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3 simple questions that a police department’s after-action report must answer

Learning from an event and applying those lessons in training will improve your department’s future response


Emergency personnel carry a volunteer with simulated injuries during a training exercise for an active shooter, Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in West Chester, Ohio.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

Critical incidents involve several phases, from the first 60 minutes of the crisis to the aftermath where your actions will be subjected to media and legal scrutiny.

Part of the final stage – the recovery and mitigation phase – requires some sort of an after-action report (AAR). Often the people tasked with generating the AAR are hampered by a lack of accurate information from the crisis phase. There is often uncertainty about what decisions were made, when they were made and by whom. As a result, this points to a need for a log or scribe to shadow the incident commander from the beginning.

An AAR should follow a simple format, exploring and answering three simple questions:

1. What happened?

An accurate and complete timeline of the event is essential to documenting your agency’s actions and decision-making process. The crisis phase is inherently confusing and difficult to pin down, but you must strive for maximum accuracy in your AAR. The timeline of the Columbine school attack required several weeks just to synchronize the clocks of the various dispatch systems to fully understand what happened, and the order in which the event occurred. This section needs no analysis, just the facts.

2. What was our response?

Here, the investigators and report author need to begin telling the story. Dry facts are a difficult read but resist the urge to spin the facts into a story more flattering than reality. When you try to paint a picture of an event that looks significantly different than reality, you will get caught and your agency’s credibility will be destroyed, maybe forever.

3. What would we do differently next time?

This is where you can introduce some carefully structured information to explain imperfections in your response. The best format for such a tale is a problems/solutions section.

My biggest AAR project was for an agency that handled an extended standoff with a barricaded woman who fired at officers on several occasions. The incident created a nationwide media event, complete with militia groups showing up to rescue the woman from the “evil police oppressors.”

Some senior management decisions had contributed to the confusion and length of the standoff. I addressed these decisions by outlining six major problems identified during the event. Immediately after the discussion of a problem was a paragraph recommending a change in training or policy to ensure the same problem wouldn’t be repeated in a future critical incident.

The agency’s senior management, the media and the public accepted the honest admission of mistakes and recommendations for improvement. Within days of releasing the report, the incident was no longer a topic of discussion and no lawsuits were ever filed.

No agency has ever handled a major incident perfectly and none ever will. The best solution for a mistake in a critical incident is to admit it honestly, provide a straight-forward explanation and propose a solution for the future. Your citizens will accept an imperfect response if you don’t try to deny or cover it up. Honesty is always the best policy.

The final step in an AAR is to actually implement the recommended changes. If you file the report and ignore the problems, your agency will pay for it somewhere down the road.

My training buddy, Jerry Hammernick, handled a career full of critical incidents as the fire chief of Oak Creek, Wisconsin. These incidents ranged from active shooters to a major airliner crash. After he retired, Jerry’s team handled the 2012 Sikh Temple active shooter attack. Jerry has a great quote for what you can learn from a good AAR: “Smart people learn from their mistakes, a genius learns from other people’s mistakes.”

Dick Fairburn has had more than 26 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming. He has worked patrol, investigations and administration assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst, and as the Section Chief of a major academy’s Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident Training program.