The AAR: An effective assessment tool for police
The After-Action Review is an extremely effective method of analyzing what occurred and how to improve performance in the future
This article is from the International Public Safety Association’s May 2018 release of the "Acts of Mass Violence: Public Safety Response and Recovery" ebook.
By Dan Murphy, Lieutenant in the Special Operations Section, Arlington County (VA) PD and Vice-Chair of IPSA’s Rescue Task Force Committee
Today, most public safety organizations struggle to procure funding for their training budgets. One underutilized tool available to everyone is the After-Action Review (AAR). This process, originating in the US military, is an extremely effective method of conducting a professional review of what occurred and how to improve performance in the future. I’ve seen it work in groups as small as four individuals and as large as 160. This article focuses on the informal AAR, conducted as soon after the event as possible. This process differs from a formal AAR or report which is much more resource and time intensive.
The value of the AAR process cannot be argued. By sharing the experience of everyone involved in the incident with personnel who were not there or did not see or hear exactly what other personnel experienced, everyone gains a better understanding of what transpired. The AAR provides immediate feedback so everyone has a better understanding of what actions were taken and why. Results of the AAR should be used to resolve questions pertaining to policy application, process clarification and/or updates can be addressed. During the process, leaders can collect teaching points and trends. Training gaps and deficiencies can be discussed and identified. Future training plans can be modified to improve future performance.
Conducting an AAR
Ideally, the optimal time to conduct an AAR is immediately following the incident, when details and questions are fresh on everyone’s mind. This is especially true because you want to include just those who were directly involved. If you wish to include the entire squad (group), it is best to wait until the end of your shift. When possible, ask the oncoming supervisor to relieve your squad early, to ensure employees do not stay over their scheduled time to conduct the AAR. If leaders do not accommodate personnel schedules, poor participation is often the result because people want to leave on time. At shift change there is usually an overlap of time to help facilitate the early relief. When supervisors embrace a spirit of reciprocity between all shifts, this is usually not a problem.
Leaders should take brief notes to facilitate upcoming training adjustments or policy review. It is important to highlight that significant events may require an administrative or criminal investigation making an informal AAR inadvisable or against policy. Depending upon the incident, there may be value in delaying the AAR until after the investigation. In the event of a delayed AAR, the detailed notes of the leaders are very important. The AAR will likely take on the format of peer support, rather than training performance, based on the length of the delay.
If you are not conducting AARs on a routine basis, begin by conducting small AARs following lower-profile incidents. As your personnel and leaders become more comfortable, they will be familiar with the format and able to facilitate AARs with larger groups. This familiarization with the process prepares everyone for the larger scale, higher-profile event AARs. Everyone benefits from a well-executed AAR.
Less experienced personnel can gain experience faster by learning how to correctly respond to an incident before they are faced with a similar call. Note, leaders must demonstrate that actions, mistakes and thoughts of participants will not be used in professional evaluations. Allow the rank and file to respectfully discuss what occurred and what they were thinking as the scene unfolded. When they observe a senior officer admit to a mistake or that he could have done something better they gain respect for their senior officers for being authentic – a common area for improvement among first responders.
The AAR is an optimal time for supervisors to listen. The goal is to create a respectful environment where people can admit mistakes and improve future performance. The focus must remain on the action (improving performance), not the person. Depending on the incident, it may be beneficial to utilize a moderator who was not there. He or she may be able to ask difficult questions without offending the participants. Senior personnel benefit by gaining a keen insight to the preparedness and professionalism of the squad. Just by listening and observing how the squad interacts can provide valuable information about employees.
Rules of engagement
There are specific rules of engagement when conducting an AAR. The spirit in which the AAR is conducted is paramount. When a safe environment is created employees are more likely to admit mistakes. Every employee must feel comfortable in being honest about what occurred. Open and frank discussion is encouraged but must be done respectfully by all participants. Again, the focus is on the performance/action, not the employee. Rank has no place in the professional discussion.
Accountability is universal, it must be applied at each level. It is OK to disagree with methods as long as they are legal and tactically safe. Pride is the enemy and humility rules the day. Admitting mistakes or shortcomings gains the trust of subordinates for real leaders. I recently had two discussions with different peers where I admitted fault/mistake in past scenarios. Both claimed they gained great respect for me following the admission. I’ve never had a perfect boss or employee. Those that were close to perfect admitted when they made a mistake.
The U.S. Army has a standard format (which you should try and is copied at the end of this article), but the process can be modified. Trusting the process usually leads to positive results.
When most agencies are faced with reduced staffing and reduced budgets, it is difficult to deny the inherent value of the informal AAR. The AAR can be done anywhere at any time. First responders work in a time-compressed environment – by slowing things down and allowing them to self-analyze, everyone benefits. Peers enhance their perspective and leaders better understand their personnel/unit capabilities and shortcomings. Training assessments drive the specific training needed to improve overall performance and safety.
About the Author
Dan Murphy has been involved in public safety for over 35 years, working in a wide variety of positions in the law enforcement field, military and civilian. He served as an operator on a law enforcement tactical team for over 18 years, serving eight years as a SWAT Team Leader. He was instrumental in the early development and fielding of Rescue Task Force Operations and Critical Emergency Tactical Training for law enforcement. Dan privately consults in the corporate environment and serves as a subject matter expert in Active Shooter Response for the US federal government. He is a retired Senior NCO from the US Army Reserves. Dan is currently a Lieutenant in the Special Operations Section, Arlington County (VA) Police Department.