How to set up a peer support team and CISD process ahead of an ‘officer down’ incident

While there are differing peer support and CISD models, there are recognized best practices you should consider


For additional resources on officer safety, download Officer Down! A Police1 Survival Guide.

There are varying definitions of “critical incident” within the law enforcement profession. From a psychology perspective, a critical incident is often referred to as any duty-incurred traumatic event where an officer is exposed to a direct threat to one’s own life or the life of a partner, is injured, or otherwise feels a sense of profound helplessness during an encounter. Post-incident, the officer can experience a degree of emotional, psychological and/or physical distress ranging from mild agitation to major crisis to Post Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). Whether or not you are directly or indirectly involved in a critical incident where an officer is injured or killed, you are going to experience some reaction to the event.

There are two common and effective interventions in policing to help officers mitigate the impact of a critical incident: peer support and Critical Incident Stress Debrief (CISD).

A common misconception about both peer support and CISD is that they mimic or replace a “therapy” session. Therapy is a semi-structured regularly scheduled appointment with a clinician or psychologist. Therapy is typically rooted in uncovering deeply embedded traumas and working through diagnoses like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress injury over a period of time. During peer support or CISD intervention, the contact is usually incidental and the purpose is to provide you with the tools, on an as-needed basis, to address a trauma or incident that has recently occurred.

Post-incident, the officer can experience a degree of emotional, psychological and/or physical distress ranging from mild agitation to major crisis to Post Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI).
Post-incident, the officer can experience a degree of emotional, psychological and/or physical distress ranging from mild agitation to major crisis to Post Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). (Getty Images)

Peer supporters and peer support teams are generally made up of officers, dispatchers and support staff who have been trained to identify common stressors and trauma indicators and are equipped to understand available resources. When indicated, peer support will help navigate their peers to higher-level resources, like therapists. Peer supporters “get it” since they are in the same profession, doing the same work and their mission is to support their brothers and sisters in the same grind.

A Critical Incident Stress Debrief is a group intervention, often led by a psychologist, characterized by a semi-structured crisis focus discussion of the traumatic event. Think about a tactical debrief, except in this format you are debriefing thoughts and feelings more so than positioning and tactics. The purpose of the debrief is to mitigate the trauma response and prevent what starts out as a normal reaction to a horrible event from becoming PTSI, major depression, or the catalyst for divorce.

Think about the trauma reel that may be going on in your mind after an incident. Both peer support and CISDs help download the information out of your brain into the conversation to help you slow down. Easier said than done.

There are differing peer support and CISD models throughout the United States. In most cases, any type of support is better than no support, however, to maximize time and resources and provide the best care, there are recognized best practices to be considered.

Peer support best practices

  • Rather than have department personnel self-elect to be on the team, consider generating a survey that is sent out asking employees asking: “If you were going to talk to anyone within the organization about something personal or professional, whom would you go to?” Once you have a list, approach those individuals and see if they are interested. This becomes the basis for your team.
  • Ensure your peer team is representative of the individuals in the organization, so consider having sworn, dispatch, custody, civilians, retirees, etc. Your team should be large enough to support anonymity and diverse enough that anyone in the agency can find someone on the team who shares some commonalities
  • A rogue peer team is not good for the employees or the agency. Ongoing training and accountability are a must. Ensure your team fits within a command structure and there is someone in charge of the team and available to answer questions and help work through problems. Hopefully, that person also believes in the mission and can support the advancement of the team and its members.
  • Finally, it takes one breach of confidentiality for your team to lose credibility. Have folks sign a confidentiality agreement. Touch upon it in every training. Ensure that if someone does breach confidentiality egregiously, there is a way to boot them off the team. 

Critical incident stress debriefs best practices

  • Ensure your supervisors and command staff understand the CISD process before you need to activate the team. During an officer-down incident, the last thing you want to do is try to explain to your command the efficacy of the intervention as the incident is unfolding.
  • Vet your psychologist beforehand. Encourage the therapist to do ride-alongs and have a presence in the station. That way when they are called to conduct a debrief, there is an established level of familiarity and trust. There are organizations that contract with culturally competent therapists, such as The Counseling Team International, and there are individuals in private practice who have the knowledge and experience necessary to do the work. Most may not know when a debrief goes well. Everyone will know if it doesn’t.
  • Consider putting the debrief in your officer-down ops plan. This way if you’re on vacation, someone else can handle the steps to start the process. Don’t be the only one with the knowledge, after all, if you were involved in the incident, you should not be coordinating resources but taking advantage of them. If you have a peer support team, they can help coordinate.

The more you plan, the more likely it is that if and when you do experience a line of duty death (and I hope you never have to) your people will be able to grieve, heal, and have the tools and resources to navigate through the hard times ahead. If you want more information about peer support and debrief practices and resources, here are some resources:

For additional resources on officer safety, download Officer Down! A Police1 Survival Guide.

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2022 Police1. All rights reserved.