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How critical incident stress debriefing teams help cops in crisis

Critical incident debriefings conducted by peer supporters are essential for addressing the immediate reactions to traumatic stress for LEOs

For years, officers decompressed with their shift workers at “choir practice” – telling stories of our tragedies and triumphs after a long day.

While the introduction of alcohol into this mix was not ideal, these times allowed officers to talk about their calls for service in a safe environment amongst peers who understood the evil side of humanity.

Times have changed and “choir practice” has become a thing of the past within many agencies. Today we must find and use new methods to decompress and reduce the mental fatigue of police work.

Forming Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Teams

Critical incident debriefings conducted by peer supporters are the best practice in place now for addressing the immediate reactions to traumatic stress for law enforcement officers. Critical incident debriefing teams are made up of trained peer supporters who share a common background with the traumatized officer.

These peer supporters are prepared to help an individual or group of people through a step-by-step process allowing the participants to tell their story and make connections with the stories of others. These debriefings are organized discussions that take the participants mentally back to the time of the traumatic event and allow them to talk their way through their physical and emotional responses. Those in attendance find a connection between each other’s perspectives, can fill in gaps in memory and can support each other.

Numerous studies have shown that officers – who are often reluctant to seek psychological help – are willing to discuss issues with trained peer support teams. Even without these studies, you can see in every agency that cops talk with other cops on a regular basis about things they would never tell someone outside the guild.

While the first responder community is very tight-knit, law enforcement, in particular, is by far the most closed off to outsiders. There a few people outside our world that we are willing to let in and see what life is like on the dark side of the thin blue line. In many cases, even our families don’t know the extent of evil that we face on a daily basis. The reasons we are so closed off vary but the results are often a limited pool of people to understand our work.

Timing is Crucial for CISD Team Response

Time is of great importance for officers to receive the most benefit from a debriefing – the optimal timeframe is 24-72 hours after the incident. Peer support helps the injured officers learn what is likely to occur to them physically and mentally in the immediate future, what to do to mitigate the effects, and what to do if these effects do not begin to subside over the coming weeks.

The officers can take back control over their emotions and flashbacks that may be interfering with their lives, and they are forced to admit that they do not have total control over all situations. In addition, these debriefings can be used to educate family members of the normal reactions that may occur in the officers as their minds recover from a traumatic incident.

The first step to forming a CISD team is finding peers that are the right fit. Peer support members bring a level of credibility that cannot be achieved by regular psychological interventions conducted by doctors because peer supporters have street credibility within the career field. The biggest hurdle will be selecting the appropriate people to be on a critical incident stress debriefing team.

Candidates must have experience in the field and be respected by their peers. Officers who have been in critical incidents and are well on the recovery side of the psychological trauma are ideal candidates because they have real-world experience to match with the training they receive.

The second step to forming a CISD team is finding psychological support personnel who can not only assist in training your peer supporters but can also assist if the critical incident trauma over-reaches the ability of peer supporters. This is likely to be the most critical decision for the team because as was stated, we do not accept those outside our brotherhood, and is a topic we will explore in detail in a separate column in the future. Suffice it to say, this is often optimally suited to an officer who intentionally chooses this career path, and works over a period of time to get the necessary training to fulfill it.

Finally, administrators need to support these programs by adopting a clear policy outlining the use of critical incident debriefing teams and establishing confidentiality rules for officers participating in these sessions.

The loss of an officer due to a traumatic injury – whether physical or mental – is devastating to the agency as well as the officer and his or her family. The experience of senior officers who are the most likely to suffer from the cumulative strain of stress cannot be replaced with new hires. CISD teams and peer support training is a small investment for an agency, even if it only prevents one officer from laying down his badge early.

NEXT: Police officers face cumulative PTSD

Jeff McGill has 25 years of law enforcement experience. He has an earned doctoral degree with research that focused on the perceptions of mental health and suicide amongst law enforcement recruits. Jeff is a co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P., a national nonprofit that works to reduce the stigma of mental health issues in law enforcement. He now works full time as the Director of Public Safety Training at Northwest Florida State College overseeing training for law enforcement, corrections, dispatchers, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and firefighters.