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Why even the smallest agency needs a critical incident response plan

It is likely that more than one officer will be involved in most critical incidents, which can cripple staffing in a small department


Investigators view a pickup truck involved in a deadly shooting rampage at the Rancho Tehama Reserve, near Corning, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017. A gunman driving stolen vehicles and choosing his targets at random opened fire “without provocation” in the tiny, rural Northern California town Tuesday, killing several people, including a student at an elementary school, before police shot him dead, authorities said.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Department heads in small agencies don’t have the luxury of layers of management, critical incident response teams and in-house human resources specialists.

However, there is no location so remote, no town so small, that its officers are exempt from violence.

When chaos erupts, it’s too late to prepare, but answering these four questions can bring a tiny bit of order to a very bad day.

1. Can you count on help from neighboring agencies?

More than one officer will likely be involved in most critical incidents and it doesn’t take many to cripple staffing in a small department.

In 2017, a deputy was killed in a shootout on a country road in North Dakota. Two other deputies fired their weapons and consequently were out of action during the investigation. That’s a staff cut of more than 30% in a matter of minutes under some of the most stressful circumstances imaginable.

Deepen your bench by ensuring there’s a mutual aid MOU in place with state police, nearby police departments and sheriffs. Consider the need to cover patrol until your officers are released to duty, and also to allow attendance for a fallen officer’s memorial services. Will you need aid in the courts, jail or dispatch? Cover that, too.

In states where police powers are complicated by jurisdictional lines, address the legalities in advance in writing. Consult with your city or county attorney and fill any gaps in policy.

Make sure resources are available before there’s an emergency, and avoid frantic phone calls in a crisis.

2. Do you know what benefits your county or city makes available for your officers?

If one of your officers gets hurt, a worker’s compensation claim will be filed. What happens after that is often a mystery, but it doesn’t have to be.

Ask the human resources specialist for your locality to meet with you, and go over the specifics of both short-term and long-term disability as it applies to your department. Ask about:

  • What benefits do they provide?
  • How long do they last?
  • What percentage of the injured officer’s compensation is paid, and when does it kick in?
  • What happens when the benefits run out?
  • What happens if the officer gets hurt working a sanctioned and uniformed off-duty gig?

In many states, except for the very largest agencies, an injured officer will lose a significant portion of their compensation when they can’t work.

It’s not right, but it’s also true that if the officer does not recover and return to full duty within a strictly specified time frame, in many cases they will be terminated – not retired, terminated. For most officers, and often their chief or sheriff, that’s a surprise. The myth that some magic system exists to “take care” of officers injured on the job is durable and wide-ranging, but a myth, nonetheless.

If you discover this is the case, ask what can be done to soften the blow.

Your HR department should be able to guide your officers in selecting and purchasing disability insurance to extend their benefits and mitigate the financial wreckage following a line-of-duty injury that results in a lengthy recovery, or disability.

In this difficult hiring environment, it can be valuable to add extra disability insurance as part of your department’s compensation package. It’s a strategic extra at relatively low cost to the hiring agency that does not add to the burden of retirement costs.

Schedule a time for HR to meet with your officers to review their coverage. Officers who get blindsided by shortfalls in benefits when they are injured will feel abandoned and angry, and a small agency already dealing with a staffing shortfall can’t afford another blow to morale.

Give your officers the chance to understand the situation clearly and make decisions ahead of time.

3. What if the boss is involved in the critical incident?

There may not be specialists in small agencies, but there are lots of working chiefs and sheriffs. You need a plan for when the manure hits the fan and you’re covered in the mess.

In an example from 2016, a rural California sheriff was the only backup available when one of his deputies was ambushed and murdered in a county where any other officer can easily be three hours away. The sheriff engaged the gunman, wounding him and stopping his escape, and now he was part of the post-shooting investigation.

If that happens at your agency, who is cross-trained and designated to step into your boots as acting sheriff or chief? Who is trained and empowered to interact with the press? Who is designated to find and notify next of kin for a wounded or killed officer? Do they have the resources and contacts they will need to do that?

4. Do you have a picture of every officer?

Yes, a picture.

While urban agencies have official portraits regularly taken of each officer, most rural agencies don’t. If you’re making a press release about something wonderful your officer did on duty, that picture will come in handy. If you’re making a press release because the unthinkable has happened, that picture will keep you from scraping social media for a selfie so you don’t have to ask a traumatized and grieving family member to find you one.

It doesn’t have to be a formal photograph by a professional. It does have to be recognizable and reasonably flattering (so, maybe not the ID photo taken in a hurry with lousy lighting). It’s far more important that your officers are seen as humans than that all their award ribbons are visible.

Make it easy on yourself by making sure candid pictures are taken regularly, of everyone. If it helps to have a goal, plan a slideshow once a year for an awards dinner or holiday party.

Your department’s Facebook or Instagram feed can store them for you and give you a reason to keep updated pictures on hand.

Normalcy bias allows the cliché that “nothing ever happens in small towns” to persist, but real life proves otherwise over and over again.

Hoping that nothing bad will happen because nothing has so far is not a plan. Plan now to get ahead of the parts you can control so you can reduce your stress when the world spins out of control.

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.