Police Officers and Critical Situation Handling

What is a Critical Incident?

Mass shootings, multi-car pileups, explosions, natural disasters, and building fires are all critical incidents that require public safety officials to control and mop up. While most times it’s in everyone’s best interest to leave the situation to the experts who have specialized training, there have been times when civilians have provided key assistance, even saving lives.

Some experts say that civilians will have an expanded role in such incidents in the future as there are not enough trained first responders to handle each emergency. An important role that civilians will take in future events is expected to be in the form of communications, specifically warning others about the situation and helping first responders to coordinate their actions, such as in a fast-moving wildfire or large-scale medical event where casualties have to be directed to available emergency rooms.

Critical Situation Handling Police

Police Training for Critical Situation Handling

Recent events around the country have prompted police and sheriff’s departments to undertake targeted seminars in handling incidents beyond writing speeding tickets and dispersing unruly sports fans. Police don’t want to repeat Boston’s error in 2004 when an outsized response was used to disperse rowdy Red Sox fans and a young student was accidentally killed by riot control efforts. Many say that armed domestic abuse events are the most common situation they have to prepare for as those can turn into larger incidents and usually take place in populated neighborhoods. Their specialized incident training likely includes:

  • Assessing and neutralizing the threat (gunman, fire, large crowds);

  • Establishing a perimeter and command center;

  • Determining if people should be evacuated from the area;

  • Calling in mutual aid from specialized response units or other departments if necessary;

  • Determining which means should be used to neutralize the threat;

  • Executing a plan for action, and

  • Meeting with all involved police and community officials afterward to discuss and learn from the actions taken.

All of these require quick thinking and decision making from police officers. 

The U.S. Justice Department’s critical incident checklist emphasizes community outreach including communication with interested parties (mayor’s office, community leaders) and holding press conferences to explain a department’s reasons for reacting the way they did. Other police professionals focus on the potential for police trauma and the potential for post-traumatic stress among first responders after such incidents.

Police Training of Critical Situation Handling

Think Before Joining the Fray

Before you jump in to help police or fire first responders, consider:

  • Do you have training in first aid or law enforcement?

  • Will participating endanger your life or well being?

  • What do you have to offer in terms of assistance?

  • Have the police or fire crews on site asked for your help?

Most states have statutes demanding that individuals assist police when possible, but the application of those laws is murky. Some specifically cite joining a police-ordered posse comitatus or effort to keep the peace, but those have rarely been used in the last century and were a part of tracking down wanted fugitives which no longer require the participation of ordinary citizens except perhaps to notify police if the fugitive is seen.

Dangers of Individuals Participating

When a fireman charges through a door and into a burning building it seems romantic almost: he’s going to save a life. In truth, he’s probably wearing up to 60 pounds of protective equipment and has deep knowledge of the dangerous chemicals in the smoke as well as how quickly a ceiling or wall could fall on him once it’s undermined by flames. Firefighters know where to look for people trapped in the burning building. If you were to enter it to attempt entering the building to help you’d be more likely to become another victim than saving someone.

Any witness to a critical incident, even if not directly involved, may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares and flashbacks, inability to sleep, fatigue, inability to concentrate, irritability, and overwhelming fear for the safety of his or her family members.

If you are concerned about being involved in a casualty event, consider getting trained in emergency first aid or join your community’s emergency response team to learn more about planning for and participating in these important preparations.

When Have Civilians Helped

There have been many situations in which first responders were overwhelmed by the magnitude of casualties or the scope of the accident scene, so civilian assistance was welcomed. Consider the Las Vegas concert shooting of 2017 when 500 were injured and 58 killed: individuals did not wait for police or ambulances, they piled the wounded in any available vehicle and raced to hospitals.

When a gunman opened fire at a church service in rural Texas, killing 25, civilians jumped into action and chased the shooter in their vehicle. The civilians were not the cause of the gunman’s death but might have stopped him from causing more casualties by exchanging gunfire with him.

In Tucson, Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was hosting a meet-and-greet event at a grocery store when a gunman opened fire, killing six and wounding Giffords. The gunman might have killed more if not for civilians at the event who hit him with a folding chair and tackled him to the ground until police could get there.

Three Americans aboard a French train jumped on a man armed with a box cutter and other weapons, preventing a widespread attack. A movie was made about their heroics.