You've been in a critical incident... now what?

Post-trauma stress is a reaction to events which are at the extreme edges of typical day-to-day human activities

Last week I wrote an article on the stuff discussed during a two-day seminar presented by my friends Dr. Bill Lewinski and Mr. Bill Everett (Esq.) over at Force Science Institute. Today, I want to follow that up with a very brief bit which dovetails onto that column.

I recently attended a different seminar at which Sgt. Mary Dunnigan of the San Francisco Police Department Behavior Sciences Unit spoke about the things a cop might expect following a critical incident. Now, the specifics of the below list will vary from one agency to the next — meaning, not all of the below information may apply to you, your PD, or whatever unique situation you may one day find yourself in — but you can use this list to create one which squares completely with your agency policies and procedures.

You may have to surrender your firearm into evidence — hopefully, your PD issues a replacement!
You may be reassigned administratively and/or put on an administrative leave for some period of time
You may be required to attend some form of force-options training and/or range requalification
You may be asked to speak with homicide and/or IA investigators — see my column from last week
You may experience sleeplessness, headaches, appetite loss, depression, anxiety, sadness, or other responses
You may ___________________________ (fill in the blank as you so choose)

Normally ‘Abnormal’
“It’s important to remember that post-trauma stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event,” Sgt. Dunnigan said during her presentation. She then went on to better define precisely what she meant by the words ‘abnormal event.’

“Abnormal events are critical incidents. It’s not normal to get in a shooting. It’s not normal to see death and dying everyday. We signed up for it and we get paid for it, and that’s our job, but for most of the world, that’s not normal.”

Post-trauma stress is, in effect, a completely likely / probable reaction to events which are at the extreme edges of typical day-to-day human activities — anything which lies outside of what human beings are genetically predisposed to regularly deal with. As we’ve all surely joked at one time or another, typical day-to-day human activities are, roughly, the following:


If we do three of those four things in any given day, most human beings are pretty much contended creatures. Four is fabulous. Three, well, that’ll work, right?

Pile onto that list something like the tragedy and trauma cops tend to encounter day-in-and-day-out on their tour, that contentedness can become severely compromised. Agreed?

“Even witnessing some sort of traumatic event — not even being involved in it yourself,” Sgt. Dunnigan said, “can be enough to cause some sort of distress, or helplessness, or fear, or other response in an individual which can cause a post-trauma stress reaction. And of course we know that post-trauma stress is different from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The term ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ has been tossed around a lot lately, hasn’t it? It’s been irresponsibly (wrongfully) interchanged (equated with) the term ‘post-traumatic stress injury’ which many medical professionals argue is a better description for the effect stress has on the brain in most critical incidents cases.

They say that an emotional / psychological / psychological injury is what typically happens to us humans during a critical incident — not a disorder.

I happen to I agree. Want to test it?

Have you ever inflicted an injury on someone? Yeah, me too.

Have you ever inflicted a disorder on someone? Yeah, me either.

It’s not semantics. It’s science.

Creating an injury is immediate. Creating a disorder? That’s different.

No doubt about it, PTSD is a real thing, and it absolutely can happen. It does happen. But comparing some poorly-understood concept of real PTSD to a normal human reaction to a tragic event is a mistake of massive proportion.

Thoughts on Feelings
Paraphrasing Dr. Lewinski, ‘human beings are not thinking entities which feel — rather, we’re feeling entities which think.’ The distinction is an important one. Yes, we’re cognitive beings, but most of the cognitive processes we do during the course of the day are not based on a purely-logical thought process.

Don’t believe me? How did you decide what to have for lunch today?

It probably didn’t sound like: “I think ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mustard would be an ideal set of ingredients to sustain me for a few hours.”

Chances are, it sounded more like: “Holy [bleep], a ham and cheese sandwich with ‘the works’ sounds pretty [bleeping] good right about now.”

Similarly, we’re not wired to automatically respond to a shooting — or any other type of critical incident, for that matter — in a purely-logical cognitive thought process. It just doesn’t work that way. We respond to our world in a complex confluence of emotions, memories, self-judgments, and even ‘second-guessing’ about what we saw, what we did, and what that all will mean for our future.

It’s important, therefore, that law enforcers normalize the natural human reactions to any such event. Said another way, officers mustn’t stigmatize things like sleeplessness, headaches, appetite loss, depression, anxiety, sadness, or other psychological / physiological responses to critical incidents.

Perceive those things, understand those things, work through those things — yes, yes, and yes. Stigmatize them?

Very much no.

Support each other in treating those things?

Very much [bleeping-A] yes!

The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation offers basic peer counseling, peer communications, and critical incident stress management courses for law enforcement first responders. The website is

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