It is the goal for law enforcement firearm trainers to make training as realistic as possible. The challenge is to maintain the balance between safety and realism. Even when we train to move and shoot, many of us don’t practice live fire moving and shooting with others downrange.
We practice contact/cover for routine encounters. The cover officer provides overwatch, precludes outside interference and is responsible for the safety of the contact officer. The contact officer’s responsibility is to interact with the suspect(s). Statistically, by the way, more than half of all assaults on officers are in the presence of other officers.
When does the cover officer engage? When the tactical situation dictates. This means if we train for this contingency, we have to be able to shoot around the good guys without shooting the good guys.
When it comes to this kind of training, there are a few simple rules:
- Crawl, Walk, Run
- Gun out, Gun down, Finger off
- It’s supposed to be stressful
- Safety, Safety, Safety
The need for contact/cover firearms training
Dan Gray of Trident Firearms Academy told me that agencies do not do enough two-officer drills. These two-person tactics are really necessary for two officers who respond to a “domestic violence call gone bad.” For example, two officers have worked their way into the residence and now need to fight their way out.
How do officer teams fight their way out? By aggressing the aggressor, slicing the pie and moving to cover, sometimes alternating from contact to cover.
Training for this type of contingency, at the very least, will improve communication among officers. Every law enforcement multi-officer response can reinforce contact/cover.
Gray illustrates the need for small unit shooting training by citing a common patrol scenario: “Imagine the routine alarm call where the patrol officer finds a pharmacy door kicked in. Do you call in SWAT? No. The squad sets up a perimeter and you go in.”
Currently, Trident Firearms Academy is working on a complete training seminar for just these types of calls. Small unit tactics are essential for the patrol level.
Gray told me the course will include a non-live fire simulation house combined with move-and-shot live fire.
Crawl, Walk, Run
John Hall, a law enforcement firearms trainer, described several different ways officers can train for shooting contact/cover. He cautions firearms trainers with a simple fact: The “pucker factor,” the participant’s realization that they are using live fire and not everyone is parallel to the firing line can abruptly dawn on the officer. This does not happen until the moment the officer puts live ammo into the gun.
Let’s clarify this a little. The officer downrange will exhibit a dose of anxiety with the thought of someone behind him with real bullets. Surprisingly, this often does not occur to an officer when on a real call, with a real suspect, and the cover officer has a loaded gun pointed in their direction.
The officer up range during training will experience a similar anxiety, a likely product of the realization that they have live ammo and someone is downrange. This anxiety is not mitigated by the use of suppressors, which means that perception of the discharge may not be a factor in the anxiety.
Hall explained that firearms trainers must move slowly with this kind of training. The first step is obviously a dry-fire practice, using flagged chambers or Blue Guns. This is the crawl phase. This, and all subsequent phases, should include frequent breaks, routine azimuth (Are we navigating in the same direction?) checks and an emphasis on fundamentals.
During the crawl phase, trainers should do simple move-and-shoot drills.
A simple move-and-shoot drill looks like this: Two shooters begin at the 25 yard line (for handgun drills). They move downrange within arm’s length. One officer goes first and moves to the 20-yard line. Both officers engage the same target, communicating while shooting. The cover officer leapfrogs to the 15-yard line and the officers trade roles. They continue until one officer is finally at the 5-yard line.
The walk phase uses four officers in a drill that John Hall calls a “snake drill.” Three officers line up several feet apart, perpendicular to the firing line. The fourth starts next to the furthest from the line and shoots from slightly behind him. He moves down range, weaving to the other side of the next officer and firing. The officer continues to the other side of the last officer for the last firing sequence.
The run phase should be familiar already to line staff peace officers. It is commonly called a stacking drill. It is ideal for maximizing fire continuity for several officers approaching a frontal target from a linear formation to a threat in front of them. Succinctly, the lead officer goes prone, the one (or two) officer(s) behind him kneel and the officer(s) in the rear remain standing. Everyone engages the same target or target zone.
If the stacking drill is done correctly, everyone should be able to engage at the same time. Realistically, there are few instances where this would actually be employed, simply because finding and using cover is exponentially more efficient than shooting from out in the open. However, when stacking is used, it is effective in creating an asymmetric engagement.
Gun Out, Gun Down, Finger Off
It is important to practice all three of these drills with flagged chambers until everyone knows their role. If anything, live fire, multi level drills and multi officer drills should improve communication. However, it should be noted that whenever I have participated in these type of drills, it takes several run-throughs before we are certain that no one pointed their firearm at the calf, foot or thigh of the officer in front of him. However, the violation of the “finger off trigger” rule rarely occurs.
It’s supposed to be stressful
Live fire training like this is stressful. It teaches officers to be deliberate and purposeful when they shoot. There is a part of the training that is intangible, and it’s one of the most important goals of firearms training.
If the training is stressful, those on the range can learn a lot from it. This is the answer to the question about what the cover officer should be doing. Let me tell you: If you were my cover officer, I would not want you to be taking notes, looking at the computer screen or punching numbers on your phone. Cover is cover. Focus is focus. The suspect should be deterred from doing something stupid by the attention of the cover officer.
If the training is stressful, this is the kind of experience that teaches the officer to control the game. That is, unless someone needs immediate intervention, everything else should be slow and intentional. The environment of the contact officer should be controlled and there should be an air of “behave or engage.”
Run with it
Contact/cover live fire practice should be a routine training session for an agency. It doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated or sustained for any amount of training time. It simply should be part of the training plan.
John Hall told me that some trainers are going to say, “You guys are stupid.” In fact, I have to tell you that agencies need to recognize that this training is done at their own risk and should be strictly supervised with instructor ratios that approach 1:1.
If live fire training, or any training, places undue risk on any party, it should be discontinued immediately. The type and manner of training should be completely staffed prior to beginning, and common and extraordinary safety practices must be implemented. However, officers have to have this training in order to overcome some of the factors that they will experience in the field.