Critical Incident Management
Responding to a critical incident requires a complex and multi-faceted approach - the way in which the event is handled can quickly determine whether it evolves into a crisis situation. While proper preparation for such events is crucial, planning for the unknown can often feel like a daunting task.
To help agencies address critical incidents in their communities, IACP Immediate Past President Cynthia Renaud convened a group of police leaders to examine the topic of critical incident response. Divided into three subcommittees, participants focused on steps agencies can take to prepare for, manage, and recover from, a critical incident.
The following provides a brief overview from each of the subcommittee chairs and highlights key takeaways and leading practices from the discussions. A supplemental list of IACP resources is also included to provide additional policy guidance and examples from the field.
In addition, find the Speakers Series Session from IACP 2021: Critical Incidents: Preparation, Response, and Management, which featured an expert panel discussion on lessons learned, leading practices, and cutting-edge approaches that can assist agencies in dealing with unplanned critical incidents.
No two incidents are the same, but we can continue to learn from each other and adapt to ensure that when the next critical incident occurs, our communities are well prepared and able to start on the road to recovery sooner.
No two critical incidents are the same, and planning for the unknown can be difficult. Any event can turn into a critical incident, but, in any situation, what remains important is knowing what to do before an incident becomes critical. Agency leaders can prepare for this by developing a framework for how to engage with the public when a situation escalates, engaging in tactical training, participating in critical incident drills, and developing and refining agency policy.
Transparent communication with the public helps establish realistic expectations. Use existing community relationships, and build new ones, to help give members of your community a better understanding of what to expect from the police when they respond to incidents such as protests, mass casualty incidents, or natural disasters. Keep members of the public regularly informed with clear communication, and establish shared expectations, roles, and responsibilities with community groups prior to the event. These actions will help build trust in police response and the policing organization.
Collaboration is also essential when preparing for a critical incident. When responding to a critical incident, other law enforcement and public safety agencies may assist. To better prepare all responders, work with neighboring agencies to develop a coordinated response strategy. Practicing response and training first-line leaders and command staff on how to communicate during a critical incident can set all public safety entities up for success when an event reaches a critical point.
It isn’t always possible to predict how a situation can evolve during a critical incident, but taking these steps can help officers feel more prepared for their response.
— Chief Dwight Henninger, Vail Police Department, Colorado
Effective management of any event can help ensure that a critical incident does not become a crisis. Having a plan to manage a critical incident before it starts can help mitigate any potential for escalation. Managing a critical incident includes communication, tactical response, officer and community safety, mutual aid, rules of engagement, and training.
Communication throughout a critical incident is a key element of incident management. Managing a critical incident requires coordination and informed decision-making for all law enforcement leaders involved. Agencies should use their public information officer or a designated agency representative to provide transparent, well thought out communications to the public and media representatives. Agencies should also ensure consistent, clear, continuous communications to their officers on the ground. When working collaboratively with other law enforcement agencies to manage an incident, use previously established guidelines and practices to ensure the same messages are getting to the right audiences. Law enforcement leaders should also leverage existing relationships with community groups and community leaders to help with messaging, gathering information on the ground, or calming community members.
When munitions or other crowd dispersal techniques are being considered for use during a critical incident, evaluate whether they will either help resolve, or further escalate the situation. Clear leadership on the authorization of less-lethal weapons is especially critical during civil disturbances involving large crowds. Many crowd control techniques that worked in previous incidents may not be as effective for incidents we are faced with now. Be strategic with how and when to use less-lethal force, and have other tools available instead. Proper authorization from leadership and documentation on the use of these tools can help ensure their use in accordance with policy, training, laws, and statutes.
When deploying a critical incident response, the mental aspects are just as important as the physical aspects. When less-lethal force seems necessary, ensure officers on the ground stick to their tactical training and understand the role emotions play in actions and reactions of both themselves and others involved in a critical incident. Critical incidents are always evolving and have a lot of moving parts, but public safety, including the safety of our officers, should remain the number one priority.
— Colonel Matthew Langer, Minnesota State Patrol
Recovering from a critical incident is just as important as preparing for and managing a critical incident. Law enforcement agencies should take a collaborative approach to recovery that includes other agencies, sworn staff, professional staff, and community members. Consistent communication remains an integral part of recovery both externally and internally. Agency staff need to feel supported by their leadership, and community members need to feel supported by their police department. A collaborative approach ensures streamlined, transparent communication and opportunities to start the healing process.
Recovery often starts the moment a scene is secured, but the process does not have a definitive timeline, nor is it a linear process. Law enforcement leaders must understand that recovery will look different for everyone. Recovery can include getting people back to work, processing trauma, rebuilding parts of a community, reunifying families, conducting investigations, and repairing relationships between community members and the police. Agencies can prepare for the recovery phase of any critical incident by establishing protocols and plans in advance to address the many aspects of recovery.
Each critical incident will bring its own unique challenges, but it is important that law enforcement leaders learn the dos and don’ts of what comes after the response to a critical incident and how to move on. Ask yourself what a successful recovery will look like, and establish a plan for an after-action investigation to determine if recovery was successful. Lessons learned provide another tool to help law enforcement leaders heal their communities and better respond to any future incidents.
— Sheriff John Mina, Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Florida