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Officer safety considerations during plain clothes and surveillance planning operations

Approach planning as if you were the criminal element

The man stand on the stone road. Evening night time. Telephoto lens shot

Special vulnerabilities are associated with these types of operations. Typically, these operations have fixed positions, and officers are sitting soft targets.

Viacheslav Peretiatko/Getty Images/iStockphoto

By Sergeant Rino Belcamino

The nature of plain clothes specialty operations may, at times, result in various police officer safety vulnerabilities. Officers may become the target of those wishing to inflict nefarious actions on representatives of law enforcement or even as symbols of the government establishment if their identity becomes compromised.

Miscreant methods of attack can run the full gamut of options and include, but are not limited to, firearms, use of vehicles as a weapon, and explosives (IED, VIED, PBIED).

Planning for such operations should encompass an approach akin to detailed tactical or special operations tasking. Special vulnerabilities are associated with these types of operations. Typically, these operations have fixed positions, and officers are sitting soft targets. If a vehicle is used, the vehicle engine is usually in the “off” position, limiting counter-vehicle exodus options. The officer has limited counter-ambush arcs of fire, as well as the obvious cockpit “entrapment” issues. They are susceptible to an unsuspecting approach with delayed reactive ability (potential clouding of their OODA loop) and a fixed tunnel vision mission mindset that might also be to their detriment. It is therefore critical that detailed planning and tasking assignments be included in all plain clothes operations with specific tasks and alternate measures identified.

Recognize early-stage attack planning

Attackers may have engaged in a process of target selection, target surveillance and a planning process (this may be detailed or simply rudimentary) before the attack. If we do not recognize these early stages of attack planning, it is more difficult to mitigate risk. We should attempt to recognize behaviors and activities associated with early-stage attack planning. This allows for a more effective counter-response upon attack execution. Approach planning as if you were the criminal element.

Our operational/situational environment needs to be oriented to a 540-degree scan analysis mentality with deliberate actions attached for response. The team’s operational planning must consider and include the possibility of hostile engagements from various sources and angles, their response capabilities, and how to proactively mitigate these threats, as well as how to deal with unpredictable actions.

Approaches by any person, at any angle, should be considered a pugnacious act until otherwise unveiled or confirmed. Consider reviewing or briefing the team on the basic characteristics of an armed subject. Some of these may include but are not limited to, a sagging jacket, obvious outline of a weapon, in-hand approach carry (palm of hand facing rearward, sleeve of jacket or hoodie on weapon carry side hanging down further than the other side, asymmetrical gait), and leg movement on the side of the weapon may be hindered. Typically, their stride is shorter with a clipped arm swing, with the forearm close to the body (guarding weapon). They can display quick adjustments and uneven weight distribution (more evident going up or down stairs or changing elevation), an uneven fit of their jacket, or jacket pendulum swing because of extra weight. Their hands are constantly on or “checking” a weapon and when walking or running quickly, the subject will hold or brace the weapon side to secure the weapon.

Officers should consider divided task responsibilities when “eyes on target.” One member should be tasked with deliberate internal team close protection duties.

If resources are available and the environment permits, a separate sentinel overwatch team should be considered as best practice. This is especially true if the contact team is operating in an area where their position is fragile or easily compromised. The overwatch team would have a better battlefield overview and be more efficient in early recognition, mitigating, or responding to imminent attacks. A good overwatch team can also have positional and field-of-fire operational advantages that a direct surveillance team will never be able to achieve. A traditional layered perimeter security setup (inner/outer perimeter) may be implemented.

Consider traditional hostile environment applications

All law enforcement positions during operations should consider traditional hostile environment applications. Consider these questions:

  • What are all the observations and fields of fire potential engagements?
  • Has the team identified defensible terrain and weapon system positions?
  • Which unit position is the most vulnerable to observation and contact?
  • Do you have an immediate action plan established to address compromise?
  • Can you attempt to achieve elevation superiority at the target location?
  • Are units situated for appropriate cover or concealment requirements?
  • In the event of a reaction, what obstacles could affect rescue or counter-assault tactics?
  • What is the terrain composed of?
  • Do natural or man-made impediments affect the nature of the operation and any countertactics?

All planning processes should include definitive ingress, egress, or escape and evasion operation considerations.
Plan for debus or dismount if the vehicle or surveillance location becomes a “bullet” trap or kill zone. Identify debus actions to the next available cover. The involved teams must discuss options when situated in their final position and add this to the operational plan. If a cover or overwatch team is deployed, these react plans must be discussed and delineated. Decisive terrain must be further assessed. Identify any choke points on maneuverability either during counter tactics, rescue, or movement to an objective. All operational planning should include decisive basic “react” plans that may include, but not be limited to, immediate action, deliberate action, as well as alternate action. There should always be a consideration of a QRF (Quick Reaction Force) that is detailed and equipped to respond to the various considerations that require countertactics. An appropriate threat assessment could be added. The nature of the assessment may consist of a numerical scoring configuration or a descriptive threat/intelligence brief consideration.

In law enforcement, we must not become complacent when conducting these types of operations. We must consider that our opponents are also well-versed in counter operations. Creating a detailed critical operational plan can help procure success in the fight against the criminal element.

About the author

Sergeant Rino Belcamino is a 27-year veteran of the Thunder Bay Police Service in Ontario, Canada. He spent 20 years as the tactical commander of the hostage rescue/SWAT team as well as being the chief instructor. He is a Master Use of Force Instructor, De-Escalation Instructor, a Master TASER Instructor and a firearms instructor, as well as a subject matter expert in hostile events, anti-terrorism, and operational and emergency planning. Currently, he is the NCO of the Training and Special Operations section.