Critical Incidents

This article examines the causes of critical incident stress in law enforcement officers. It discusses how, by identifying critical incident stressors and the personal, team, and organizational factors that render them meaningful, law enforcement agencies can proactively influence officers’ critical incident stress outcomes. To appreciate how this can be accomplished, it is necessary to understand the role of mental models in the etiology of critical incident stress.

Through their training and operational experiences, officers developmental models that determine their ability to adapt to and impose meaning on the incidents they attend. Furthermore, officers respond to incidents as members of law enforcement organizations whose culture (through interaction with colleagues, senior officers, and organizational procedures) influences the development and maintenance of mental models and thus how challenging critical incident experiences are made sense of. An incident becomes critical when its characteristics fall outside expected operational parameters and officers’ mental models are unable to make sense of and adapt to the novel, challenging circumstances that ensue.

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Law enforcement officers experience critical incidents regularly. These can range from multivehicle traffic accidents and mass homicides to natural disasters and acts of terrorism. While traditionally viewed as a precursor to posttraumatic pathology (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]), growing recognition of a link with positive outcomes (e.g., posttraumatic growth) have implications for how critical incident stress in law enforcement is conceptualized and managed.

Conceptualizations of critical incident stress must encompass how officers’ mental models can either increase vulnerability to adverse stress reactions or increase their resilience and their capacity to experience posttraumatic growth, with each outcome being influenced by prevailing approaches to critical incident stress management. With regard to the latter, the dominant approach has involved critical incident stress management or debriefing. In addition to issues regarding the efficacy of debriefing, growing evidence for significant team and organizational influence on posttrauma outcomes calls for more comprehensive and proactive approaches to critical incident stress management.

Two approaches to managing critical incident stress are discussed here. The first involves developing officers’ mental models to increase the range of circumstances they can adapt to. Because officers will continue to experience challenging incidents, the second involves developing their capacity to render novel experiences meaningful.

Developing Mental Models

Incidents become critical when their circumstances (e.g., deliberately flying a passenger aircraft into a building) and associated levels of uncertainty (e.g., regarding the nature and duration of a threat, length of involvement), personal danger (e.g., being secondary targets of terrorist attacks, exposure to biological or radiation hazards), or operational demands (e.g., performance expectations, crisis decision making, interagency role stress) fall outside the expected parameters of officers’ operational mental models.

By incorporating these characteristics into training programs, it is possible to increase the range of critical experiences officers can render meaningful, reduce levels of posttrauma pathology, and contribute to officers realizing a sense of personal and professional growth from critical incident work. Training can also increase officers’ knowledge of stress reactions and how to use support mechanisms to create positive emotions.

Although training can reduce critical incident stress risk, a need to prepare for the unexpected means that critical incident stress management must also proactively develop officers’ capacity to adapt to critical circumstances and reduce their vulnerability to adverse reactions (e.g., PTSD). Research has identified several personal and team and organizational factors that inform how these goals can be accomplished.

Personal Factors

Vulnerability to adverse critical incident stress outcomes has been linked to, for example, preexisting psychopathology (which increases vulnerability directly) and social skills and problem-solving deficits that have an indirect effect by reducing officers’ ability to develop solutions to novel problems or limiting their ability to effectively use available social support. In contrast, officers characterized by their relatively high levels of extraversion, hardiness, and self-efficacy are more resilient and better able to render novel, challenging experiences meaningful. Training not only plays an important role in developing hardiness and self-efficacy but it also helps socialize officers into the fabric of the organizational culture, introducing a need to consider how sense making occurs in teams and in relationships with senior officers.

Team Factors

Although generally considered to ameliorate stress reactions, if demands on a social network occur at a time when all its members have support needs, social support mechanisms can increase officers’ vulnerability to experiencing posttrauma stress reactions. This problem can be managed by developing a supportive team culture. Renee Lyons and colleagues coined the term communal coping to describe how cohesive teams contribute to stress resilience through, for example, facilitating cooperative action and collective efficacy to resolve problems associated with responding to critical incidents. Realizing the full benefits of personal and team resources, however, is a function of the quality of the organizational culture in which officers work.

Organizational Factors

The severity of stress reactions is greater if officers experience them in an organizational culture that discourages emotional disclosure and that attributes blame for response problems to officers. Similarly, cultures characterized by poor consultation and communication and excessive paperwork increase vulnerability to post-trauma pathology. In contrast, police organizations that delegate responsibility to and empower officers, and encourage senior staff to work with officers to identify the strengths that helped them deal with an incident and to use this knowledge to develop future capabilities, increase officers’ stress resilience.

Finally, predicting all the eventualities that law enforcement officers could encounter is impossible. Consequently, support procedures must be in place to manage any residual posttrauma reactions. This can include counseling strategies designed to facilitate positive resolution and coworker and peer support provided within a supportive team and organizational culture.

Exposure to critical incidents will remain a reality for law enforcement officers. Critical incident stress management involves both reducing vulnerability (e.g., enhancing problem-solving skills, reducing inappropriate operational procedures) and increasing resilience (e.g., increasing hardiness, developing team mental models, delegating operational responsibility). By developing personal and team competencies and support resources and ensuring they are enacted within a supportive organizational culture, law enforcement agencies can act proactively to positively influence the critical incident outcomes officers will experience.


  1. Paton, D., Violanti, J. M., & Smith, L. M. (2003). Promoting capabilities to manage posttraumatic stress: Perspectives on resilience. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
  2. Violanti, J. M., & Paton, D. (2006). Who gets PTSD? Issues of vulnerability to posttraumatic stress. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.

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