I often recieve questions from Chiefs, supervisors, and officers on how to better help officers who have been involved in a critical incident. Here are some suggestions for protocol:
Police Department Protocol for Critical Incidents
Have a policy and procedure for handling critical incidents.
Define what is a critical incident but include subjective incidents as well. Take into account critical incidents does not only include fatalities or shootings. It would be common for many officers to have more difficulties handling a severe child abuse situation than a fatal car accident.
High clinical risk of psychological trauma includes but is not limited to: suicide of a co-worker, any incident that reminds an officer that they are “lucky” to be alive, any victim that is a first responder, prolonged exposure to death and dying, any serious injury, sex crime or death to a child, mass causalities, serious line-of-duty injury, police involved shootings, when an officer is unable to protect or save a victim, organizational or personal betrayal, or any situation that leaves officers feeling completely helpless.
Officers and supervisors should be well-versed in what are common stress reactions after a critical incident as well as when to get further help for themselves or their co-workers. A handout should be created and given to officers after a critical incident.
Officers and supervisors should be well-versed in what are risk factors and protective factors for developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Department responsibilities includes finding mental health professionals (MHP) who are experienced in law enforcement culture and trauma. Utilizing therapists who practice trauma specific therapies which include: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR); and Exposure therapies. A list of MHP should be given to officers after a critical incident.
Departments should use or develop peer support members within their department or county. There are also free 24/7 resources such as Serve and Protect/ Safe Call Now 1-615-373-8000 or 1-866 COP-2 COP.
Departments should develop a confidential and timely roster for family notifications of critical incidents that occurred to department members. Department members should be able to choose who might inform their family. A trained peer support, mental health profession or clergy should accompany that member.
At the Scene:
Ensure the officer involved in a critical incident is assigned a companion officer that is not involved in the critical incident for emotional support.
Ensure any “involved officers” are also considered for emotional support as well
Transport the involved officer from the scene as soon as possible by the companion officer to restore safety.
Do not isolate the officer. Allow officers to talk with a clergy, MHP, and/or peer support officers with whom they will have privileged communication.
Ensure those who are investigating and helping know who was involved in the incident. A list should be generated by the on-scene officer. No one should be forgotten.
Replacement weapon should be given as soon as possible. Further, officers personal gun should be returned as soon as possible.
Involved officers should be allowed to put on civilian clothes as soon as they choose.
Involved officers should be allowed to contact family members as soon as possible. Officers should be reminded to share their health status and needs.
Supervisors and other officers should choose their words carefully as they may be long remembered by the involved officer.
All officers involved with the critical incident and family members should be given written information discussing normal stress reactions and coping strategies, and provided a mental health professional list.
All officers involved and family members should attempt to avoid media and social media. Officers and family members should be reminded not to share negative media attention or rumors as this will not be conducive to recovery.
After the critical incident:
Allow the involved officer(s) some time before making a formal statement, when possible. Officers’ memories will likely be better when they have one sleep cycle of rest.
The officer involved or other involved officers may need respite from work or modified hours or duties for a period of time.
Officers should be given additional assistance by a peer support member or MHP if they need to re-quality with their weapon.
Allow officers involved to talk to peers who have been through similar incidents.
Provide post-incident group intervention, debriefing, individual therapy and/or peer support opportunities for all involved officers.
High ranking officials should talk to involved officers and concentrate on human concern rather than legal and department rules.
All supervisors should ensure information disseminated is accurate and actively correct inaccurate information.
One supervisor should maintain regular communication with the officer while the investigation is pending and throughout until the close of the case reminding them of protocol, court dates, rights, etc.
A mandatory post-critical incident intervention by a MHP should occur within 72 hours of the event (when possible) and at 1 month. The first intervention should include psychoeducation about trauma, coping skills, and normalizing their experience. The one-month post-critical incident should occur by a MHP for follow up. Any mandatory sessions should be confidential other than attendance to the session.
The International Chiefs of Police recommend officers involved in a critical incident have ongoing contact with a MHP at minimum at 1 month, 4 months, and 1-year post-incident for follow up.
If police department members have any questions or would like help creating their critical incident procedure, please contact Dr. Carrie Steiner 1-630-909-9094. Dr. Carrie Steiner is a licensed clinical psychologist and 13-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. She was an active crisis intervention team member, hostage negotiator, and police academy trainer.