In Part One of this two-part article I introduced the diagnostic criteria of post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) and the range of emotional reactions officers may experience after a traumatic event. As discussed, while officers may have little control over when confrontations occur, they do have control over how they respond to these events before, during and after. This article concludes the discussion by considering the debriefing process and protocols to follow post-incident.
A debriefing is any post-event discussion that assists officers come to terms with and learn from it. Hopefully, it helps to gain closure so the event will not continue to cause emotional distress. An informal debriefing can be a discussion that arises spontaneously post event, while a formal debriefing is organised and facilitated to ensure it helps everyone.
There are two primary functions of a critical incident debriefing:
- It is needed to reconstruct the event from the beginning to the end, to learn what was done rightly/wrongly and to help develop operational lessons.
- It is a time to put everyone back together. There might be memory loss, memory distortion, irrational guilt and a host of other factors that cloud the ability of the officers to deal with everything that happened. Debriefing is a tool to sort out these matters, and to restore morale and unit integrity. It can make lives healthier and sometimes it even saves them.
The first objective is to capture and preserve the event in the minds of the participants, so the information can be dissected and everyone can learn from what happened. The first step in maximising memory retention is to have everyone involved make a report immediately after the occurrence. To get detailed information, participants need to be kept calm and collected. From the very beginning, the goal is to delink the memory from the emotions. Initially, participants should be removed from where the stressful event took place, as there are many associations there that can act as powerful stressors. Sometimes, for legal purposes, investigators are concerned about ‘contaminating’ the memory process. In those situations, encourage everyone involved not to rehash the event with others, but rather go home and get a good night’s sleep to help recover additional memory. Sleep helps them achieve a calmer mental state, which in turn helps them consolidate information into their long-term memories. The next day, a second interview can be conducted, and then they can conduct their own informal debriefings with each other. To prevent their memories from being contaminated, instruct the participants not to read the paper or watch the news.
After the first night’s sleep, an interview can be conducted at the location, but it may be necessary to help the participants separate their emotions from their memories. Anticipate that the interview might have to be stopped to help an especially emotional person through the tactical breathing process, because by returning to the scene, the participants are exposed to memory cues that facilitate their recall of how the event unfolded. Objects that seem to be inconsequential to people who were not involved just might provide the missing link that brings all the information together. The day after the incident, agencies should conduct a group ‘critical incident debriefing’. Everyone involved in the incident should attend. The idea of a group critical incident debriefing is to ‘get back on the train’ and derive specific memory cues from each other. All this is not without its flaws. A process called ‘memory reconstruction’ is unavoidable in a group debriefing. What happens is that some participants reconstruct, or fill in their missing pieces of memory with information learned from other participants. The mind hates a vacuum, so they might fill in the gaps and ‘remember’ it as if it had actually happened to them. Some degree of memory reconstruction is inevitable, but the group debriefing is still the best possible tool for giving participants accurate information to help them remember, for helping them learn from mistakes, and for helping them on the path to returning to normal after a horrific incident. Consider conducting a second debriefing 24–48 hours later. This allows participants to get another night or two of sleep, which often provides for further memory consolidation.
The first thing officers must understand is their obligation to participate in a critical incident debriefing. Unmanaged stress is a major factor that can destroy officers and devastate their families. PTSD is ‘the gift that keeps on giving’. When officers are impacted by stress symptoms, their families are also impacted and if it is left unchecked, they will continue to be affected in the years to come. One key tool to prevent PTSD is the critical incident debriefing. There are always those people who say something like ‘Debriefing? I do not need a debriefing!’ But the debriefing is not necessarily for them; it is for their colleague, partner, spouse and their children. It is important to let participants know that any thoughts or reactions they experienced during a critical incident debriefing are okay. Once they realise that the physical and emotional responses they experienced are normal, then they are more likely to relax and open up, and these reactions no longer have the power to hurt officers.
The most important objective of a debriefing is to separate the memory from the emotions, delinking the memory of the event from the sympathetic nervous system arousal. Officers need to make peace with that memory, so that it does not haunt them. As the debriefing unfolds and they work their way through the memory of the event, know that anything and everything is permitted, except anxiety.
After surviving a force response encounter, many officers are further traumatised in word and deed. Because of the treatment they receive, they feel betrayed and abandoned by their own people, and the psychological injuries they experience can hurt more than their physical injuries. Often, fellow officers unwittingly inflict trauma because they do not know how to appropriately relate to a colleague who has been involved in a critical incident.
Here is a post-event protocol that will heal rather than harm:
First words: The initial response by peers and command staff should be, ‘I am glad you are safe’. This suggests concern, care and support and very effectively eases the immediate emotional trauma that the involved officer may be experiencing.
Make contact: Avoiding an officer after an incident may make him feel he has done something wrong. Sometimes peers are ordered not to contact the officer so as not to damage an investigation, but this leaves the officer feeling alone and anxious. At a minimum, if the incident cannot be discussed or others do not know what to say, they should give the officer a handshake, a hug, or an understanding nod. These nonverbal gestures can be a powerful indication of support.
Avoid second guessing: No one was in the officer’s shoes during the incident; no one saw it evolve from his perspective. Others may think they would have acted differently, but no one knows for sure how they will act in a violent encounter until they are actually in one. Do not second guess another officer’s actions, and discourage him from second guessing himself. He likely had only milliseconds to make his decisions, and usually on only partial information. Second guessing could lead to dangerous hesitation the next time around.
Share experience: Those who have been in a similar critical incident should lend an empathetic ear and share their experience. They can help normalise how the officer is thinking, feeling and acting. If the officer is having some adverse reactions, it is particularly important to emphasise that he is not crazy but is responding normally to an abnormal and crazy event. Officers that have had counselling after an event can ease another officer’s concerns about ‘seeing a shrink’.
Watch humour: Black humour is traditionally used as an effective coping mechanism in everyday life. But after a critical incident, be sensitive to the effect of humour on an involved officer.
Use restraint: Do not lionise the officer – he may not feel heroic, especially if he had to take a life. At the same time, do not dehumanise the subject who forced the officer into responding – especially if the officer had eye contact with the subject as he was injured or dying, the officer may see the subject in very human terms and resent denigrating comments.
Encourage talking: Do not allow the officer to withdraw from the world. When that happens, intrusive thoughts about the incident tend to become overwhelming. For legal reasons, it may be best to avoid discussing details of an incident, but without pressuring him, be ready to actively listen and not judge while the officer unloads about his emotions. A subject can potentially leave psychological skeletons in an officer’s emotional closet. Helping the officer unload emotional garbage by encouraging him to talk can be very beneficial. Talk over coffee, though, not over alcohol.
Show respect: An officer surviving a threat to his life deserves to be honoured with dignity and respect, not in the manner of bitterness and resentment. He has followed his training and survived the most extreme of threats to carry out the duty bestowed on him to ensure public safety.
These are important and require an openness and sensitivity that many officers find challenging if not downright intimidating. There is no hesitation is responding to an officer-needs-assistance call on the street. Officers will risk injury and even death to save another person’s life. But when a response is needed to an officer-needs-emotional-assistance call, it is often a different matter. That is something to think about, because responding appropriately to that kind of call is sometimes exactly what is needed.