Across the U.S., some law enforcement agencies have come under scrutiny because of an officer-involved shooting or allegations that officers have been implicated in criminal activity. “These issues haven’t occurred in my department,” you reply. Ok. Not yet. Your agency still needs to be fully ready to engage critical incident management – at any moment.

Critical Incident Management Starts with Prevention

Prevention should always be a key driver of your critical incident management protocols – in many forms. These include appropriate screening policies for hiring and promotion, a strong policy framework that is regularly reviewed and updated, and an early intervention system to detect behavioral changes and help employees deal with stress and trauma in a timely manner.

Building the community’s trust and confidence in the police is the bedrock of this process. Reaching out to community members to develop relationships should not wait until a critical incident occurs. With strong relationships in place, when a crisis does occur, a chief can reach out to trusted community advisors who can be supportive of the department while the investigation is ongoing. If these relationships have not been developed beforehand, the chief may face a difficult uphill battle in sharing key information with the community.

Not All Critical Incidents Can Be Prevented

While prevention can deter some critical incidents from occurring, they can still happen. The next question a chief should be thinking about is: is my department prepared if a critical incident occurs here? Effective policies and procedures are key to preparation. For example, does the department have investigative protocols to respond to allegations of criminal activity by an officer or an officer-involved shooting? Such protocols should address reporting lines, maintain confidentiality, assist victims and survivors, provide clear and consistent information to the community and address officer needs. Policies should also discuss the release of video and address questions such as:

  • Are there opportunities to release the video footage before the investigation has been completed?
  • Are there exceptions to when the video can be released?
  • Will the family or families get to see any materials before they are released to the public?

Depending on the nature or circumstances of the incident, the policy may address when it may be appropriate to seek an independent outside investigator to help. Independent and impartial investigations by an external source can help increase transparency and improve public trust in the outcomes.

Communication is Key in Critical Incident Management

Appropriate communication is crucial to the successful response to a critical incident. Departments should be prepared with critical incident communications plans, which are a part of the department’s overall communication plans. These plans need to:

  • Include key contacts
  • Identify the roles and responsibilities of various department members and others
  • Describe how information will be gathered from within the organization
  • Set out clear rules for handling external inquiries and who approves the messages
  • Designate a department spokesperson who will serve as the main contact to handle external inquiries
  • Identify community groups who may be willing to serve as a conduit source between the police and affected communities while the incident is under investigation.

Though the department should appoint a spokesperson, it is also important to ensure that the chief maintain visibility and demonstrate leadership as the incident and response evolve.

As the department is communicating about the incident, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Communicate early and often. Getting even minimal information out to the public immediately will buffer some of the inaccurate information that is likely to spread.
  • Only speak about what is known about the incident. It is important that the chief reassure the public that a full investigation is underway without signaling any given outcome. Avoid statements such as, “I am confident the officer will be vindicated after a thorough and complete investigation.”
  • When possible, report your own bad news. Information travels fast and it is better for your community to hear the details from you, rather than hearing it through rumors and other sources.
  • Make sure you keep your internal audiences (patrol officers, city officials, etc.) informed. Don’t let them be surprised by your comments. It is important to be transparent with both your community and your own department’s members.

The Work is Never Fully Done

Once the incident has passed, protocols have been followed and the circumstances of the event have been appropriately shared, the department’s job continues. In addition to ensuring that involved officers and the community get the services necessary to manage post-incident stress, the department should take the time to debrief. The debriefing should include an assessment of lessons learned and a review of established protocols to determine what worked well, what did not work well and any gaps. Mechanisms should also be in place to share these “lessons learned” across the department and externally to other practitioners.

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