Police Psychology | Critical Incidents in Law Enforcement
by Doug Gentz, Ph.D. Guest Author
Unusual and sometimes disturbing experiences are just part of the job of a Police Officer. As they proceed through their careers, officers typically take these experiences in stride. At some point, an officer may have an experience that rises to the level of a Critical Incident. Two factors must be present to qualify an experience as a Critical Incident. The first is involvement in a sudden, unexpected, very unusual, life threatening event. The second is that the involvement in that event triggers a need for a much greater than “normal” degree of psychological adjustment on the part of the officer.
In a true Critical Incident, the involved officer has to work harder and longer than usual to digest the experience. A partial list of events that may (or may not) trigger a Critical Incident include Officer Involved Shootings, horrific car wrecks, and grotesque crime scenes especially those involving children. While the events are relatively easy to describe, the factors that underlie the “degree of adjustment required” are much more difficult to define. There are a multitude of examples of events shared by several officers that become a Critical Incident for one or two officers and not others. What makes the same event a Critical Incident for one officer while another officer experiences it as just unusual, perhaps noteworthy?
Most of the answer to that question is more physical than psychological. The main contributing factor that makes an incident “hard to digest” is the amount of epinephrine (AKA adrenaline) secreted into the officer’s brain during the experience. The more epinephrine that floods his or her brain, the greater the need for recovery and adjustment.
All experiences are received, processed, and sent for storage by a part of the midbrain that acts like a librarian responsible for accepting, indexing, and cataloging input from the five senses. This “librarian of the brain” is called the hippocampus and it is extremely sensitive to levels of epinephrine. A little “overdose” of epinephrine enhances its performance (stronger memory formation), while a big overdose “intoxicates” it. When “intoxicated,” its’ performance is impaired. This means that the pictures, the sounds, the sensations associated with emotions, and even the smells that the officer perceives during the event are not sorted, indexed, and catalogued as usual. Instead, those perceptions may remain knitted together as a whole experience so that later, the event may be reexperienced instead of simply being remembered. Fortunately, as the hippocampus “sobers up” over time, it will work tirelessly and unconsciously to perform its function of turning the experience into a regular memory.
The typical reactions (pounding heart, replaying the event, difficulty with sleep, etc) that tend to accompany involvement in a critical incident are associated with re-experiencing rather than remembering the event. It is essential to keep in mind that all Critical Incident reactions are normal, temporary, and resolvable. If and when reactions aren’t as temporary as you’d like, consultation with the psychological staff at your department would be a useful option.
Site Editor: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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