Contact & Cover & Divided Attentions

Sometimes the price of efficiency is officer safety

By Guy Quaintance  |   Oct 6, 2016

The contact-and-cover approach has been successfully used in police tactics for quite some time.  However, as increased call loads and chronic personnel shortages seem to be the rule these days, we appear to have strayed away from this practice in the name of “efficiency.” It seems difficult for many agencies to spare two officers to deal with a single individual when the list of calls for service is overwhelming the call screen.

Unfortunately, this greater efficiency comes at the expense of officer safety. There are a number of reasons why the contact-and-cover approach works. One of those reasons is often overlooked.

Focus, Focus, Focus

Divided attention, sometimes used interchangeably with the term multitasking, is often addressed in the business world. It is commonly viewed by management as a way to get a higher level of productivity out of an individual who is on the clock. This practice can be justifiable in some disciplines, but in others it must be used with caution and recognized for what it is—dangerous.

The concept of multitasking receives some attention in the police services, but we do it all the time. We talk on the radio. We read a map and call text. We talk on a cellular telephone. We scribble notes. We type on a keyboard. We conduct immediate action drills in our heads. Sometimes we do all of this while navigating an emergency vehicle to a call for service or while performing an equally and singularly challenging task. We can all agree that this is not ideal, but that doesn’t mean its uncommon.

In order to be even moderately successful at multitasking, we must be excellent at each of these individual activities to begin with. We must be able to perform each of these tasks with a minimal amount of abstract thought. This level of expertise is obtained through a singular attention to that task until we achieve mastery of it. Sometimes, even that’s not enough.

Consider a DUI investigation. There’s a reason that divided attention tasks are used there. It’s harder to do two things than it is to do one thing. This is true even if those two things are things that don’t require much thought. That’s why SFSTs are so reliable.

Numerical superiority when dealing with a suspect of unknown motivation, skill, and armament is always prudent. It leans the odds of success in a confrontation in your favor. It does this both psychologically and physically. Psychologically, it often reduces the opponent’s willingness to escalate the confrontation to a physical level. Physically, it reduces their chances of success if they do make the decision to fight. Dividing the suspect’s attention can be as important as physical superiority when it comes to having a tactical advantage. 

Regardless of what anyone tries to tell you, the human attention span is a very finite thing. Performing two simultaneous tasks does not magically impart a larger span of attention to the individual performing those tasks. If you divide your attention between two tasks, each of those tasks becomes less efficient than it would have otherwise been. This, my friends, is fact. It’s nearly as indelible as the laws of physics. While you can train to be better at multitasking through repetition and familiarity with a skill, this training and repetition dissipates as unexpected changes in the required task surface in the form of variables.

I witness it every day, just as you do. Texting while driving; thinking about what you want to say next while listening to your significant other speak; juggling eight flaming tennis balls and a chainsaw while riding a unicycle—you get the idea. Unless it’s practiced over and over, the results are often unsatisfactory to wildly varying degrees. Even with training and practice, satisfactory results are not assured.

Dividing a suspect’s attention is detrimental to his odds of success at overwhelming you physically and hurting you or escaping. Therefore, it logically follows that dividing your own attention between watching his hands, watching your back, and conducting an investigation is detrimental to yours. Couple this with the fact that action is always quicker than reaction and the results can quickly become deadly.

Use backup whenever possible. If you have a fellow officer who is dealing with a suspect, back him or her up. One of you needs to watch the suspect while the other conducts the investigation. I mean really watch it. This isn’t the time for banter. With what’s going on in the world of policing nowadays, having even a third officer present to serve as scene security isn’t a bad idea.

Just like you, I have been reading articles and seeing videos where random strangers who aren’t even involved in the investigation are assaulting officers with some success. This is because their attention is focused on the most likely threat, as it should be. The caution and respect that has been largely practiced by the public in the past when they can see that you are actively engaged with a suspect can no longer be relied upon. Having backup allows you to focus on your suspect and your investigation.

A Final Word

At traffic stops, have each others’ backs. Do this even if you are not asked. While it’s not always the case, I will submit to you that sometimes the “code 4” sign is actually a display of complacency. This can be especially so when it is delivered from a seated position in the driver’s seat of a police vehicle at a traffic stop.

More to come on that! Until then, be your Brother’s keeper out there my friends.

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Guy Quaintance

Sgt. Quaintance has more than 20 years in public service, currently working for a medium-size agency in Southern Arizona. He has been a peace officer for approximately 13 years, with more than half of that time on a police motor. Quaintance instructs on the topics of emergency vehicle operation for both vehicles and motorcycles. He has a Master's degree in Business and dual Bachelor's degrees in Psychology and English.
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