Mental Health Awareness: Focus on OIS and Critical Incidents

In the realm of protecting Public Safety, few scenarios demand an attorney’s rapid reaction and acute attention like responding to an Officer Involved Shooting or other Critical Incident (“OIS”). Within less than an hour from the initial call to action–a phone call, which often comes late at night or in the earliest hours of the morning–the attorney will need to be mentally and physically prepared–arrive at the Station or the location of the incident, ready to represent all of the Officers involved; ready to know and apply critical legal aspects, including the Police Officers Bill of Rights, as well as the policies and procedures of that unique department. In addition, it is critical that the attorney understands concepts of use of force and evolving law enforcement best practices. Responses and techniques that may have been permissible in recent years, may not be permissible today. Remaining an expert in today’s policing is to be in a constant state of learning and adapting.

The attorney’s primary role in an OIS response is to advise, advocate and protect the involved officer, or officers, knowing that the department and the district attorney’s priorities may not always align with that of the individual officer. Therefore, the attorney’s immediate, physical presence is critical for maintaining the officers’ sense of self-preservation and protection. Especially in a time when these officers involved are often physically exhausted and mentally shaken, the attorney is there to make sure officers are not compelled to give potentially incriminating or compromising statements without the on-site consultation and oversight of an attorney.

That said, when responding to an OIS the department and the attorney’s jobs must go beyond the legal aspect, extending to the well-being of the individuals involved, recognizing the toll a shooting scenario takes on the officers. This shift in perspective is a proactive step in the OIS aftermath process, which many departments are now taking to prioritize supporting the mental health of the officers at the heart of such a potentially traumatic incident.

In the heat of the moment, the officers at the center of the shooting undergo a physiological response that sharpens their focus to immediate threats, often at the expense of other details in the periphery. (Archambault J, Lonsway K. Incomplete, Inconsistent, and Untrue statements Made by Victims, 2008). For example, adrenaline, the body’s natural stress response hormone, heightens alertness, but can also narrow field of vision or hearing. This tunnel vision effect can result in a restricted comprehension of the unfolding circumstances for a limited time. (Gagnon SA, Wagner AD. Acute Stress and Episodic Memory Retrieval: Neurobiological Mechanisms and Behavioral Consequences, 2016). This is why the attorneys at Ferrone Law Group, consistent with recent studies, generally recommend that the officer sleeps at least two sleep cycles before answering to any criminal investigation interviews. (Lewinsky W. Force Science Institute. Force Science News #254: Force Science Institute details reasons for delaying interviews with OIS survivors, 2014). This allows the mind to unwind, recognize and reorganize all of the details that were seen and heard, but may not have been initially comprehended during the immediate OIS response.

The actual shooter or shooters involved may especially experience an adrenaline-charged, perceptual tunnel vision which narrows their focus to moment of the trigger pull, which can feel–quite literally–like staring down the barrel of a gun. This is why it is not just the shooters who will be present in the OIS response, but rather all of the officers who were at the scene, whom together can provide invaluable additional perspectives as witnesses. Their observations contribute critical context, filling in the gaps and offering a more of a complete picture of the events leading up to, during, and after the shooting.

Fellow officers possess an intimate understanding of the challenges and split-second decisions inherent to the duties of law enforcement. Their firsthand accounts provide a layer of insight that goes beyond the surface, offering a nuanced understanding of the circumstances leading up to the incident. What distinguishes these witnesses is not just their proximity to the event but the shared professional language and experiences that bind them. Their input becomes a valuable tool for investigators and attorneys to dissect the events, evaluate decision-making processes, and ascertain the adherence to established protocols.

Additionally, the assistance and cooperation of these witnesses helps to foster a sense of solidarity within the law enforcement community and demonstrates a commitment to accountability. In the eyes of the public, the willingness of fellow officers to step forward and share their perspectives adds a layer of credibility to the investigative process, reinforcing the notion that justice is being pursued diligently and without bias. It is that support system which the attorneys at Ferrone Law Group strive to enrich and reinforce, when responding to an OIS, as well as in our relationships with our clients and their departments.

However, support is not just from the camaraderie of fellow officers, and the representation of an attorney, but more and more, a priority of the department. For example, in my own experience responding to a recent OIS, the department also made it clear that “support” was not just a buzzword, but rather a true commitment to their overall OIS response strategy. For instance, this department insisted that the officers engage in a private and protected, but candid, conversation with a trained psychologist specializing in public safety—someone equipped with the experience and expertise to navigate the unique challenges these individuals face. In a world where vulnerability is often viewed as a weakness, the department’s endorsement of this mental health support sent a powerful message: it is okay to be not okay, and that seeking help is a sign of strength. This step not only demonstrated a commitment to the individual’s well-being but also set a precedent for acknowledging the human side of law enforcement. This is a reminder that the attorney and the department must protect those who protect and serve and acknowledge the toll that duty can take on the officer, their partner, the team, as well as their families, their friends, and their relationship with the community they serve.

About the Author: Kylie Coleman is an Associate Attorney with the Ferrone Law Group, representing First Responders in administrative, disciplinary and criminal defense matters.

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