When I started working patrol, I found it curious that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department's "backup" request, which meant non-emergent  need for another officer to respond, equated to the California Highway Patrol's "assistance" request. I was also perplexed at how CHP's "backup" request, which meant emergent need for an officer on scene, was the equivalent of our "assistance" request. According to my friend John, this is still the case, with deputies obligated to ask dispatchers for clarification: "Are they asking for our kind of ‘assistance’? Or theirs?"

A simple matter of terminology? Perhaps. But I wonder how it sometimes plays out, what with officers or deputies from other agencies monitoring CHP radio traffic and deciding whether or not to roll on a call because they thought it was non-emergent when it was. After all these decades, you’d think that someone would have gotten around to straightening things out.

To be sure, there is a difference between an emergent need for help and wanting another officer on-scene in the hopes of preventing an emergent situation. But given the inverse correlation between available time to communicate and any emergent need for it, cops don't always know what they're rolling into. And the harder they’re rolling, the greater the confusion and uncertainty.

I've discussed some no-brainer aspects of backup in an earlier blog but here I want to talk about communication and its role in preventing backup from becoming a liability.

Whenever a cop sees that another cop has stopped by to help out, whatever the reason, the officer receiving backup should let the arriving officer know what’s going on as soon as possible. It may be as simple a matter as motioning "code 4" with his or her hands.

Despite this, I've seen cops fail to acknowledge the backup of other cops—and not because they were too committed to some matter of officer safety. Whether it was an interagency rivalry, a matter of personality, or the arrogance of the officer initiating the stop, they just ignored the arriving officer. It was as though they were saying "I don't need your help and to show you just how much I don’t need it, I'm going to show how insignificant you are to me."

Aside from being rude, it encourages a certain apathy from the backup officer and discourages him or her from wanting to help the primary cop in the future.

Now I know there may be some people you may not want as backup. If that’s the case, give them a "four" and send them on their way.

We've all worked with them, be they screw-ups or assholes. Of one sergeant, deputies routinely joked that if he ever requested assistance, he'd be lucky if they suited up a trustee to roll. My sympathies were largely on the side of those who said, "I may piss on his grave, but I ain't gonna help him get there."

My belabored point is that if you find yourself receiving backup—whether it’s requested or not—make a point of letting your backup officer know what’s going on.

And if you do intend to take advantage of his assistance, then give him clear-cut directions. Don't assume that he’s going to do something that you would normally do. If you say, "Take care of them," are you saying search and detain? Handcuff and secure? Just keep a watchful eye?

Make sure you've done everything you can to identify your players before you separate them from one another, leaving one cop to deal with the detained passengers, while you search the vehicle.

One of my training officers started to search a car one night so that all I could see of him was his feet dangling out the passenger side door as he snooped beneath the seat. Looking at the ID of one of the detainees, I happened to read the man’s name aloud. Upon hearing the name, my t.o. hurriedly got out. He then explained to me that the man had previously wrestled a deputy’s gun away from him.

In backup situations, finding out as much as you possibly can about the players includes understanding who you're relying on for information. Nowhere is this more of a concern than when you have to rely on officers you've never worked with before.

In researching an upcoming feature story on children of fallen heroes, I learned of a Texas law enforcement officer who got information on the whereabouts of an outstanding warrant suspect. Unfortunately, the officer’s regular partner wasn't available so he ended up taking a rookie that he really didn't know much about. The two officers had been allowed inside the suspect's home by a relative when the suspect suddenly jumped from a position of cover and fired. The officer ended up getting shot—first by the suspect, then twice in the back by his panicked and inexperienced partner. He was dead before his body hit the floor.

Such are the cautionary parables that serve to remind us why officers need to communicate with one another even well ahead of time. It might just make you think twice about entering a situation where you might be better going in alone—and whether you’d really want to do that in the first place.

Make sure that you're both on the same page throughout the stop. If you intend to seat the driver in the back seat, have the other officer stand by while you do it. If you’re going to search the car, let your partner know so that she doesn’t assume you’re helping him keep a vigil on the involved players.

If for any reason you feel it is unsafe to run subjects over the MDT, do it over your portable radio. Make sure your car radio is on a different frequency than the one receiving returns on your subject.

If you copy a return or find something in the car that is going to result in the arrest of an occupant, don't wait to let the backup officer know. The person in jeopardy of being arrested knows it, and the longer you delay in passing on the word and getting him safely into custody, the more time he has to embolden himself and execute a game plan that’s contrary to yours, be it to escape or go on the offensive.

If you are the backup officer, then take your responsibility seriously. Most of the time, you will be the one keeping an eye on detainees. Watch what they’re doing, while being vigilant for any approaching threats. Don’t be fixated on what the primary officer is doing.

It helps to know how you and other cops—especially cops from other agencies—will work together ahead of time. So get together with your neighboring agencies' cops. Invite them for a cup and discuss what's on each other's radar and how they handle things. Formulate backup game plans ahead of time. Let them know what you expect. Find out what they want.

By getting backup ahead of time, you may avoid requesting "assistance" later (or vice versa if you're CHP).


Dean Scoville
Dean Scoville

Dean Scoville

Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

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Former associate editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.

View Bio