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Contact & Cover

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:

  • Positioning errors: Your contact officers should not be placing suspects against walls or patrol car hoods for their searches. Contact officers should be doing patdowns on all dicey-looking suspects, while they re clamping down on the suspect s fingers, backs of wrists together, hands in the rear at the waist not with hands on head, in elbow-swinging territory. Your cover officers shouldn t stand too close or too far away from their partners. All of your officers should be hyper-aware of crossfire concerns as they position themselves.
  • Communication errors: The cover officer should avoid conversations with the contact officer that aren t of a coded or tactical nature. Using hand signals and coded language helps us keep a tactical advantage. Simplicity works best.

Example: Chief Ed Delmore, leader of the Fairview Heights (Ill.) Police Department, a veteran police trainer, teaches a simple and effective hand signal known as the badge scratch. When the contact officer discovers weapons, narcotics or other contraband during a car search, a simple scratch of the area on or around their badge is enough to tell the cover officer to be ready to observe the arrest process to follow.

Points to Remember

Conversation by the cover officer with suspects: Both officers need to stay focused on their roles. If the suspect tries to talk to the cover officer, the officer should politely explain, I m sorry, but if you have questions, ask Officer X. These little side chats may seem harmless, but they may have the desired effect for the crook: distracting the officer from the role of providing cover.

If the suspect is a hardcore crook, then the cover officer s tone can be more crystalline: Don t talk to me. Talk to my partner. My job is to watch you and make sure you don t try to hurt us. I won t let that happen. This should not be said to the suspect in a challenging way, or in a metallic way like a robot or a machine, but matter of factly. This is the message the suspect should get, even if you don t actually say it aloud: This is how we do business. My job is to watch you and protect my partner. If you try to hurt him or her or run, you could get hurt or shot. Nobody wants that. Got it?

Domestic violence calls: The usual technique of separating the parties is useful to lower the emotional temperature, but it s bad for officer safety. Tell your squads to always practice C&C when they respond to these calls. They should not leave the sight of their partners when the suspect(s) (and/or their equally drunken and supportive family or pals are nearby). They re in an environment filled with, at a minimum, sharp and heavy objects, and at a maximum, one or more firearms (their own).

Interrupt potential foot pursuits: One major step for the contact officer is to assess the bad guy s body language and interrupt his initial thought processes to flee. How many times have you seen other officers (especially on TV shows likeCops) ignore the warning signs of a suspect s pending escape on foot or by car? Contact officers risk a pursuit when they bury their heads in citation books, attempt to talk to too many people at once (including other cops) or use invisible control (one hand on the suspect s back as he stands with his fingertips lightly placed on the hood or trunk of the squad car).

There are two better approaches here: the cuffs or the patrol car. The contact officer can put hands on jumpy or potentially dangerous people early in the contact and say, Turn around, lock your hands together, and do it now. I m going to cuff you so we can talk, and you won t try to hurt me or run. Because now is not the time to run or fight, please sit on the curb or inside this car after I ve cuffed you and patted you down for weapons.

Important: Notice the use of thought-stopping statements with these suspects. When we foreshadow what you don t want them to do (fight/flee), we can remove the element of surprise and let bad guys know that we realize it s possible they could run or hurt us, but we re not going to allow it.

High-risk arrest situations: These events speak to the need for preplanning and tactical conversations in the patrol car before dangerous calls or contacts ever happen. If the contact officer feels a weapon, or the suspect pulls a hidden one, the contact officer can try to wrestle the weapon away. This is a high-risk/low-success-rate move, although it may certainly be instinctive for the officer s self-preservation.

A better move would be for the contact officer to shout gun! and immediately push hard and fast away, to disengage from the suspect. If we re lucky, the suspect will become unbalanced and fall, or at least be jarred enough to not draw the gun or hit anything. This gives the contact officer the chance to pull his or her own duty weapon and fire. But primarily, it provides the cover officer a clear shot at a now-armed suspect.

There are many factors at play here when a suspect resists, fights or attempts to use a weapon of any type. Your partner might have the size, strength, fighting skills and advantage to disarm the suspect. The officer might be able to reach the Taser or chemical spray, apply a carotid restraint, pain compliance or impact weapon to handle the situation without hands-on help from the cover officer. If so, great. This gives the cover officer the ability to keep wider scene awareness and offer protection from any other people or hazards that may arrive.

If the contact officer can t get the tactical advantage, the cover officer is there to provide maximum leverage in a dangerous situation by preventing him or her from being disarmed, assaulted or killed. The cover officer can use everything from shoving the suspect to deadly force, depending on what the situation requires and all without waiting for the contact officer to say Go ahead! or be injured or killed.

These situations point to the need for pre-pat down and pre-arrest conversations. If we tell suspects they could get hurt if they resist, at least we can plant the seeds of doubt in them. We know C&C works when suspects have told cops, after they were arrested with loaded guns, I d have tried to take you out, but I saw your partner had the drop on me the whole time.

C&C & Active Shooters

In the new post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech world we live in, the first two officers or deputies on scene may be the only ones to respond to multiple armed robbers, school or workplace violence shooters even potential terrorist attacks. Although we always want the advantage of more officers or deputies armed with high-powered weapons and able to use their active shooter entry-locate-engage tactics, it may not always be possible. Most crimes of violence like these are over in a few minutes. It may come down to the C&C officers as the only two first and final problem-solvers on scene.

As a supervisor, you should actively look for every opportunity to practice these high-risk calls as a squad. Send your people to active shooter training classes sponsored by other agencies. You can ask to use empty warehouses, or high schools, colleges or banks during weekend or holiday times. Government buildings set for demolition or remodel offer another platform. Talk to your rangemaster about setting up active shooter practice tactics with your group whenever you can.

It is eerily common to discover after school-based or workplace violence that responding officers received relevant training in the weeks or months prior to the event.

C&C & Other Agencies

As a supervisor, I hope you have enough clout or rapport with your chief to be able to set up half-day C&C training scenarios with the departments that adjoin your city or county.

At minimum, officers, deputies and troopers who cover each other should know the C&C roles. The first officer (contact) on scene is usually in charge. The responding officer provides cover, unless the situation calls for certain expertise (e.g., tattoos, gangs, drugs) or previous encounters (e.g., past arrests, knowledge of the suspect s behaviors, family, associates), wherein it s a good idea to switch roles.

Knowing when to switch roles and what each agency wants its people to do when it comes to discovering guns on suspects during searches is critically important. You must also be aware of when and how to initiate foot or vehicle pursuits and who takes custody of whom. These questions must be addressed and key terms defined prior to engagement, especially as new people transfer in or change shifts, beats and assignments. Getting on the same page is a tactical necessity.

Training C&C

Let s face it: Most pre-shift meetings are boring. Spend some time during your lineups (or whatever your agency calls its roll calls, squad briefings or musters) to talk about C&C situations from your agency, other departments and what you have seen or heard on the local or national news, both in terms of what is working and what can use improvement. Critique scene photos from law enforcement publications or in the newspapers that depict situations in which C&C is being effectively used as well as those in which it s not. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a good cop video (especially where we do the right things) is worth a thousand pictures. Critique police videos you find onCops,, law enforcement Web sites and so forth for good examples of C&C usages. Don t always show situations in which officers or deputies failed; although we can learn by what went wrong, show the many successful uses of C&C as well.


A last point bears discussion here. C&C was designed for and is part of our tactical landscape because it allows cops to be cops. It gives them the time and freedom to dig in and find out what s really going on with a crook, his car or his pals. Knowing that another officer is watching their work can give your folks the confidence and time to look deeper and make better arrests.

However, C&C is not a total security blanket and should never take the place of individual officer survival tactics. Sometimes there s no time for true C&C because events are unfolding so quickly that officers or deputies must protect themselves first and foremost.Example:You and your officers arrive on scene to confront an armed robber firing wildly in your direction. The principles of C&C say that you should do your best to watch out for each other, but only after you prepareyourselfto use lethal force against the suspect.

Sometimes, you have to go there and be a cop, without the luxury of time, space or knowledge of the situation. C&C works best when we can exert control from the outset of the contact. But there are times when officers responding to a scene must think about their own survival first and then overall officersafety(their partner officers) second.

Although the C&C concept is a tool for your officers, ensure they all understand that they must secure themselves first, then their partners. No good comes from being injured or killed because of inadequate self-defense. Even with other officers on scene, your officers can t get complacent and think they are always protected.

C&C has both rigid rulesstay in your roles!–and absolute flexibilitybring your personal skills and expertise to each suspect encounter. As a supervisor, you can help your folks benefit from your wisdom by teaching and modeling the tools.

About The Author


Law Officer is the only major law enforcement publication and website owned and operated by law enforcement. This unique facet makes Law Officer much more than just a publishing company but is a true advocate for the profession.

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