Observing and Orienting In Conversation

The basic principle of “contact and cover” has been a mainstay of law enforcement training for decades.  The idea of one officer initiating the contact with a person and another officer(s) providing the cover for the contact officer has served law enforcement well in regard to force protection.  Savvy officers however, those trained in the art and science of behavior analysis and threat recognition, know that the cover officer’s role goes far beyond a simple show of force.  A properly trained cover officer can be a tremendous asset in observing the cues that are often indicative of a threat.

The purpose of the contact and cover approach is simple in nature.  While one officer (the contact officer) is conducting questioning, a pat-down or search, evidence collection, such as a breathalyzer, or taking a suspect into custody, the cover officer is positioned to view the suspect and take appropriate action as necessary to aid and protect the contact officer.  A suspect is less likely to launch an offensive attack on an officer when outnumbered.  In the event that a suspect does go on the offensive, either in an attempt to escape or do harm to the contact officer, the immediate presence of another officer keeps the odds on the side of law enforcement.  This, however, is only one dimension of the cover officer role and responsibility.

Experienced officers acting in the cover role realize that aiding and protecting the contact officer is more than simply standing by in the event that a physical confrontation develops, then providing the necessary use of force to overcome the resistance.  While that role is certainly important and should not be understated, that is only a part of the cover officer’s duties.  The contact officer, while concerned with a number of tasks such as questioning the subject, recording information, handling radio traffic, and a host of other duties, is not always capable of making the shrewd observations necessary to determine the subject’s true intentions.  The cover officer, while being offset from the contact officer and not bridled with the same responsibilities, can more closely observe the subject for critical cues associated with threat.  The cover officer can observe and assess subtle behaviors of the subject that the contact officer many times simply cannot.  A good cover officer recognizes their role in threat recognition based on the profiling domains of Kinesics, Biometrics, Proxemics and Iconography.

Many law enforcement contacts involve mere questioning of persons with no preconceived intent on the part of officers to take the subject into custody.  During this process, however, a skilled, well-trained cover officer will often times observe those biometric cues triggered by the limbic system associated with “flight or fight.”  With the rush of hormones such as adrenaline (epinephrine) norepinephrine and cortisol, the body displays visible signs of stress and prepares itself for action.  This may include increased heart rate, respiration, sweating, shaking, pupil dilation and blushing or paling.

These Biometric Cues are important observations for the cover officer to make.  Something has triggered a fight or flight response in the subject that calls for further examination.  Perhaps it was a “hot button” question or questions posed to the subject.  A careful review and follow-up of the questions asked (and the subject’s response) would clearly be in order.  The subject may have answered untruthfully, heightening his consciousness of guilt.  It may also mean the subject is preparing to launch a physical attack against the officers, or perhaps the subject is preparing to flee.

By continuing to view the subject through the remaining lenses of Kinesics, Proxemics and Iconography simultaneously, a clearer picture begins to emerge as to the subject’s true intentions.  Is the subject displaying Kinesic cues associated with flight or fight?  Are the feet oriented toward the officer, or facing slightly away, as if prepared to flee?  Is the subject attempting to pacify himself through the rubbing of his hands, running his hands through his hair, rubbing his neck or forehead, or engaged in repetitive movements such as bouncing his leg(s) or tapping his feet?  Is the subject slowly closing the distance with the contact officer, knowing that proximity negates skill?  Or perhaps he is slowing moving beyond the prescribed “arms length plus a foot” distance, hoping to advance his lead should he decide to run.  Has the subject taken on a look of “mission focus,” or is the subject looking past the officer as he scans for a likely escape route?  Finally, are there any signs, symbols, emblems, icons, tattoos or other markings that may give an indication of the subject’s affiliation, social standing, political, or religious views that may be consistent with anti-government, anti-law enforcement and/or general criminal behavior?

An astute cover officer who is properly trained can make these observations and far more, and can make the correct assessment of the subject’s intentions.  This allows for proper action on the officers part before the contact turns physical or the subject flees.   The aforementioned cues sometimes manifest themselves in very overt ways, thus not requiring special training to notice.  However, many more times the cues are far more subtle and varied, and must be viewed in the proper context only after a baseline of behavior has been established.

While it is always reassuring to have a cover officer present who has the physical strength and skill to overcome resistance or give foot chase when necessary, in my own experience, I always wanted more in a cover officer.  I’ll take the street savvy officer, well-trained, with all the accouterments of patrol work, including solid profiling skills.  Give me the cover officer who can keep me left of bang.

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