15 steps leaders can take to prepare personnel to emotionally handle ‘officer down’ calls
Our goal should be to provide the support that develops resilient officers, who are emotionally, physically and spiritually prepared to handle crisis
For additional resources on officer safety, download Officer Down! A Police1 Survival Guide.
No matter what position you hold at a law enforcement agency, the two most dreadful words you will ever hear broadcasted over the radio are "officer down." The actions taken by law enforcement leaders after those words are said could make or break your agency and the impacted employees.
Before an officer-down incident occurs
Police leaders must ensure officers have everything they need to be resilient, where they will be able to recover quickly after a critical incident.
Agencies can take several steps ahead of time to better protect their officers after a critical incident.
Our goal should be to provide the support that builds resilient officers who are emotionally, physically, and spiritually prepared to handle crises.
Here are five steps to follow:
- Establish effective leadership: Leaders often believe they automatically influence and have relationships with those who work for them because of their rank. To some extent, they are correct. However, these types of relationships will prove ineffective during chaos and crisis. Leaders should constantly build relationships with their officers, treat them respectfully and listen to them when talking. In turn, during a time of chaos and crisis, the leader will have relationships in place with their officers so there will be trust and the actions taken by leaders will be more effective.
- Professional mental health/wellness resources: Most agencies have access to an Employee Assistance Program or EAP. If you have attempted to utilize any of these resources, you likely found that the therapist is not usually culturally competent in the needs of law enforcement officers. Resources like At-Ease International and The Counseling Team International can provide your officers with ongoing culturally competent therapy services. If officers are utilizing these services before a critical incident and unpacking trauma from previous incidents, they will be much more prepared to do what is expected of them in a critical incident.
- Peer support/wellness team: Forming and supporting a peer support team at your agency will provide support and guidance to employees after a critical incident or personal struggle. From my personal experience, I believe these teams positively impact officers day-to-day. I would also recommend that the peer support teams build relationships with other peer support teams in the region, so they are prepared to assist each other in a time of need.
- Wellness program: Another way to build resilient officers is to ensure they have all the tools they need to remain physically fit and nutritionally balanced. This could coincide with a peer support or wellness team, who can provide continuous resources and access to experts to help them with their wellness needs. I would also encourage reviewing policies to allow officers to work out on duty.
- Line-of-duty-death procedures: Having such procedures prepared and provided to all managers and executives will provide easy-to-follow guidelines after an officer's death. These situations are very emotional for everyone involved and providing pre-discussed procedures will make it slightly easier to handle.
When an officer down incident has occurred
When an incident occurs, your agency's officers will watch their leadership closely. With the understanding that several required tasks will take place simultaneously, leaders need to remember the needs of their officers. This includes the officers who are directly and indirectly involved in the incident.
Here are five steps to follow:
- Ensure that a leader from your agency is assigned to those officers who are injured. The injured officers should be a top priority after an officer-down incident. These officers will likely be experiencing extreme emotions and often feel lost. Placing a supervisor in charge of their needs will allow immediate action and, in turn, make the officers feel supported.
- Allow injured officers to call home. The top priority for most officers after such a traumatic incident will be to call a loved one. After you admonish them not to talk about the incident, allow them to call home. Better yet, let them use your phone if needed. If an officer was killed or severely wounded, the top priority should be making notifications to the officer's family. With the availability of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, law enforcement leadership will only have a short time to make notifications before the family hears from other unreliable sources.
- Ensure those officers (dispatchers, too) not directly associated with the call are checked on. Those not involved can sometimes be just as affected as those involved. Patrol sergeants should check on other officers and dispatchers to ensure they are in the right mindset to continue working. If possible, allow personnel to return to the station to decompress.
- Activate the peer support team. Leadership should immediately activate the peer support team to assist with supporting all officers within your agency. The team can help injured officers, their families and those indirectly affected.
- Be careful what is said to the media. The media will likely be very interested in what has occurred. Before providing a formal statement, be sure accurate information is gathered. If provided the opportunity, show support for your officers and assume their actions were legal and within policy (unless you have credible information showing differently).
After an officer-down incident occurs
After an incident, leaders need to take additional actions to help their officers recover from an officer-down incident. This action is critical and should be made a priority.
Here are five steps to follow:
- Plan and schedule a critical stress debriefing. This is different than a tactical debrief. A critical stress debriefing, or CSD, is moderated by a licensed therapist who is also culturally competent in the needs of law enforcement officers. The CSD is also supported and attended by peer support team members. I would recommend that attendance at a CSD be mandatory for those directly involved in the incident. This should not be attended by any leaders unless invited to do so by the officers involved.
- Plan and schedule a secondary stress debriefing for those indirectly involved. You may have several others indirectly affected by the incident, and leaders should ensure they are also provided resources. This version of the CSD is usually open to any employee who wishes to attend.
- Plan and schedule a tactical debrief for those directly involved. We must debrief critical incidents, especially with the average young age of patrol officers patrolling our streets. Again, this should be mandatory for those involved in the incident, including the dispatcher. Officers should be directed to reflect on the steps and actions they took during the incident and be encouraged to take ownership of any mistakes. Constructive criticism should be encouraged and accepted. Depending on the dynamics of the team involved, it is often a good idea to have an uninvolved sergeant act as the mediator to the debrief. Again, the debrief should not be attended by managers or executives unless invited by the officers involved. Depending on your agency's needs, a secondary tactical debrief can be prepared to share with other officers, including what went well, what could have been done differently, and additional learning points that would benefit the agency.
- Follow up with all those affected by the incident. Agency executives and managers should continuously contact officers off work due to an injury or administrative leave from the incident. This simple act will allow officers to feel supported by their administration and likely make a difference in their overall well-being and recovery.
- Internal and external messaging. Additionally, agency leaders should show support to their officers through internal and external messaging. Some executives will disapprove of this suggestion, and I recommend it should be balanced with ongoing investigations. Nonetheless, showing support for the officers while investigations are conducted will be good for the involved officers' well-being and the agency's overall health.
After an officer-down incident, your officers will be overwhelmed by emotions, confused by the steps to come and even feel abandoned by the agency. They will be looking to police leaders for guidance and support. During an officer-down incident, we often do not prioritize our officers; however, we usually do have enough resources available to complete the mission and care for the officers. Prioritize your officers first and mission completion second.