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Officer Down: Contact & Cover

By Brian McKenna

Incident Description
Officer Brian Hale, a 40 year-old, 10-year police veteran, had seen this game played countless times. Even in this relatively quiet mid-sized suburb, he came across a steady stream of people who lied about their identity to avoid arrest. Hale was an aggressive officer with a knack for digging up criminal activity, and lies were a regular part of the game. Like most people who didn’t want to be identified, this guy wasn’t doing a very good job of lying. Hale knew he was onto something; he just didn’t know what. With his typical gritty determination, he kept at it, firing questions at the man while working with the dispatcher to retrieve more information from the computer.

As the interview continued, Hale felt no particular concern for his safety: he had backup with him and there had been no problems so far. They had arrested the man’s companion a few minutes earlier on a traffic warrant without incident, patted both men down without resistance and, except for the lies, appeared to have control of the situation. He felt like he was dealing with nothing more than another traffic warrant. There wasn’t anything about this guy’s attitude to betray his cold-blooded intentions.

Hale had first seen the man about a half an hour earlier. He was later identified as Paul Carouthers, a 21-year old street thug with a long and violent criminal history. Hale had cruised past an abandoned pickup truck on the shoulder of the interstate, and was turning around to check it out when he spotted Carouthers and another man, a smalltime troublemaker named Roderick Taylor, walking away from the highway. They had been heading toward a nearby convenience store and at this late hour (3:30 in the morning), it was a good bet that the abandoned truck was theirs and they were going to get help. However, Hale wanted to make sure it wasn’t stolen before making contact with them. It took several minutes to make his way back to the truck, verify that it was abandoned, and then return to the convenience store.

As he pulled onto the lot, Hale saw Taylor walking out the front door with a large soft drink in his hand, and Carouthers coming toward the front of the store from the bathroom. Hale called out his location and stopped near one of the pumps. He stepped out of his patrol car into hot and humid night air.

“Evening,” he said as he walked up to Taylor. Pointing in the direction of the abandoned truck, he asked, “That your truck up there on the highway?”

“No sir,” the man answered, “it belongs to my partner Paul, there inside the store. It stopped runnin’. Probably cuz it’s outa gas.”

“I see,” Hale replied as a car pulled onto the lot and headed in their direction.

The car stopped next to Taylor and two young men jumped out. Terell Johnson, the driver, looked angry as he moved toward Taylor. “What did you two fools do to my truck!” he growled, “why’d you leave it out on the highway like that?”

Taylor took a step backward, his hands raised, and pleaded, “We didn’t do nuthin’ to it. It just stopped runnin’.”

Johnson started to shoot back with an angry reply, but Hale intervened. “Whoa,” he interjected, “Everybody calm down, now. What’s goin’ on here?”

As he spoke, Hale noticed another car pulling onto the lot. It was an officer, from a nearby department. The convenience store sat just across the border from Hale’s town in an adjoining suburb, and the officer was from that city. The officer, a 27- year old, two-year veteran named Steve Martini, had been cruising by when he spotted Hale and the other men in front of the store. He pulled up, stepped out of his car and approached the group, which now included Carouthers. Martini hadn’t given his decision to stop a second thought—it was what any cop would do when coming across another officer working alone—but it was a decision that would ultimately save officer Hale’s life.

Though still wound up, the four men had calmed down enough to get the story out. As it turned out, they were friends who had been partying together until recently when, after a heated argument, Carouthers and Taylor had left, taking Johnson’s truck with them. Johnson had gone looking for the truck as soon as he realized what they’d done, and had eventually come across it on the interstate just moments after Hale had left it. Assuming that Carouthers and Taylor would head for the nearest open business, Johnson had come to the convenience store looking for them.

After calming down and learning that his truck had only run out of gas, Johnson had declined to prosecute. But before he left he called Hale off to the side and said, “You might want to check Roderick out, man. He’s got warrants.”

“What for?” Hale asked.

“Don’t know for sure. I think it’s just traffic tickets.”

“Okay.” Hale said, “You can go ahead and leave. Thanks.”

After running Taylor’s name through the computer, Hale confirmed that he was wanted on a traffic warrant, and arrested him without incident. He secured his prisoner in the back seat of his patrol car and was about to leave when he noticed Martini was still talking to Carouthers, who had the look of someone with something to hide. The prisoner could wait. He didn’t want to leave Martini alone. Hale moved over next to Martini and asked him if he had patted Carouthers down.

“Yea, a quick one,” Martini replied, “but go ahead and shake him again if you want.”

Wanting to check the man again for weapons and identifying tattoos, Hale took Martini up on the offer. He told Carouthers to lift up his shirt and turn around slowly. Carouthers showed no signs of nervousness or hesitation as he pulled up his baggy T-shirt, revealing the waistband of his boxers above his sagging shorts, and turned around. Hale saw no tattoos, and no telltale bulges or other signs of a weapon.

Standing several feet to Carouthers’ left, Martini was also trying to identify the man. He decided to see if his dispatcher could get any further information out of the computer, and stepped away so he could use his radio without Carouthers hearing him. Martini’s back was now turned on Carouthers and Hale.

In the meantime, Hale had managed to get Carouthers to give him another date of birth and address. He reached into his right breast pocket for a notebook so he could write it down. As he did so, he glanced down at his pocket, allowing his eyes to move away from Carouthers for just an instant. This was the opportunity Carouthers had been looking for. He took a half step backward as his right hand flashed behind his back, reappearing a split second later with a cheap snub-nosed .38 in its grip. He thrust the revolver into Hale’s face, little more than an arm’s reach away, and fired!

Hale never saw the gun; he just saw a burst of white hot light out of the corner of his eye and felt the excruciating impact of the bullet as it slammed into his right cheek like a sledgehammer. He felt himself being driven backward, twisting in slow motion and then floating downward until he landed face down on the warm pavement. As he drifted into unconsciousness, he heard four more shots from the .38, then a single heavier boom from Martini’s Glock .40.

When he awoke several seconds later, Hale was face down in his own blood. As he struggled up onto all fours, he felt hands on his shoulders. The touch was gentle and he thought it was Martini there to help him. But then, the hands started turning him over and he glanced up to see Carouthers’ face hovering above him. A hand grabbed Hale’s holstered Glock and started to yank on it. Without hesitation, Hale locked the gun in close to his body with his right elbow and rolled over onto his gun side. Then there was another booming shot from Martini’s .40, and Carouthers left him.

Martini had moved just a few steps away from Carouthers and Hale when he heard the gunshot behind him. The crack of Carouthers’ .38 startled him, but his reaction was almost instantaneous. He snatched the pistol out of his holster as he spun toward the sound. Carouthers was already charging him, gun in hand. Martini snapped off a quick reflexive shot, but the bullet went wide, as he wheeled to his left and tried to dodge out of the charging man’s way. Carouthers was right behind him. Martini twisted to his left again, instinctively thrusting his left arm behind him to ward off Carouthers’ attack. His gun hand followed as he tucked the pistol under his left arm and fired once in Carouthers’ direction. A split second later, Martini felt the pressure of another blast, mixed with a loud crack and the unmistakable odor of burnt gunpowder, next to his face. The muzzle flash from Carouthers’ revolver had burned Martini’s face but the bullet passed under his chin, barely grazing the flesh.

While heading toward his patrol car for cover, Martini tripped and fell as he rounded a corner near one of the gas pumps. Carouthers wasn’t far behind, looming overhead and firing the deadly .38 down at him. Undaunted, Martini fought back. Whipping his Glock up into firing position, he cracked off two quick shots at his assailant, scrambled to his feet and ran to the front of his patrol car. He turned back toward Carouthers again and saw that he was now moving toward Hale. Martini’s pistol jammed on his next shot. After a quick tap-and-rack, he was back into action. Martini stepped away from his car and advanced toward Carouthers, firing as he walked. Carouthers was leaning over Hale, tugging on the downed officer’s holstered pistol. Martini wasn’t about to let Carouthers get that weapon. He continued advancing and fired another shot. It missed, but Carouthers got the message. He backed off, cut to his right, and sprinted to Hale’s patrol car. Yanking the door open, Carouthers ducked inside and reached across the seat toward the shotgun. Martini kept shooting.

The Glock jammed again, but this time racking the slide wouldn’t clear it. A live round was jammed into the ejection port at an odd angle. Martini stripped the magazine from the weapon, pried the round loose, reloaded and opened fire again. Carouthers had now had enough. He leaped from the car, ran around to the passenger side and ducked out of sight, disappearing into the night.

Martini called for help and an ambulance as he ran to Hale, checking to see if he was still alive. Although bleeding profusely from a grievous wound to his face, Hale was conscious and calling for help on his own radio. His worst fears now driven away, Martini headed back to Hale’s patrol car. After verifying that Carouthers had left the scene, he returned to Hale’s side. As he broadcast a description of Carouthers, Martini knelt beside the dazed officer to comfort him. “You’re gonna be fine,” he said in a calm voice, “an ambulance is on the way. They’ll take good care of you.”

He continued with words of encouragement until the ambulance arrived. As the paramedics hastily loaded Hale into the ambulance and assist units poured into the area, the muggy summer air reached a saturation point. A drenching downpour began, hampering efforts to capture the shooter. Amazingly unscathed in the gunfight, Carouthers had managed to slip away. However, his freedom was short lived. After an extensive manhunt, he was found hiding inside a friend’s house the following day, where he was shot and critically wounded while resisting arrest. He recovered from the wound, and was later convicted of two counts of assault first degree, resisting arrest and several other charges. He is currently serving a term of life plus 20 years.

Hale was lucky; the bullet did not penetrate his skull. However, it did break a tooth and fracture several bones in his face before deflecting into his neck. A large fragment lodged dangerously close to his spine near the base of his skull, but it was successfully removed a few days later. Hale made a full recovery and was back on the job within three months. He is now serving as a K-9 officer on the same department. Martini left police work about two years after the shooting and is currently in the real estate business.

Contact and Cover
This case provides a sobering example of how quickly a routine encounter can turn deadly. Awareness is the first line of defense against this threat, but tactics also play a key role in unknown risk situations. Like seat belts or body armor, tactics provide a safety net that can prove indispensable if anything goes wrong. When backup is present, one such tactic is Contact and Cover. Unfortunately, many officers ignore this essential tactic, or use it only halfheartedly, thereby wasting most of the advantage created by the presence of a backup officer. This advantage is wasted when each officer acts independently and becomes directly involved in the encounter. Instead of having both officers actively involved, we must assign areas of responsibility and coordinate efforts to our advantage. Contact and Cover does exactly that by assigning one officer (the contact officer) to do everything that involves direct contact with the suspect(s), including questioning, searches, arrests, etc,. This is done while the cover officer keeps his distance and continuously scans for danger.

In any encounter, there are moments of vulnerability for an officer. These moments become more dangerous when the officer is absorbed in an activity that requires most of his attention. If both officers are engrossed in what they are doing, the suspect can often use one of those moments of vulnerability to initiate a surprise attack, as Carouthers did. However, when the cover officer takes up a good position and keeps his distance, both physically and mentally, it is much easier for him to spot and react to danger before it is too late. Equally important, this tactic discourages attack because it lets the offender know he is being watched and will have a tough time taking out both officers. It is very unlikely that Carouthers would have shot officer Hale when he did if officer Martini had not turned away. Although simple, Contact and Cover is frequently ignored or poorly executed because the cover officer’s role goes against the grain of many peacekeepers. The cover officer must stay out of the action and remain constantly vigilant in order to do the job properly. This takes a lot of patience and requires physical and emotional distance from the encounter.

Naturally, most cops want to get into the action and grow impatient when not directly involved. We must learn to overcome this tendency through awareness and training. We must keep in mind that a situation can jump from a seemingly routine encounter to a lethal attack in an instant, as is evident in this case. Officer Hale’s ordeal should serve as a constant reminder of this. It should also increase our determination to regularly use Contact and Cover and other sound tactics, even in the most innocent-looking situations.

The importance of Contact and Cover should also be reinforced through classroom training and by incorporating scenarios that require its use in force-on-force exercises. Additionally, road supervisors should insist that their officers practice Contact and Cover anytime a backup officer is on the scene. This not only reinforces training, it also provides a strong incentive for backup officers to resist the temptation to become directly involved unless necessary to protect the contact officer.

Misinterpreting Danger Signs
Like many aggressive, hardworking police officers with a knack for making self-initiated arrests, officer Hale was put at risk by his own success. He’d learned to depend upon his instincts for detecting criminal behavior, but this time was different. Although he’d been correct in believing that Carouthers was hiding something, it was something much more dangerous than what he’d expected. In short, he’d become so focused on identifying Carouthers that he lost track of the potential for danger.

Preludes to attacks often look the same as attempts to conceal criminal activity. Aggressive officers sometimes mistake danger signs for indications that they are getting close to an arrest. In the meantime, their assailant is assessing the situation, planning his actions and waiting for his chance to strike. Although law enforcement officers who intently pursue criminals are an asset to their departments and to their communities, they must remain constantly aware of hazards of the job. In doing so, they must rein in their enthusiasm for making the arrest just enough to consider other, more ominous possibilities. While there is no need to overreact to these potential dangers, it’s important to temper zeal with caution.

Despite the physical and visual pat downs conducted by officers Martini and Hale, Carouthers was able to pull his weapon from behind his back and bring it into action before Hale was even aware of its existence. Although it was never determined exactly where the revolver had been concealed, Hale believes it was between Carouthers’ buttocks under two or three pairs of pants. This is very likely because the buttocks and small of the back are among the most common places officers miss concealed weapons during searches and pat downs. This is probably because these areas are recessed and often covered by relatively heavy clothing. Additionally, when a suspect is handcuffed, his hands tend to get in the way of the search and officers may be reluctant to thoroughly search the buttocks area. Similarly, the crotch is often missed because officers are too bashful to search it properly. Suspects know this, which is precisely why they hide weapons in these areas. A weapons search is not the time to be shy or sloppy—search suspects thoroughly.

Flawless pat downs are difficult to achieve under any circumstances, and they are made more difficult by baggy clothing. We must remind ourselves of the need to conduct thorough searches of the areas mentioned and everywhere else as well. It is also important to be systematic and consistent in the way we conduct our searches, because this helps ensure that we don’t skip anything. These principles must be emphasized in classroom training and reinforced during practical exercises. We also should not hesitate to search a suspect after we’ve been told that another officer has already done it. Likewise, don’t hesitate to let another officer search your suspect after you’ve already patted him down, or to search him again yourself. Remember, anyone can miss a hidden weapon. Officer safety is too important to let concern about bruised feelings interfere with our actions. Don’t drop your guard after patting down your suspect, no matter how thorough you were about it. You might have missed something, and a false sense of security will only increase your vulnerability.

Officer Martini was caught off guard by Carouthers’ unexpected attack on officer Hale. Then, before reality sank in, Carouthers was charging him, with his revolver blazing away at pointblank range. To make matters worse, Martini’s pistol jammed as he tried to fight back. He performed well under the circumstances, but it appears that he was negatively affected by stress of the attack. This is evidenced by the diminished accuracy of his return fire. Although a good shooter, Martini fired a very large number of rounds without any hits. This is not unusual in high-stress situations, even for officers who are normally good with firearms.

How do we combat this stress? First, we prepare for danger long beforehand through mental imagery, preplanning, positive self-talk and an unswerving commitment to win. We must also remain constantly aware of our surroundings, while continually scanning for danger signs, because the sooner we spot a threat and react to it, the less stress it will produce. As expected, tactics also play a role. Appropriate tactics lessen vulnerability, in turn, reducing the danger and stress it creates. Finally, realistic hands-on training, like stress combat courses, interactive video firearms systems and force-on-force training will enhance performance under stress. By creating stress through simulations, this training allows officers to experience stress similar to that which occurs in combat, teaches them to perform well under such circumstances and builds self-confidence. It’s important that the stress levels be gradually increased in proportion to the competency of the trainees. Otherwise, you run the risk of discouraging them and damaging their self-confidence.

Backup Guns
Thanks to officer Martini’s actions and his own quick response to Carouthers’ disarming attempts, officer Hale didn’t have to face the grim prospect of being disarmed. But what if he had been alone? In that case, it would have been very difficult for him to maintain control of his duty weapon while fighting back. A backup gun can be a lifesaver under such circumstances, but only if you can get to it quickly while retaining control of your duty weapon. Ankle holsters are a common way to carry a second gun, but they generally require both hands for a rapid draw. They also tend to be somewhat insecure and can become exposed to an assailant’s view, making them vulnerable to gun grabs. In this case, officer Hale is convinced that he would have been disarmed of an ankle weapon had he been wearing one. He feels that his prone position would have brought the gun readily into Carouthers’ view at a time when he was in a poor position to defend it. Other methods of carry, like pocket holsters and holsters attached to your body armor are preferable because they are more secure and easier to reach than an ankle holster.

Regardless of the kind of holster, it should be worn where you can reach it quickly with your support hand. This will also provide you with a firearm if your gun hand is injured or being used to fend off a close-range assault.

A second gun also proves beneficial if you experience serious weapon malfunction. In this instance, Martini was able to clear his first jam quickly, but the second took longer. Fortunately, Carouthers was out of ammunition by then. It can be argued that officer Martini would have been better off using a Phase II clearance technique, but that takes a lot of time. Considering the short duration of most police gunfights, there just isn’t time to clear a serious jam. A readily accessible backup gun can be brought into action much faster.

Winning Mindset
Both officers Hale and Martini did the one thing most needed in any lethal encounter—they fought back! Hale locked his holstered pistol into place and rolled over to keep from losing his weapon. Martini quickly returned fire and kept at it until he finally drove Carouthers away. Admittedly, none of officer Martini’s shots hit their mark, but he reacted quickly and never gave up, even after two distressing pistol malfunctions. His persistence not only helped him remain unscathed, but also prevented Carouthers from doing officer Hale more harm. The importance of fighting back, of doing something, even it it’s not exactly right, cannot be overemphasized. Experience has shown that an assailant will run, surrender or become incapacitated more than 80% of the time when an officer shoots back. However, if you do not fight back, your survival will depend purely on lucky and your opponent’s good will. Which would you prefer?

Although Carouthers never admitted anything, it’s safe to assume that his attempt to take officer Hale’s weapon was to use it against his most immediate threat, Martini, and against Hale as well. By fighting back to the best of his ability, despite his devastating wound, Hale contributed significantly to his and Martini’s survival. Equal credit must go to Martini. His tenacity kept Carouthers from persisting in his disarming attempt and considering Hale’s weakened condition, it would likely have succeeded if allowed to continue.

Both officers demonstrated two other characteristics of winners; they stayed calm and kept thinking throughout the gunfight. Officer Martini took evasive action to get out of Carouthers’ line-of-fire while also returning fire and he didn’t panic, even after falling once and experiencing two weapon malfunctions. Although he didn’t use the proper technique to clear the second jam, he didn’t give up either. Instead, he figured out a way to clear the weapon and get back into the fight.

Officer Hale remained calm in the face of danger and exercised mental flexibility under stress. Even though he was hurt too badly to fight back effectively, he did not focus on his fears or vulnerability but on what he could do to deal with the situation. Besides rolling over on his gun side, he also considered shooting at Carouthers’ feet when he saw them on the other side of the patrol car. He had the presence of mind to realize that Carouthers’ position gave him the chance to draw his weapon and get some shots off. He also realized that Carouthers’ feet were not very good targets and even if his shots were successful, such wounds might not be incapacitating. In fact, this might only serve to encourage Carouthers to renew the attack. It may be argued both ways: (1) that officer Hale should have shot anyway, with the hope of incapacitating Carouthers or forcing him to flee or (2) that he made the right choice considering his physical condition. Regardless, he was continuing to think through the situation, weigh his options and focus on what he could do. It is this kind of critical tactical thinking under stress that makes winners.

Although additional training would have benefited both officers, it most certainly made a positive contribution to their survival. Martini credits his training with enabling him to respond quickly to danger, especially when it came to clearing his jammed pistol without desperation or alarm. Likewise, Hale credits his weapon retention training with giving him the awareness and method to retain control of his weapon during Carouthers’ disarming attempt. Training is as essential ingredient in winning lethal confrontations, especially when officers are confronted with an unexpected threat.

Aiding a Wounded Officer
Officer Martini’s actions also highlighted an important point about giving aid to a wounded officer. Your words can have a powerful impact on the officer’s ability to overcome his injuries, so it is important to be positive and encouraging. In this case, the need for positive comments was obvious because officer Hale was still conscious.It may not be so obvious when the officer is unconscious. The subconscious mind is very susceptible to outside suggestions during crises, and it can hear what is being said even when the victim is unconscious. Regardless of the injuries, keep telling the officer that help is on the way, that he is going to make it, that he can overcome his injuries. This kind of positive talk will give him encouragement and reinforce his will to live.

Fortunately, officer Hale’s injuries were not as severe as they appeared. Actually, this is not unusual. It isn’t easy to make a solid head shot. Because of the density and design of the skull, many bullets don’t penetrate into the brain, especially when striking at an angle or when fired from a handgun. Remember, even if you are shot in the head, there is no reason to panic or give up. If you are conscious enough to realize you have been wounded, your chances of overcoming the wound are still good. Also remember that you cannot count on headshots to kill, or even incapacitate an assailant. Bullets don’t always work, no matter where they hit. Always be ready to keep shooting for as long as it takes to terminate the threat.

About the Author
Brian McKenna, a 31-year police veteran, is a lieutenant with a midwestern police department, where he serves as a shift supervisor, lead firearms instructor and in-service training officer. He holds an MS in management and development of human resources, is a certified police instructor with teaching experience at both the academy and in-service level, and is a member of ILEETA and ASLET.

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