Cover Officer Tactics

A three-step process to being a good cover officer

By Dave Grossi  |   Feb 13, 2018

[Author’s Note: I recently became engaged in a lengthy discussion on the issues of contact and cover (C/C) with an officer from the Midwest. This officer had a pretty good grasp on the contact officers’ job, but didn’t quite understand the all important tactics and responsibilities of the cover officer. … So I asked permission from the great folks at Law to reprint an article authored by yours truly that originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Law Officer Magazine that outlined in great detail those all important tasks. I sent the article to that officer, but thought it might be time to remind our Calibre Press readers on the importance of this concept. For a full reprint of that January 2011 piece, click here.]

Every cop has been in the role of cover officer. Maybe it was before retired San Diego Lieutenant John Morrison formalized the name C/C, but the principle has been around as long as there’ve been cops and bad guys. The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Batman had Robin. And old Doc Holliday probably covered Wyatt Earp’s back more often than Earp’s own brothers did.

There are some jobs which are always two-person calls: DVs, silent alarm trips, burglary- or robbery-in-progress runs. But, I don’t want to focus too much on those calls.  I want to talk more about when and how you, as a zone or sector partner, should roll in as a cover officer or second officer.

I’ve probably responded as a cover officer more than I did as a road boss. I always told my troops, back when I served as both a street sergeant and patrol lieutenant, that when “you see me roll in on an in-progress call, I’m there first as your back-up, second, as your boss.” And while there is no guarantee that just having a cover officer present is going to make you bulletproof (because more than half of all officer assaults occur when there’s more than one officer on the scene), there’s no doubt that four eyes see more than two, two guns are better than one and the unspoken force presence that a second officer brings to the scene can never be over emphasized.

Let’s begin with a brief recap of why the C/C concept is so important from the cover officer’s perspective.

The Cover Officer

The cover officer’s job is really two-fold: first, to observe the suspect/s and protect the contact officer from a position of control and, second, to provide that unspoken force presence mentioned above.

The cover officer’s specific duties include monitoring all radio communications that may come in that could affect this job, like maybe an updated dispatch on an outstanding warrant for the suspect the contact officer is dealing with or a “pick up and hold” that just came over the wire. This task is always done without ever taking his or her eyes away from the contact officer or the suspects.

Next, the cover officer also constantly watches and observes both the area and the suspects, including any escape routes, prevents the destruction of evidence, and by his or her demeanor and positioning discourages any assaults that any of these mopes might be contemplating.

And lastly, he or she is always maintains that position of readiness, prepared and equipped to go hands on at a moments notice to prevent any assault, ambush, disarming or other extreme threat that may arise during the contact.

Other Considerations

Communications: It’s essential in all police work, but there are particular considerations as the cover officer. You, as the primary, have to communicate with the second or third responding units. You need to tell them what’s going on. Back when ol’ Dave had a full head of dark brown hair, before MDTs became standard equipment, we had to communicate via radio. Voice inflection said a lot. In fact, a lot more than a few punched codes on a keyboard that appeared miles away on a computer screen ever could. That increase in pitch in my zone partner’s voice said a whole lot more than “back up requested.”

In today’s age of wordless technology, we sometimes forget the impact that the spoken word can convey.  Even if it’s a busy night and calls are being stacked up, you might want to consider switching to the TAC frequency, or go to the “car-to-car” mode if your city’s radio system has that capability, and tell your patrol neighbor exactly what you have. There’s only so much the dispatcher can relay by translating “civilianese” to “cop talk” for radio broadcast purposes.  “See the man at 1218 Front Street, Apartment 2-C, upstairs in the rear, for a neighbor trouble, man threatening” may not convey the urgency of the call, especially if you’ve been there before, and the 6’7” 278-lb. moron who lives at 1218 Front Street, Apartment 2-C, upstairs in the rear, offered to rip your head off and defecate in your neck last month during a similar neighbor trouble call. You have to talk to your zone partner before and during the response so they know what to expect when they arrive.  Surprise parties are nice, but not in street police work.

Stage before committing. The time to discuss tactics with your bud is before you pull up into the kill zone. When you’ve been summoned to provide back up, consider meeting your primary a distance away so you can coordinate how the two of you are going to handle this job. There are very few calls that are going to necessitate a response so immediate that you can’t pause for a minute or two to discuss team tactics, but this is especially true during night runs when sounds travel further and your overheads can be seen for more than a few blocks away.  Your partner may have some special knowledge about either the occupants who reside at the location you’re going to, or even the layout of the home or apartment. You don’t want any confusion after you’ve made your entry.

Lastly, anticipate the need. If you’ve been on the job a while, you already know when you should make a U–turn and start in the direction of your zone partner. When you hear a T-stop being called out in an area of town where the whole shift usually responds when a DV gets called in, or the neighboring sector car calls with a traffic violation and reports “no plate visible, six occupants,” maybe that cuppa joe you’ve been looking forward to can wait a few minutes.

That sixth sense we always talk about, the one that lawyers always tell us doesn’t amount to probable cause or even reasonable suspicion, is really nothing more than experience, instinct and intuition kicking in. Maybe the address given out is one you recognize. Maybe the description of the vehicle your buddy calls out with lights your board. It could even be the plate number of the car that rings your chimes. But that good cop’s sixth sense is something you shouldn’t ignore.

Don’t suppress that anticipatory need when it gets your gut juices flowing. Roll on it. If you hear your zone pard call “clear” before you arrive, fine. But having been there, I can tell you just seeing your sector partner pull up behind you or park across the street in the parking lot during a traffic stop with his headlight illuminating the suspect’s vehicle is a real nice comfortable feeling.


I hope this short refresher course on cover officer tactics reinforces your duties when responding as a cover officer and also motivates you to provide that welcomed back up to your sector or zone partners, even when it isn’t specifically called for. It might also help you be a better contact officer and reignite your tactics on how to best use your cover officer. And by all means, sergeant, feel free to use this column as part of your next roll call lesson-plan on cover officer responsibilities.

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Dave Grossi is a retired police lieutenant from upstate NY now residing in southwest FL. He was the Lead Instructor for the Calibre Press, Inc. Street Survival Seminars from 1988 through 2000.