What Happens after an Officer Involved Critical Incident?

by Safety Connection

The Madison Police Department has experienced three “Officer-Involved Critical Incidents” since October 2021. In the most recent incident, officers were shot at as they tried to apprehend a suspect.

When critical incidents occur, there is a very specific process in place to handle the investigations and care for the officers who may never have experienced that level of stress and trauma.

Training for what to do after an Officer-Involved Critical Incident (OICI) is first presented to officers when they are recruits. They participate in a realistic simulation that brings out many of the raw emotions that a real incident would. Then officers work through the steps of what comes next, so they won’t be caught off guard if they one day find themselves in a critical situation.

The first step after an OICI occurs is to take control of the scene, stabilize it, render aid, establish a perimeter, and collect evidence. Emergency Medical Services (EMS) will arrive on scene, police tape goes up, and officers conduct witness interviews. As soon as possible, any involved officers are removed from the scene and isolated. Then the investigation begins.

Who Investigates?

In the case of an officer-involved shooting, by state law, another agency must investigate. MPD’s investigative agency is the Department of Justice – Division of Criminal Investigations (DCI), but sometimes additional relevant agencies may also be involved. Once DCI is plugged in, they take the lead. They respond to media requests and are responsible for putting out public information.

Immediately following the critical incident, every officer who was directly involved is put on mandatory paid administrative leave.

Until DCI has completed their investigation or provides any updates, MPD officers and command staff who were not involved will typically have very little information about what occurred. This creates its own set of challenges—especially regarding communications with the public who want to know all the details about what happened. MPD does not do its own investigation until after both DCI and the DA’s office have done their work. Working through all of these investigations can take weeks or sometimes even months.

Officer Care after a Critical Incident

MPD plays a critical role in caring for officers during the investigations. They do this in many ways:

  • An Officer-Involved Critical Incident medical team is plugged in to make sure the officer receives proper medical care, ongoing follow-ups and psychiatric evaluations, etc.
  • Each officer in the department has a “critical incident partner” who can help and support them after an OICI. MPD makes every effort to connect the involved officer(s) with their partner as soon as possible. In an attempt to protect the officer and streamline communication and channel distractions away from them, everything is funneled through that critical incident partner. This partner cannot talk/ask about the incident, but they are very helpful in making a variety of arrangements, communicating with family members, and providing anything the officer may need.
  • Officers are also provided with confidential counseling through the City of Madison’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). One component of this is a paid debrief where the officer shares what happened with a trained professional and sometimes with others who shared the same experience. This allows officers to share their emotions in a safe and appropriate place, and it offers some closure for that incident. 

Once DCI and the DA’s office have completed their investigation and work, the Madison Police Department conducts its own internal investigation through its Professional Standards & Internal Affairs (PS&IA) division. This is a parallel investigation, separate from DCI’s investigation. Many questions will be asked: How was this incident handled? Were there any training issues? Health and wellness issues? What factors came into play?

The PS&IA investigation is usually the final step in the process. Once that is completed, if appropriate, the officer(s) can return to work.

Re-entry Training

Next officers participate in a period of re-entry training with a team and command staff. They’ll go back to the shooting range for target practice to determine if they are ready to fire a gun. They may take part in realistic virtual scenarios, often recreating a situation similar to the incident to make sure they are mentally ready for the job. Eventually they will go out for a day or more of field training with a supervisor. The intent is to make sure the officer is ready and that critical benchmarks are re-established before a full return to the field. 

While officers are on mandatory administrative leave during the DCI investigation, MPD still must fill any vacant patrol beats to fulfill required hard minimum staffing levels and ensure residents are receiving sufficient police services. Because MPD is understaffed already, this usually requires filling the beats with officer overtime (officers are asked to volunteer for shifts or they get held over). Some investigations can take weeks or even months and this can take a toll on the entire department.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is common among police officers who are frequently exposed to traumatic events, such as seeing abused or murdered children, dead bodies, severe assaults, shooting victims, and horrible traffic accidents. Not too long ago, Madison Police officers were called to the scene of an active, armed hostage incident, and less than one hour later, many of those same officers responded to a homicide by knife where a 13-year-old girl was killed by her father.

Follow-up care is very important, and MPD has made great strides over the years in how they care for their officers. Offering wellness days, peer support, and employee assistance gives officers more opportunities to open up to fellow officers and to professionals who can help them.

Here are the WI Department of Justice press releases/updates regarding MPD’s most recent critical incidents:

  • October 10, 2021 – State Street: “Madison police attempted to apprehend a wanted subject in the 500 block of State Street in Madison, Wis. The subject ran from police. During the arrest a round was fired and an officer was struck. That police officer was taken to a local hospital for non-life threatening injuries. Another officer sustained minor injuries during the arrest. Police took the wanted subject into custody, without injury. The subject was in possession of a handgun. No other individuals were injured during the incident.”
  • November 28, 2021 – Secret Garden Drive: “Madison Police officers responded to a residence on Secret Garden Drive for a call of an armed suicidal man inside the home with another person possibly in danger. Once on scene, officers encountered the armed person inside the residence and attempted efforts to subdue the subject but those proved ineffective. During the encounter, a Madison Police officer discharged their weapon, and the armed man fired his weapon, taking his own life.”
  • January 11, 2022 – Northport Drive/Dryden Drive: “Officers from the Madison Police Department surrounded a location near Northport Drive and Dryden Drive in the City of Madison as part of an armed robbery investigation. During the incident, an armed subject jumped off of a balcony at the location and began firing at officers. Multiple officers returned fire at the subject. The subject was taken to a local hospital for treatment of gunshot injuries, and is expected to survive. No law enforcement personnel were injured during the incident.”

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