The recent shooting of a Dallas SWAT lieutenant on cover and containment during a drug raid serves as a reminder of the many dangers of cover and containment. Often overshadowed by its more "glamorous" entry counterpart, cover and containment is essential to successful SWAT operations—especially raids and searches.

The purpose of cover and containment is to prevent escape, and the success of the mission may very well hinge on the effectiveness of the perimeter. Desperate criminals facing the prospect of arrest often go into fight and flight (fighting their way to flight). Tight perimeters are the means to "lock in" suspects, leading to their apprehension.

In concert with "surprise, shock, speed," the entry and cover and containment elements form a nearly escape-proof combination. Yet, despite its importance, cover and containment can be easily overlooked in raid and search planning. I'm certain most law enforcement officers can readily cite their own perimeter "horror stories," where perimeters turned to disaster. Here are a few examples of lessons learned from such situations:

  • During a federal fugitive search, shots were fired inside an apartment, resulting in an agent's death. Upon hearing "shots fired, agent down," outside perimeter agents left their positions and rushed inside to assist, allowing the shooter to jump from a bedroom window and escape. After a massive five-day manhunt, the suspect was apprehended. Lesson learned: Hold your position until officially "secured."
  • A SWAT team conducting an early morning violent felon search, thinking the suspect would be asleep, put all but one officer on entry. Upon entry, the "sleeping" suspect climbed out of a basement window. The suspect would have escaped had it not been for the lone officer outside who apprehended the suspect—alone. Lesson learned: Over-relying on surprise and putting all of your eggs in one basket can backfire.
  • An entry team searching for a murder suspect was confronted by multiple "noisy" occupants. In the confusion, the suspect emerged from his hiding place and literally "shot his way" through the entry team, killing one officer and wounding several others. The suspect then kicked in the door of the adjacent apartment, escaped out a window, and opened fire on the "surprised" outside perimeter while still covering the original apartment. Days later the suspect was cornered again—this time barricading himself—before eventually being talked out. Lesson learned: Always watch your back; the suspect may be behind you.
  • During a drug raid, the front cover and containment team (non-SWAT) completely broke down into a "snowball fight" among themselves. Luckily, no suspects escaped as a result. Lesson learned: Obviously, these guys had their "heads up their rears"—and endangered the raid by their reckless disregard for the mission.
  • One SWAT team conducted three simultaneous drug raids on the same street, with only 11 personnel. All eleven officers were assigned to entry, leaving none on cover and containment. Luckily, nothing occurred on the outside. Lesson learned: Another example of putting all eggs into the "entry basket," leaving the outside unmanned.
  • A drug raid plan called for cover and containment to approach from a rear street. Unfortunately, this was a multi-building "project" where all the buildings looked exactly alike. Predictably, the rear team ended up covering the wrong building, leaving the target uncovered. Lesson learned: Don't get fancy approaching unfamiliar or complicated target locations.

 

Oftentimes, officers on cover and containment are surprised when they actually see any action. Desperate suspects have been known to dive through second and third floor open and closed windows. Many fleeing suspects turn into Olympic athletes, leaping over tall fences at breakneck speeds. Suspects very often throw contraband, from drugs to guns, out of windows.

Adequate cover and concealment is usually sparse on perimeters, so use whatever is available. If no cover is available, consider positioning as close to the target as possible. This forces suspects to expose themselves before they can see you. But test it in training first.

Other threats include vicious dogs, especially in backyards (CO2 extinguishers work well). Hostile family and friends may attempt to force their way into the target location. Always establish a vehicle rear guard, especially in hostile neighborhoods where unattended police vehicles are easy targets for vandals. In warm weather, it's common to find more suspects outside the target location than inside—like the raid my team went on with 30 suspects outside—requiring the diversion of some entry personnel to assist cover. Build flexibility into your raid and search plan just in case the unexpected happens.

For many SWAT teams—especially smaller teams or those conducting multiple raids—the ability to provide its own cover and containment is often a luxury. As a result, non-SWAT personnel must handle cover and containment while SWAT does the entry. Any time SWAT and non-SWAT teams work together, it is essential for the SWAT raid leader to conduct a separate briefing for ALL non-SWAT personnel. Always treat non-SWAT personnel with respect, but be sure to establish the rules. Examples: NO shooting into any location where SWAT may be inside. Hold positions until secured by SWAT. When possible, include non-SWAT raid personnel in your debriefs—even if only informally on-scene.

Look at successful raids and searches as the result of the "hammer and anvil" strategy and tactics. The entry element is the "hammer," and the cover and containment element is the "anvil." One without the other will result in failure. But when the "hammer and anvil" work in unison, the result is almost always success.

Author

Robert O'Brien
Robert O'Brien

SWAT Sergeant (Ret.)

A member of the TREXPO Advisory Board, Sgt. Robert "Bob" O'Brien Cleveland SWAT Ret. is the founder of the R.J. O'Brien Group Ltd., a law enforcement training and consulting service that advises and trains a number of local, state, and federal SWAT teams.

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A member of the TREXPO Advisory Board, Sgt. Robert "Bob" O'Brien Cleveland SWAT Ret. is the founder of the R.J. O'Brien Group Ltd., a law enforcement training and consulting service that advises and trains a number of local, state, and federal SWAT teams.

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