How shift debriefings can improve officer safety

We should be doing more to harness the wisdom of street cops and what they learn from every shift


As cops, we often cry loudly about the lack of training in our profession. I am guilty of it myself.

However, while we whine about the seeming lack of interest in ongoing police training, we also miss the opportunities to train and learn from the everyday lessons available to us.

Those lessons come from every call we respond to and every shift we work.

A debrief includes a careful examination of the tactics, techniques and procedures, decision and actions that took place on shift. (Photo/PoliceOne)
A debrief includes a careful examination of the tactics, techniques and procedures, decision and actions that took place on shift. (Photo/PoliceOne)

There’s No Magic Here

The uses of training tools such as tactical decision games and after-action reviews still are rare occurrences in our profession and seemingly only used when some catastrophic or unconventional crisis has occurred, like when a cop is killed in the line of duty or a deadly force scenario leaves the public calling for an explanation.

We should be doing more to harness the wisdom of street cops and what they learn from every shift. The shift debriefing is a police training tool we should use to develop officers capable of making sound decisions and employing sound tactics to resolve crisis situations, then record and report them accurately in the aftermath.

Police departments by their nature are learning organizations and eventful or not, every shift yields fruit in the form of lessons learned. Hence, some effort needs to be made to “harvest” knowledge that can be used in bettering future shifts.

While methods may vary, they usually take the form of a debriefing. A debriefing is a facilitated discussion focused on gaining understanding and insight regarding specific actions taken on shift.

Because lessons learned by police personnel play such an important role, a system must be in place to ensure that such lessons are properly and correctly recorded.

Experience is a powerful teacher, but experience by itself is not the most efficient way to learn. The process can often be painful and time-consuming.

To learn as quickly as possible, we must be deliberate, disciplined and thorough in our approach to squeeze as much as possible from each experience.

As with everything else about better execution, there is no magic here.

The Shift Debriefing System

A debrief includes a careful examination of the tactics, techniques and procedures, decision and actions that took place on shift and is focused on improving performance.

The focus of a shift debriefing is fact-finding, not fault-finding. Open discussion facilitated by the supervisor is nearly unlimited in scope as long as the focus remains on the shift's operations.

Consequently, any person is allowed to introduce any subject for discussion and recommendations.

Shift debriefs are an opportunity to discuss incidents that took place on shift and the tactics, techniques and procedures used as well, ensure evidence and information have been gathered, reported and acted upon.

The shift debrief allows for early resolution of incidents where mistakes may have been made and early identification of officer safety, work practices, policy and procedure issues that arise on shift and effect department-wide execution. 

Examples of questions to ask during a shift debrief

Shift supervisors should facilitate shift debriefs to ensure tasks have been completed and updated with the outcome of each task. Questions to ask include the following:

  • Was there a sound tactical response and approach to an incident?
  • Were decisions made in a timely manner?
  • What was the rationale of the individual or shift in making their decisions?
  • Could we have done something better, safer and more effective?
  • Was communication effective?
  • Were there any officer safety or innocent by-stander concerns?
  • Were the proper tools, troops, tactics, techniques and adaptable procedures utilized?
  • Were the outcomes sought met? If not, why not and how do we adapt?
  • Were there any novelties, rare occurrences, methods and tools used by the subjects involved that effected decision-making and our overall response to a specific operation that we need to develop new tactics for?
  • Were complainant, witness, victim and suspect information gathering completed?
  • Was property and evidence gathering completed and documented?
  • Did the narrative report include officer observations, orientation, decision and actions, to include probable cause and elements of the crime?
  • Is a follow-up investigation necessary and if so who is conducting follow-up investigation (patrol/detectives)?
  • Were there any new training and equipment needs discovered?

The examples listed above are just some of what may be covered in a shift debrief and are normally associated with tactical responses and safety-related issues. But those things so crucial to a successful operation, such as the dreaded but all-important paperwork process, need to be included in the debriefs as well.

Supervisors should meet with personnel before the end of the shift for a debriefing, where the shift’s events and reports will be reviewed. The shift debriefing should ideally occur at the end of a tour of duty although this may not always be practical.

Supervisors should view debriefing as an ongoing process that should take place at the first available opportunity. If we take an interest and make a habit of doing them daily, much like roll call, the shift debriefing process will become a routine part of everyday policing.

The shift debriefing is one of the ways through which shifts and individual officers will know how successful they have been and a way in which all will learn from specific planning, tactics, techniques and procedures as well as the decision-making process utilized.

The shift debriefs also enable supervisors to properly access assigned tasks and to see whether they have been completed and processed properly per the department’s overall mission and intent.

Item, Discussion, Recommendation

The Item, Discussion and Recommendation (IDR) format is great for recording shift lessons learned. This is a three-step process for identifying and describing issues, items or ideas with their related recommendations after a shift.

Item: The item, issue or idea step identifies the particular subject and provides a brief but precise description of the concern. It also serves as the title of the subject and as such is normally just a few words and never longer than a single sentence.

Discussion: The discussion is the second step and is a summary explaining why the concern is relevant. It provides sufficient information to convince an uninformed reader of how the problem was manifested and in what circumstances and context. When more than one contributory cause is identified, they are all listed if they can be addressed by a single recommendation. The discussion component may be several paragraphs to as long as a single page. Those items that require longer explanations and descriptions are normally reserved for more formal reports.

Recommendation: The recommendation is the last step and is a short statement suggesting a corrective course of action, countermeasure or remedy.

As described above, shift debriefs are normally informal discussions. However, at times the problems identified and their solutions require documentation and follow-up on lessons learned.

Follow-up can include policy and procedure review and/or revisions, training and equipment need assessments. Either in discussion or written form, the IDR format is a great tool to facilitate the debrief and document lessons learned.

We must be more deliberate, more disciplined and more thorough in our approach to squeeze as much as possible from each experience.

If our goal is to be better than good, we must focus our efforts to get there. The shift debrief is one way of doing just that!

I adapted much of this piece on shift debriefings from two sources: "Field Command" by Sid Heals and "Raising The Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability To deal With The Changing Face of War" by Don Vandergriff. Both are great books and a must-read for any cop.

This article, originally published 03/13/2013, has been updated.

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