Life after COVID: 6 ways to fail to learn

The clarity, consistency and credibility of internal messaging was particularly important during this event

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit COVID after-action review | Pandemic data | Car parades, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

Law enforcement may not be able to declare that the COVID-19 crisis is over, but it’s not likely they’ll face anything in the near future that they haven’t already faced regarding the coronavirus. That means it is probably time to schedule the after-action review (AAR) on the pandemic. Here are some mistakes to avoid:

1. Not doing an AAR

Rationalizing overlooking an AAR is easy. The COVID crisis won’t likely happen again. It takes too much time and it is hard to schedule all the players to be present. AARs are always so negative. We did fine, so what’s to review?

New York Police officers clear trains at the Coney Island Stillwell Avenue Terminal, Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
New York Police officers clear trains at the Coney Island Stillwell Avenue Terminal, Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The fact that the pandemic was so unusual is all the more reason for taking the time to conduct an AAR. What was unexpected? What supply sources and other logistical challenges occurred that might provide lessons learned for future emergency operations?

Although COVID-19 created “Zoom fatigue,” it did teach us that holding meetings doesn’t require everyone to share the same physical space and location. Inviting supervisors and representatives of other agencies is easier with remote meeting technology.

2. Not structuring an effective AAR

The idea that an AAR is all about finger-pointing and faultfinding could not be further from the truth. AARs should be structured to offer learning opportunities for avoiding future inefficiencies, celebrating the success of policies and innovations, and enhancing patterns of thinking.

A tight agenda that includes issues gleaned from participants ahead of time can keep an AAR meeting positive and efficient. Several formats are available with a web search for “lessons learned template,” “after-action report template” or “debrief template” to assist police leaders in developing their agenda. 

3. Not inviting the right people

Determining who will be around the table (or the rows of video faces) can begin by brainstorming. Once you make a potential guest list, ask for suggestions from your core participants whom they might suggest as stakeholders. If the list gets too large, consider having subgroups with members of the agency leadership team attending those smaller sessions. Potential voices include public health workers, EMS representatives, line officers and supervisors, journalists, government policymakers, attorneys and business leaders. The brainstorming list should imagine every sector in contact with law enforcement before paring the list. This particular crisis crossed a lot of groups and processes.

4. Overlooking officer wellness as a component of the COVID mission

While critical incident debriefings are common after intense events, a lengthy ordeal such as the current pandemic might not be followed with reviews of responder wellness. Your AAR should address the unique stresses of operating in a COVID threat environment, to include the projected impact of the pandemic on police recruitment and retention, as well as productivity, in the months to come.

5. Ignoring the controversy

Agency morale and sufficiency of policies are subjects for essential review. In addition to operating under the threat of exposure to the virus, there were unique challenges to officers’ sense of duty and conscience that played upon their psyche and sense of identity in relating to a public divided on public health measures. The huge response to Police1 articles regarding officers’ making enforcement decisions regarding public health orders is a significant indicator of the controversial nature of how the pandemic has been managed. The clarity, consistency and credibility of internal messaging was particularly important during this event.

6. Failing to identify assumptions

One of the most challenging disciplines of reflection, whether personal or corporate, is determining whether our foundational ways of thinking are congruent with our true mission. For example, many agencies devoted time and energy to educating the public about COVID-19. Is that a law enforcement role? Would a simple web link to the health department or medical site be the simplest means of avoiding message conflict and overload? Did your agency monitor the right metrics to determine if staffing and scheduling needed major adjustments? Was it of value to continue the same level of personal service during the pandemic as before?

AARs are reflective to enlighten the future. Whether all of your agency’s policies, procedures and processes worked perfectly during the COVID mission or some adjustments are in order, your organization will not only improve but will convey to all participants that you value learning and growth.

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