Taking care of #1 after a critical incident

Ensure an officer’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing is attended to by professionals capable of recognizing and treating every type of trauma

I recently attended a two-day seminar presented by my friends Dr. Bill Lewinski and Mr. Bill Everett (Esq.) over at Force Science Institute — I strongly recommend trying to get to one of these events by the way... it is amazing stuff.  It would be impossible for me to synthesize those two days into a single column or tactical tip, so as the weeks and months of 2012 unfold, I will open up my notes from the event and share little tidbits one at a time.  I’d like to first address some issues and ideas in relation to officers’ physical, emotional, mental, and professional wellbeing following a critical incident. 

“An officer,” said Lewinski, “occupies a very unique position in the criminal justice system.  Everybody says, ‘Why should you treat an officer differently than everybody else?’  Well, because that officer is in a very unique position.  That officer has been selected by us, and they’ve been psychologically screened to be sure they’re in a state of health so they’re not a danger to themselves or others.  Very few people on the street can say that.” 

A lilt of light laughter washed through the room at that last line.  Then, Lewinski continued, noting quite seriously that “police officers have gone through a background check.  They’ve gone through training.  They’ve been sent out by society to do a public duty, and while doing that duty they’ve been assaulted or they’ve seen someone else assaulted and they’ve acted to prevent the assault.  That places officers in a very unique position,” Lewinski said.  “They’re not your average assailant by any means.”  

Get Thee to the ER
Lewinski explained that in the state of Minnesota — where he lives and works — whenever someone has been violently assaulted, police seek to get a statement from them about what occurred so an investigation can begin, then they are taken to a hospital facility for immediate medical attention.  Some victims refuse, of course, to be taken to the hospital, and that is what it is, but great effort is made to encourage victims to be brought to a hospital. 

“We try to persuade them to go to a hospital facility,” Lewinski said.  “We provide them with emotional help, and at some point later when it’s convenient to them, we sit them down and we get the information in the best way we can so we get the most complete and accurate report possible.” 

This idea, argued Lewinski, is not a bad one for consideration in the case of police officers following a critical incident.  This does a number of things, not the least of which is to:

1.) Ensure the officer’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing is attended to by professionals capable of recognizing and treating every type of trauma.
2.) Ensure that some time passes between the critical incident and the moment at which the officer is asked to recall in a detailed statement what happened.

In fact, Lewinski mentioned that Jeff Chudwin — who serves as President of the Illinois Tactical Officers’ Association in addition to his “day job” Chief of the Olympia Fields (Ill.) Police Department — recommends that officers who have been in a shooting go directly to a hospital.  For example, we know that the surge of endorphins which happens during a critical incident is very effective at blocking pain.  Those endorphins can conceal the perception of — the conscious knowledge of — really significant injuries. 

“You’ll see this over and over and over again, where officers have been shot, they’ve been injured, they’ve torn limbs, and they feel no pain,” Lewinski said.  “It is very helpful to have any injury on the part of an officer to be documented by medical staff immediately after the incident.” 

Because a cop who has been in an officer-involved-shooting incident is simultaneously a victim and a subject in a ‘criminal investigation’ this trip to the hospital can be invaluable.  Doctors and nurses not only treat, but also photographically catalog bruises which an officer may not even feel he or she has on their body due to that rush of endorphins. 

Administrative Issues
I mentioned the matter of memory in the second “bullet point” above.  I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds in this column on the effects that physical exertion have on memory, or on the recommendations Force Science (and others) have made relative to the timing of taking a statement from the officer. 

The concepts of Saccades and Schema need to be addressed in their own complete column at some later date, for example.  Furthermore, I don’t need to recreate the wheel.  An item from the Force Science Newsline a few months ago goes into detail on this stuff. 

“Officers’ exertion proved, for the most part, closely associated with incomplete and faulty memories of what they experienced. The exerters remembered “less visual and auditory information” and made “greater errors in recall” compared to the observing control group,” said that report. 

Suffice it to say that there is a lot of very good research out there which leads us to believe that a good night’s sleep and some time “away” from the critical incident can significantly enhance an individual’s recollection of the events.  Very good argument can be made also that giving an officer the ability to do a post-incident walk-through of the scene can jog his or her memory to fill in a variety of gaps created by the way in which the eye and the brain work together to capture information and process it into memory.  That issue, coupled with the question of whether video should be viewed prior to making a statement, merits its own independent space. 

Before I close up this column, however, I want to add just one last thing about interviewing an officer for the ‘criminal investigation’ following an OIS. 

“This is something that I have been working on for the better part of 20 years,” said Bill Everett during this segment of the seminar.  “When we first started teaching this back in the 1990s, chiefs would always ask, ‘When is the best time to require the officer to give a statement?’  My response was, ‘Chief, there’s sort of this thing called the Fifth Amendment.  You don’t get to decide when the officer gives a statement for a criminal review process — they do.  The officer has a right to remain silent and not answer any questions if they can be used for criminal purposes.  It’s a basic, fundamental right.  Now, if you want to invoke Garrity, and give up your ability to do an effective criminal review, that’s fine, you can make the officer do the statement whenever you want.  If you want to get a voluntary statement, there’s that whole issue of keeping it voluntary,” Everett said.

“In my practice with my clients, we’ve tried to reframe the issue.  It’s not when do you feel like you want to conduct an interview — it’s when do you and the officer and the officer’s attorney agree the best time for an interview will be.  I don’t understand the logic that gets you to any different conclusion.  I have a really hard time harmonizing [any other conclusion] with the Constitution of the United States.” 

It was at this point that Lewinski and Everett offered a couple of rhetorical questions:

When do you get to compel a civilian to making a statement?
When do you get to compel a suspect to make a statement?

“Never,” Everett concluded.

“It’s Garrity that forces the issue,” added Lewinski.  “And Garrity is a job-related issue.  Without that, you can’t compel anything.”

Not Just OIS Incidents
The above discussion during the Force Science Seminar was framed around officer-involved-shooting incidents, but the lessons learned here could be applied to a variety of critical incidents. 

1.) You’ve just had a knock-down, dragged-out fight on the street while trying to control that naked, sweaty, drug-addled suspect.
2.) You’ve been in a vehicle pursuit which led to a foot pursuit, which subsequently led to a similar knock-down, dragged-out fight.
3.) You’ve witnessed a particularly horrific crime being committed or had to take the detailed statement of a witness who did. 
4.) You’ve ______________________________ (fill in the blank as you so choose).

In the early going here in 2012, I’ve actually attended two different training seminars during which the topic of post-incident trauma was discussed.  In addition to the Force Science event last week, I also picked up some great ideas from a brief talk given by Sgt. Mary Dunnigan of the San Francisco Police Department Behavior Sciences Unit to an assembly of Bay Area cops.  In a couple of weeks I’ll post a follow-up to this item which highlights some of her counsel on this stuff.  In the meantime, please add your thoughts on this matter in the comments area below. 

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