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What to expect after a critical incident in law enforcement

Having the right resources at hand, and the peace of mind to be able to access them, is critical to crawling out of the pit your trauma has dug for you

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Photo/Irfan Khan of Los Angeles Times via TNS

As law enforcement officers, we train for so many different situations and scenarios. We learn what to do and what not to do, what’s legal and what isn’t, and how policies and regulations impact our decisions. We learn all about how to approach a critical incident, which is defined as “a stressful event that is so consuming it overwhelms existing coping skills.” Grace under fire – whether literally or figuratively – can make the difference between a successful conclusion and abysmal failure.

Most people think mostly about the importance of coping during these traumatic experiences. There’s much less emphasis on the skills required after a critical incident in law enforcement. Based on my personal experience, I believe more first responders need to plan better for the aftermath of traumatic calls.

All hell breaks loose

Approximately 10 years ago, I was a sergeant in my police department’s professional services unit. The unit consisted only of myself and my lieutenant for our entire agency’s 125 sworn officers. Late afternoon one day in the office was unremarkable until the radio toned the emergency signal, reporting an officer down.

It all began when our gang unit spotted a well-known local probationer who had an outstanding warrant. He fled from contact and made it to a relative’s home. As he bolted inside, he squeezed off a round, hitting an officer in the leg. Our medium-sized town just got busy.

Since I worked in plain clothes and was inside the station, I grabbed my vest so I would be more identifiable for on-scene police recognition. The radio was a constant stream of information as units responded from all over town. With the cavalry summoned, our family in blue responded in force. Even from inside the police building, I could hear sirens wailing throughout the city.

Taking command

While my lieutenant rushed out the door, I had the thought that the two or three dispatchers working in our communications center would be overwhelmed. Rather than rushing to the scene, I decided to embed myself in dispatch to establish a temporary command. From there, I could coordinate a perimeter and logistics for a command post near the scene.

I rushed into the communications center to discover an environment of panic and stress. The dispatchers were indeed overwhelmed with responding units, offers of assistance from other agencies, and medical staging for our downed officer, who was still held in place by gunfire.

The suspect broke cover before anyone could secure the neighborhood. We had cars and citizens out and about as the bad guy hopped fences and bullets whizzed through the air. In the ensuing chaos, the suspect forced his way into an occupied home containing a husband and wife, along with their 10-month-old baby. While the family barricaded themselves in a bedroom and begged our dispatcher for help, we transitioned into an evolving hostage scenario.

As the regional team leader, and having been a negotiator for 14 years, I took the emergency call from the distraught husband. As I spoke to the terrified man, I could hear the suspect trying to smash his way into the bedroom where the little family was holed up. It took just a few minutes to coax the hostages (and their dog) out of the ground-floor window, where they were helped by waiting officers. That left the suspect alone in the house – now surrounded by a massive police presence.

Transitioning to the scene

Taking advantage of a lull in the action, I left the safety of the communications facility to get to the scene and establish a negotiations operations center (NOC). We still didn’t have any way of talking to the suspect. It was my job to get that problem remedied with the help of our special operations team and a robot.

As I worked to arrange for a surrender, the hunkered-down suspect took a potshot at one of my coworkers, a member of the SWAT team who was standing by on one side of the residence. Somehow, the man managed to hit this officer in the head.

We now had two officers down. I still had a job to do, but honestly, I wasn’t sure I could manage it. All I could think of was, “Why would I even want to arrange for this vile person’s safe surrender? He just shot my friend in the head!”

We managed to evacuate both wounded officers without any further harm to police or local residents. The ensuing siege lasted 13 hours. We eventually used three robots and a group of very heavily armed officers to effect the arrest. That suspect is now serving 70 years in prison.

The immediate aftermath

When I got home late the night of the shooting, my kids were shaken. This is an unfortunate (but expected) impact of a critical incident in law enforcement. Three of the four were in high school, and news travels pretty fast in our community. My kids had already heard about two officers being shot well before I could let them know I was OK. Since my daughter had lost her biological father to ALS 10 years prior, she also experienced the exponential worry of being orphaned because of my job.

In the days after the shooting, I experienced horrible guilt. Knowing I’d be arriving on scene well after other on-duty personnel could get there, I chose to head into dispatch to direct as much as I could from there. But I was safely behind doors, away from bullets and other dangers. While I knew I was helping, I wasn’t in the firefight and for that alone I felt deep shame. Nightmares and crushing grief followed.

Meanwhile, both injured officers remained in the hospital. I stood all night at my friend’s bedside, honored to have the chance to guard him. I hoped and prayed he would live. At the same time, though, I felt so angry about the whole string of events – and also at the suspect’s safe surrender. I know it isn’t very kind of me, but I was upset that my friend, the good guy, was lying in the hospital’s intensive care unit with a hole in his head while the suspect was medically cleared for incarceration. After all, I had been a big part of the effort to secure the guilty man’s safety. And he’d shot two people!

The long-term impact

It took a while, but things eventually smoothed out on the surface. Sure, I was having nightmares, but no one needed to know that. My alcohol consumption had ticked up a notch or two, but that was expected after a traumatic incident such as this. I was normal, right?

Our department held several critical incident debriefings – I even helped organize them. A licensed therapist led the meetings and individual appointments were scheduled for the SWAT team members and those who’d been directly fired upon. But hey, I wasn’t even on scene for the ammunition exchange, so I had no need for any therapy or counseling. I declined the offers for help.

At the time of the incident, my department had a peer support team in place, but it was rarely utilized. Most people either forgot it existed or didn’t trust the people involved to keep their secrets. Because of this, the program had withered. Now, with two officers shot in one day and every other member of the agency involved in some way, my department was struggling to keep personnel on the streets and mentally equipped to do their jobs. We were hurting as a whole. The incident affected every single employee, and we weren’t even considering the impact on our fellow officers from neighboring agencies. The anger, worry and grief were felt by all.

Critical incident stress

As someone who was deeply involved in this situation from beginning to end, I can give you a glimpse into the impact this event had on me, my family and my career. I am no different than any other person who was there except maybe I had less trauma than the ones who were actually shot or shot at. Still, I guarantee there wasn’t a single person in my department, sworn or otherwise, who didn’t feel the impact of this event.

If you’re a first responder and haven’t yet experienced a situation like this, you need to know what to expect. As with any kind of critical incident in law enforcement, you’ll likely find yourself needing resources and other kinds of support to process and manage the trauma you’ve experienced. Here are the major things you’ll need:

Someone to talk to: Whether you were in the line of fire or safely out of harm’s way during the critical incident, you’re going to want to talk to someone. Someone who has a clue about cop drama, and who understands what you’re experiencing, mentally and physically. Many in law enforcement choose not to unburden themselves to friends or family members because they don’t want to weigh these people down with all the details. Often, this means going to your peers – coworkers or even officers you know in other agencies – to share your feelings and worries. A peer support team can help, but that assumes you have access to people you know and trust.

A confidential shoulder to lean on: Sometimes, talking to a peer (or a member of your peer support team) just isn’t enough. Besides help from your fellow law enforcement officers, you may benefit from working one on one with a professional therapist. It’s no secret that many in law enforcement had a great deal of distrust for mental health professionals – especially those provided or recommended by their agency. Finding a provider who can maintain confidentiality while providing culturally sensitive care is key to rebounding from trauma.

Support to stay healthy: In the aftermath of a traumatic experience such as the one I described, it’s not uncommon for first responders to lose track of biological necessities. They stop eating – or eat way too much. They lose sleep, or sleep way too much. They often use the trauma as an excuse to stop exercising. Getting back on track is an important part of recovery.

Help dealing with stress: After any critical incident in law enforcement, it’s easy to get off track in other ways, neglecting relationships and lashing out at friends and family members. Some officers may turn to alcohol or other substances to self-medicate. Others may withdraw from family and social activities. Even when you know this is counter-productive, you may find yourself rationalizing to yourself: “I’ve been through a lot, and I just need to stay away from everything for a while until I feel like myself again.”

Ways to manage self-destructive thoughts: It’s unfortunate, but survivor’s guilt, second-guessing yourself and being second-guessed by others, and other counterproductive thinking can lead some people to thoughts of self-harm. This can quickly spiral into despair, and eventually action. Having resources to help you break self-destructive cycles is critical to regaining your sense of wellbeing.

A community of brothers and sisters: Remember: you didn’t go through that critical incident alone. The others who were impacted – law enforcement and otherwise, sworn and non-sworn – are likely having similar thoughts and feelings. Connecting and commiserating with others can go a long way toward a return to normal life.

The Cordico wellness app

Pretty soon after the double shooting and subsequent apprehension of the suspect, my department became one of the early subscribers to Cordico, the health and wellness app for public safety workers. I remember hearing about all the benefits Cordico offered and wondering how an app on my phone could possibly help with my internal struggles. As it happened, the Cordico app provided many of the things I needed most to help me recover from the trauma of that incident.

My biggest worry, in downloading the app, was that everything I looked at would be tracked and reported back to my superiors. As a somewhat jaded law enforcement veteran, there was no way I could trust my secrets to the department-owned cellphone, right? I wasn’t going to risk using it to spill my guts. I didn’t want anyone to look at some report and deem me mentally unstable.

But then I did some checking. What I discovered is that the app uses a single login for the whole department. Anything I looked up or accessed in the app could not be traced back to me. Just to be sure, I contacted our legal representative. The attorney assured me it was a safe and secure means of wellness exploration.

With those worries handled, I started exploring the app. What I discovered was a versatile resource that provided me with just about everything I needed to help recover from that awful experience.

Someone to talk to: It had been so long since our agency actually trained and used a peer support team on a regular basis, I wasn’t sure if the group had dissolved completely. When I consulted the app, though, it showed me exactly who was on my team, making it easy to find a close teammate I trusted who was right there all along, waiting to listen to me.

A confidential shoulder to lean on: The Cordico app had a list of vetted therapists who were already in our Employee Assistance Program, each one identified with their background, specialties, and even distance from my work. With the click of a button, I could schedule an appointment to be paid for by my employer. And again, nobody in the department would know I needed and sought help.

Support to stay healthy: At this point in my career, my commitment to fitness had stalled while my age kept going up. I was buying new uniforms on a regular basis, which is rarely a good sign. My department had a workout program and facility, but I was out-eating my current bare-minimum fitness routine. With the Cordico app’s workout videos and basic nutrition information at my fingertips, I was able to regain much of my lost fitness. Free videos and bite-sized information is regularly added to the app, as well as guidance on injury prevention and stretching. Another issue it helped with was sleep: Falling asleep, staying asleep, experiencing restful sleep. These resources helped immensely as I retrained my body to relax and let go of troublesome thoughts.

Help dealing with stress: I was never a drinker before I became a cop. I waited until I was 36 to even have my first alcoholic beverage. At the time of this call, I was 43 and making up for lost time. More than once it occurred to me that I needed to slow down my weekend fun. Did I have a drinking problem? The app provided a self-assessment tool that served as an eye-opener regarding what limits and triggers were generally accepted by the mental health profession. Cordico also has reference and supplemental materials, including articles on wellness, adult ADHD, elder care and child-rearing issues. These and other topics are discussed in depth to provide knowledge and support for all Cordico users.

Ways to manage self-destructive thoughts: This one is rough. In my career, I have had three public safety suicides to handle alone. One was a friend of mine, one was a friend of my husband’s, and one was a subordinate I wish I had known better. All three were devastating, however, if even one had used the Cordico app to seek help, I might not be reporting the important need of this feature. The app lets the user talk to a real person at the touch of a button. There is no waiting for an appointment or office hours. I know none of those I have lost realized this was even a possibility.

A community of brothers and sisters: Studies have shown the number one predictor of early death is a lack of purpose and community. As public safety employees, we tend to be self-sufficient, stoic, and leadership-minded. Cordico provides a place to experience community, to know you are not alone. Most recently Cordico has partnered with Jocko Willick and Leif Babin (former Navy SEAL officers and leaders at Echelon Front) to bring this concept home.

Feeling reborn

I don’t care what anyone says; stress will get to all of us. Although it is a fact of modern life – and an occupational hazard if you’re a first responder – there are definitely things you can do to help relieve some of the tension. Knowing what to expect is just part of the challenge when dealing with a critical incident in law enforcement. Having the right resources at hand, and the peace of mind to be able to access them, is critical to crawling out of the pit your trauma has dug for you.

For a variety of reasons, I’m thankful my agency provided the Cordico app to help personnel deal with the trauma that comes from everyday work as a first responder. I’m even more grateful we got the app so quickly after the incident that threatened to push so many of us over the edge. The resources can be used any time you feel life becoming overwhelming. It truly is a lifesaving tool for first responders.

Missy Morris started in public safety as a juvenile probation worker after graduating from University of California Santa Barbara in 1991 with a degree in behavioral psychology. She moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to work in probation before quickly transitioning to police work. She spent three years with the Palo Alto and Mountain View police departments as a patrol officer. She spent the following 22 years of her 28-year career at the City of Roseville. Missy worked in critical incident negotiations, eventually becoming the multi-city team leader and serving seven years on the state board of hostage negotiators. Missy feels her greatest assignment was a five-year stint as a traffic motor officer riding a BMW and working fatal accidents. She held several special assignments before retiring in 2020 as a lieutenant. Missy now works with the Lexipol Professional Services Team, working closely with Cordico wellness solution.