6 steps toward establishing a debriefing culture in law enforcement

Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies have traditionally been hesitant to engage in this kind of self-analysis and information sharing


When a video of a law enforcement shooting was publicly released recently, I was surprised by the discussion it generated amongst the LEO community — particularly the hesitance to comment on the poor and unsafe tactics used by the officers during the event. The few officers who dared to critique the clearly unsatisfactory and dangerous tactics were chided by others and shut down. There was a general sense that there was no use in critiquing the event because the involved officers were victorious and safe, and that’s all that mattered.

As a retired military officer and pilot, I come from a culture where after-action analysis and debriefings are a part of everyday life. Whether it’s a “hot wash,” a post-flight debrief, an accident investigation, or a formal inquiry and report, military personnel are accustomed to reviewing past actions to determine the facts, identify errors, problems and deficiencies, and determine ways to correct them.

We’ve dedicated entire schools to the study of past battles, and we breed our leaders to continuously observe, analyze and share lessons learned. When a mission gets debriefed, nobody — regardless of rank or status — is immune from having their mistakes identified and discussed for training and corrective purposes.

Changing the Culture
Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies have traditionally been more hesitant to engage in this kind of self-analysis and information sharing. A variety of reasons may explain this. Pride may prevent some agencies from wanting to look too hard at events that might expose deficiencies or cause potential embarrassment.

A concern over liability may prevent an agency from identifying errors, and a concern that such efforts may be regarded as disrespectful towards an injured or slain officer might stop others. Finally, officers may hesitate to identify errors made by their peers, knowing full well that they could easily make (or have made) the same mistakes.

While these concerns are understandable, we should not allow them to prevent a rigorous self-examination in the wake of a significant or critical incident. Nor should we allow them to block the sharing of information that may encourage improvements in training, tactics, techniques, procedures and equipment that could enhance officer safety. With this goal in mind, I offer the following tips to promote a “debriefing culture” in law enforcement:

1. Focus on the mission.
The sole priority of after-action debriefs is to identify ways to improve an agency’s ability to do the mission. This is not an exercise in assigning blame or fault to individuals, it’s about improving capabilities and performance.

2. Demand truth and accuracy.
Sugarcoating the story or hiding what actually happened to avoid hurt feelings or save embarrassment will corrupt the process and invalidate the results. You have to know exactly what’s broken in order to fix it.

3. Recognize and acknowledge influences on performance.
If an officer performs poorly under life-threatening stress, it may be due to uncontrollable physiological changes or a lack of proper training or experience. Dig to determine the root causes of mistakes and failure, instead of simply attributing them to negligence, human error, or an individual lack of skill. Sometimes those really are the cause of poor performance, but never forget that an officer’s performance can be, and often is, a reflection of the agency’s culture, policies and training programs.

4. Identify both the good and bad.
After-action analysis should not be restricted to losses. It’s important to analyze the wins as well, to identify best practices and determine which training methods are working. Even when we win, we make mistakes that are worth learning from, and there are things we can still do better.

5. Cultivate a safe environment for learning.
Agency leaders need to foster an atmosphere where officers are encouraged –  even expected – to share experiences and lessons learned without fear of ridicule or punishment. Even the most junior members of an agency should feel empowered to discuss and provide feedback on officer safety issues. All officers should feel they have the “academic freedom” to openly discuss ways to improve training, tactics, techniques, and procedures without offending those in charge of those areas.

6. Safeguard information.
While the results of after-action analysis should be widely shared amongst agency members and other allied agencies, it’s vital to protect information and restrict its use to authorized personnel. If sensitive information is handled improperly, it could fall into the wrong hands and jeopardize the effort. All personnel should be trained on the proper ways to use and protect sensitive information.

Conclusion
The most important thing about handling a critical incident is getting the job done right, with a minimum of injury to all involved. In order to do this consistently, we need to promote our strengths, learn from our mistakes, and fix our problems, but we can’t do this if we ignore or hide them.

By creating a debriefing culture, everyone plays an active role in improving capabilities and officer safety. By openly discussing what we do right, what we do wrong, and what we need to do to improve, we can help to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again that result in so many of our brothers and sisters getting injured or killed.

Be safe out there.

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