer during an encounter needs to maintain their post until the stop is over.
If we’re going to continue to use the concept of contact officer and cover officer, then we must use it properly.
Let’s look at a typical traffic stop with one or two subjects in the vehicle. The contact officer conducts a stop for a traffic violation. The officer makes contact with the occupants and retrieves the required paperwork.
While conducting computer checks, the officer may call for backup to conduct a search or another officer may simply show up. The contact officer will update the backup officer on what has occurred, and how the investigation will continue.
Let’s say the officer has the driver come back to the patrol car to discuss the citation and investigate the need to request for consent to search. The contact officer will bring the subject back and carry on the investigation. The entire time, this officer will stand in front of the subject, typically with their hands down or with paperwork in their hands.
The cover officer will either stand behind the contact officer or to the side so that he/she can watch the subject that’s out of the vehicle while watching the occupant in the vehicle. This is how many contact/cover encounters evolve.
I believe there’s a problem with this tactic. The contact officer is too engaged with the person he is talking with to really be able to defend himself. Meanwhile, the cover officer, who is several feet away, is not in a position to keep the contact officer safe.
And although he shouldn’t be, the cover officer will often be more focused on the contact officer and the subject then he should be. Once the contact officer is attacked, the cover officer will respond to assist.
My question then would be “who is watching the other people in the car”? While both officers are fighting with the first suspect, a second suspect could possibly get involved. Unfortunately, this scenario has had some tragic endings.
I would like to propose a possible alternative to the standard tactic. I will use the same traffic stop scenario. Everything would be the same (the initial contact, the arrival of backup, and the calling the person out of the car).
Instead of the contact officer standing close to the suspect, the cover officer would assume this position. The original/contact officer would stand several feet away from the suspect, but would still conduct the interview. Since the officers have switched positions, they can each complete their assignments safely and efficiently.
With the cover officer positioning himself or herself in the “normal” interview position, they can watch the suspect and the vehicle easily. This officer can focus their entire attention on the suspect, keep their hands in a more ready position and also gain a psychological advantage over the suspect.
Over the past several years, I have started using this tactic when applicable, and one of the things I’ve noticed is how uncomfortable the suspect becomes as I stand close to him with my hands above my waist and simply focus my attention on him.
Although the contact officer is asking questions from several feet away, the suspect always returns his attention to me — the cover officer — and is probably wondering why I’m so close to him.
I truly believe the suspect realizes there is no opening for him to attack me because my focus is not divided. As a result, there have been no physical encounters when I employ this method.
Since the contact officer no longer has to have their attention split between the investigation and their safety, they can focus more on the investigation. The contact officer can watch the suspect’s physical reactions to the questions along with listening to the answers. They can also take more time in the investigation since their safety is not as much in immediate jeopardy.
This alternate method may not be ideal for every situation.
Having the contact officer stand away from the suspect in a DUI investigation would not be practical. However, I do believe that in many encounters this method would prove very beneficial.