Helping a cop through a critical incident

I recently spoke with Sgt. Mary Dunnigan of the San Francisco Police Department Behavior Sciences Unit about ways in which officers can help a fellow LEO who has been involved in a critical incident. First off, of course, we need to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma, such as subtle changes in behavior. For example, watch for indications that an individual is isolating — withdrawing from typical socializing activities.

“Watch for behavior changes,” Sgt. Dunnigan began. “When they’re either having passivity on the job or overcompensation on the job after an incident, where they’re trying to overcompensate for something they failed during the last incident. Maybe they’re now trying to be the first one through the door, to sort of prove that they can succeed at something they failed at. Being passive may be something like avoidance of certain feelings or avoidance of reminders or other triggers. It really is sort of subtle but you can see if you know someone well enough — if you know a partner or a peer well enough, you can see a change of behavior.”

Supervisors should keep track of not just an individual’s most recent critical incident, but also take into account past history of critical incidents. When was the last one? What was the last one? What was the behavior of the individual then as compared to now? Is there any sort of pattern developing?

“For supervisors, keep an eye on ‘Is this their second or third shooting? Have there been multiple incidents piled together where they haven’t had time to process the last one. That’s when you have to do some kind of unplugging and say, ‘Let’s take a time out and process this before we get an accumulation of incidents kind of piling up.’ That’s just sort of ‘Caretaking 101’ for supervisors,” Dunnigan said.

“It’s not always how they act immediately after an incident or during the incident. Most officers have to kind of hold themselves together until they feel safe enough to kind of feel vulnerable.”

While it’s hard to tell during — or immediately after — an incident that post-trauma stress is a factor in an individual, every incident should be treated as if they need support, “instead of just watching a guy until they fall apart,” Dunnigan said.

Dunnigan concluded, “Be proactive. Say what you see. Support them in getting support.”

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 900 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). Doug is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

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