Crisis rehearsal: How to prevent low-risk events from turning into high-risk encounters

The choices you make or fail to make can introduce risk of injury to the police and the community you’ve committed to protecting


Many law enforcement officers train for dangerous situations using crisis rehearsal, sometimes referred to as the “what-if” game. This approach involves imagining hazardous scenarios, such as an ambush or an officer down, and then playing out how you would respond.

These rehearsals are useful when preparing for high-risk/low-frequency events because even though such situations may not occur often, they can have severe consequences such as someone getting killed, hurt, or criminally charged.

Of course, not all high-consequence events are low frequency. Officers often deal with high-frequency/high-risk situations, but it is precisely the high frequency of the events that prepare officers to minimize risk.

Some initially low-risk incidents can have high consequences if you weren’t prepared to recognize them early enough and know the decisions you will make. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Some initially low-risk incidents can have high consequences if you weren’t prepared to recognize them early enough and know the decisions you will make. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Preparing for low-risk situations

It makes sense that law enforcement professionals may spend hours mentally rehearsing high-risk, low-frequency scenarios. But without equal attention to low-risk incidents, officers may unnecessarily aggravate problems that could have been avoided.

Low-risk situations may seem less concerning than high-risk situations because if something goes wrong, the outcome is less likely to end in loss of life. However, some initially low-risk incidents can have high consequences if you weren’t prepared to recognize them early enough and know the decisions you will make.

In these cases, the choice you make or fail to make can introduce the risk of injury to the police and the community you’ve committed to protecting. Beyond the community trust that may be impacted by your decisions, failing to properly manage even low-risk events can escalate into criminal charges, lawsuits, or even death. Fortunately, these unnecessary risks can be mitigated with planning, and it can be as simple as rehearsing the minor things.

Low-risk scenarios in action

With body-worn camera footage available on the internet, it is not difficult to find material to use for crisis rehearsal of low-risk events. But what are some examples of outwardly low-risk situations that have the potential to transition to high-risk if you aren’t prepared? Consider the following:

1. Seizing phones as evidence

Imagine being present at a scene where other officers from your department are arresting a combative subject. There are enough officers to control the arrestee, so you assume the responsibility to keep a crowd of onlookers a safe distance away from the scene.

You notice that a few of the onlookers appear to be recording the incident with their mobile devices. One of the officers arresting the subject yells to you and says, “Hey! They can’t be recording this! Seize those phones as evidence!”

Do you know what the law says about seizing mobile devices under those circumstances? Do you know what your department policy says about such things?

Using crisis rehearsal to research and develop a plan to handle such situations beforehand can help reduce the risk of you handling it inappropriately if it occurs.

2. Officer argues with an arrestee 

You have appropriately arrested the driver and only occupant of a vehicle. The arrestee is sitting on the curb, and your partner is standing over and watching him while you conduct a lawful search of the subject’s vehicle.

Through the windshield, you see your partner pointing aggressively at the subject, and you hear what sounds like a loud argument between your partner and the arrestee. Your partner suddenly lunges toward the arrestee, pushes him down to the ground, and starts punching him.

What are you going to do? How are you going to find out why the partner pushed the arrestee to the ground and started striking him? Do you rush over to help your partner control the subject on the ground? Do you pull your partner away from the subject? Is this exactly the type of incident you must report to a supervisor? Will you?

Using crisis rehearsal techniques to plan a correct response to an incident like this can reduce the likelihood that it will transition from low- to high-risk.

3. Cop angered at a community event

You are on duty at an outdoor community festival. A young woman among a small group of attendees makes derogatory sounds and comments as you and your partner walk by the group. Your partner is visibly irritated by the young woman’s behavior and tells her, “You better watch yourself.” The young woman laughs and repeats the sounds and comments.

Your partner becomes angry and storms toward her saying, “Okay! Now you’re going to jail!” Bystanders start looking while pulling their mobile devices out of their pockets.

What are you going to do in this situation? Did your partner see or experience something you did not? Can your partner lawfully arrest the young woman for her behavior? Is your partner exposing himself, you and your department to liability and embarrassment? More importantly, what is this going to do the trust you’ve worked so hard to build in your community?

Using crisis rehearsal to think about how you would act in this situation better equips you to reduce risk if something similar occurs in real life.

Mental preparation

What concrete steps can officers take to prepare for seemingly minor encounters waiting to go bad? Formal in-person or online training options are certainly available, or you may be fortunate enough to have an in-house instructor who can guide you through some lower-risk scenarios that are ripe for the “what-if” game.

But ultimately, as with all types of mental preparation, the drive and commitment to better oneself through training must come from the inside. Think of situations you may have already found yourself in that in hindsight may not have played out exactly as you would have liked. Talk to your partners and share stories as we all do every day – there’s a training opportunity in every interaction.

For self-guided mental preparation such as this, you can go back to incidents you may be uncomfortable sharing, play them out again in your mind and rehearse a better resolution for next time – and then share this with your partners.

The key is to be honest with yourself, know the guiding policy or principles that weigh into the decision, and visualize the right outcome. In doing so, the likelihood of finding success and making the right, pre-planned decision, is greatly increased.

Law enforcement trainers have long advocated for using crisis rehearsal techniques to help officers prepare for life-threatening encounters. The same methods become even more valuable when you use them to prepare for line-of-duty dilemmas that may not threaten lives, but do endanger the integrity of the law enforcement profession and the trust of the communities they serve. So, don’t forget to rehearse the minor things too.

NEXT: 4 tests to help officers survive ethical dilemmas

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