Current Court Challenges Involving Critical Incident Stress Debrief Confidentiality

Current Court Challenges Involving Critical Incident Stress Debrief Confidentiality

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Critical incident stress debriefings (CISD) are a popular tool that many police agencies leverage as a benefit available to employees in support of their mental health and wellness. A CISD is held after a traumatic event in a formal group or one-on-one discussion setting, designed to help participants understand the emotional reactions they may be feeling to mitigate further compounded stress reactions.[1]

Confidentiality has typically been considered a key component to CISD programs, providing assurance to participants that what is discussed during such sessions will be held in confidence. However, recent court decisions compelling participants in a CISD to disclose what was discussed in such sessions have provoked concern among police personnel and associated professionals. 

Relevant Court Decision:

While state laws regarding the confidentiality of such sessions varies, two recent court rulings have presented challenges involving the confidentiality of CISDs. 

Judges in a US federal civil liability case involving the Boston, Massachusetts Police Department [2] and a US state level criminal case involving officers of the Vancouver, Washington Police Department [3] refused to recognize any "privilege" to participants that attended a CISD could invoke to shield them from testifying in court or answering questions at a deposition. Although the judges in both cases acknowledged the value of the CISD process, and the role that an assurance of confidentiality plays in promoting a free exchange by participants, they both noted that the CISD sessions were not considered "counseling" in the traditional sense [4], therefore were not protected under the recognized psychotherapist-patient privilege. 

Potential Implications:

Although complete confidentiality cannot be guaranteed, there are several steps police leaders may consider to protect their current CISD programs. These include: 

  • Consult with your agency's legal counsel to review and understand applicable state or jurisdictional laws regarding confidentiality to CISD participants. 
  • Explore whether any modification to the CISD process can be made to overcome any of the courts' bases for not recognizing a privilege in your state. 
  • Educate your agency's employees on the legal limits to CISD confidentiality. 
  • Anticipate when questions related to CISD discussions might be raised during deposition or trial, and be prepared to articulate grounds for objections. 
  • If possible, seek opportunities to work with elected officials to clarify or codify the confidentiality of CISD discussions within legislation or public policy. 

The IACP is closely following this developing issue and will provide updates as necessary. 

If you have any questions, please contact PolicyCenter@theIACP.org.


[1] For more information, see the Appendix of Employee Mental Health 05-06-2020.pdf (theiacp.org)

[2] Huffman et al. v. City of Boston et at., US District Court (Mass.) CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:21-cv-10986

[3] State of Washington v. Julio Caesar Segura, Superior Court of Washington, No. 22-1-00234-06

[4] Typically involving a one-on-one meeting between a therapist and participant. 

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