According to the Kentucky Post-Critical Incident Seminar, a critical incident is defined as any event that results in an overwhelming sense of vulnerability and/or loss of control.
A few days before Christmas 2013, Covington Police Lt. Justin Wietholder (pronounced weat-holder) was merrily spending time with his family, baking cookies in anticipation of the holiday.
In mere moments, his festive mood was replaced by the grim reality of his job – Wietholder received a call that the Covington SWAT team was being mobilized.
SWAT was called out because a military veteran had barricaded himself and his children inside his home and fired shots at police.
“Our police department has a history of run-ins with him and knowing his situation from the information received, a decision was made to call out our SWAT team to deal with it,” Wietholder said. “When we made our initial approach from down the street is when he opened fire for the first time.”
The already-high stress levels were ratcheted up a notch once bullets started whizzing by, Wietholder said.
“I ducked down behind a Jeep Wrangler and our SWAT medic, our retired fire chief, was on my back,” he said. “When the first round fired off, I was at the rear of the Jeep thinking to myself that this is a bad day, because I was trying to make myself as small as I could around this wheel of a soft-top Jeep.”
What complicated the standoff even more was the involvement of children, Covington Detective Tony Jansen said.
“Our tactics and planning were completely turned upside down within the first five minutes of deploying,” Jansen said. “The fact that children were present and were used as human shields definitely limited our ability to respond, which made it extremely difficult. The commander and team leader were able to continuously think of ways to disrupt that led to the successful mitigation of the callout.
“It couldn’t have been much worse, but thankfully the children were not physically injured and there were no injuries to residents and officers,” Jansen continued.
Part of the Job
Law enforcement officers often see, deal with, or become involved in hazardous situations and experiences on a daily basis. These events are part of the profession and the stress associated with the events accumulates over time, taking its toll on officers.
According to the Kentucky Post-Critical Incident Seminar, a critical incident is defined as any event that results in an overwhelming sense of vulnerability and/or loss of control. These can include officer-involved shootings, being shot or seriously hurt on the job, high-speed pursuits that end in tragedy, events that bring prolonged and critical media attention, personal tragedies and the like.
Each critical incident can be a teaching tool, and Covington Police Chief Robert Nader said once the December 2013 situation was resolved, his department – along with several other northern Kentucky departments – conducted “action reviews,” both internally and externally.
“We visited neighboring agencies, upon their request, to discuss what happened and how we reacted, and we were open to new ideas,” Nader said. “We also improved our communication with our neighbor SWAT teams, especially in Kenton County and Newport, who were with us (during the incident), and made sure that our procedures were in sync for future call-outs.”
The action reviews resulted in several new ideas implemented by Covington, Nader said. Those included:
- A contract with Norse Tactical – “(An external partner) can keep our team abreast of new tactics,” the chief said. “These new tactics are shared and communicated with Kenton County SWAT (Which is comprised of the multiple agencies) so that we all can operate from the same page if another prolonged situation occurs requiring us to back each other up.”
- The department also purchased a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle. “It is basically a bullet-proof box truck, no weapons,” Nader said. “After the situation, we trained additional members of our team to drive the vehicle, and we received a grant from Kentucky Homeland Security to add emergency lights, spotlights and communication equipment, thus making it a regional emergency vehicle and Kenton County SWAT frequently trains with it.”
- The agency also purchased new shields and a Throwbot robot for surveillance.
More than Shootings
When the critical incident event is active, police officers focus on their jobs. It’s when the event is over that it hits them, Nicholasville Assistant Police Chief Chris Cain said.
In June 2014, the Nicholasville Police Department dealt with a critical-incident of a different nature.
A speeding motorist northbound on U.S. 27 crossed into the southbound lane, striking another vehicle head-on. As a result, five people – an entire family, including three small children – lost their lives in a fiery crash. A sixth person, who was traveling southbound, also died that night.
When he arrived on the scene, Cain, then a captain, knew it was bad.
“The vehicle was burned beyond recognition, and you had four deceased bodies pulled from the car and draped,” he said.
For Cain, the situation became even more gut-wrenching and gruesome when another family member showed up on the scene and informed police that a fifth body – an infant – was unaccounted for.
“Now, we’re combing the area thinking the child might have gotten ejected,” he said. “Then one of my officers comes up to me and says he found the kid, and he points to the car. I’m looking at it and I’m like (shaking his head), I don’t see the child. The officers point again, and then I see the child. He was still in the car seat and all you could see was his skull.”
Cain said police officers are human and, while their training took over and they worked the scene in a professional way, it was evident that some were taking it hard.
“One officer was torn up, but he did his job,” Cain said, adding that the officer was increasingly frustrated at dispatchers for releasing information over the radio that police didn’t want to be broadcasted.
“I remember him getting on the radio and telling them to stop putting (the information) out,” Cain said. “This was when we were looking for the infant (and dispatch kept putting out information over the radio that the infant was unaccounted for). He was pretty professional over the radio, and I remember him saying, ‘Central, shut the hell up and get off the radio.’ I knew he was torn up at that point.”
In the wake of the crash, the Nicholasville Police Department began putting together a mental-health policy for its officers.
“As police officers, we’ve done a pretty crappy job of helping our officers,” Cain said. “We have, through the city, an employee assistance program, but they are not cops and haven’t been to scenes like this. Back then, we did a pretty poor job of managing these stressful situations.”
Cain and Nader both added that the stigma of “mental health” is beginning to lift, as law enforcement agencies are gaining more education about the potential issues associated with critical incidents.
“Officers are notorious for not letting on that something is bothering them,” Cain said. “We had a drowning (in summer 2014), at least at the time we thought it was a drowning, but it turned out this little girl had a medical condition. All of my young officers were there, so I said I would make the notification.”
While at the hospital, the doctor asked Cain, who is a father to a daughter around the deceased girl’s age, to accompany him to break the news to the mother, and this time it was different: the 21-plus year veteran officer broke down.
“I have never done that in 21 years of being on the job,” he said. “Part of it is, you change when you have kids. The other part of it is cumulative stress. I couldn’t stop crying when I talked to this mother.”
If these emotions go unchecked, it can affect an officer’s professional and personal life.
“You ride this rollercoaster of emotions and the heightened awareness that cops live in, plus you have these incidents, so when you go home, you’re withdrawn and drink heavily or you’re not communicating with your spouse and not doing the stuff you once enjoyed,” Cain said. “That’s where it takes a huge toll.”
One of the biggest problems is the Hollywood effect, Department of Criminal Justice Training Patrol Tactics Supervisor Shannon West said.
“The biggest thing we have to overcome is (police officers) are not educated (on how a human will react), and they’ve never been told what to do,” West said. “They have expectations, and most of the time, those expectations are based on what they’ve seen from Hollywood. Unwittingly, we watch these shows and they see these officers involved in a shooting, and then the next thing you know, those (TV) officers are out eating or whatever. It’s crazy.”
At the most recent Police Executive Command Course meeting in the fall, Nicholasville officers heard about the Kentucky Post-Critical Incident Seminar (KYPCIS), and have adopted it into their new mental-health policy.
“This group has seminars and we’re going to start utilizing that,” Cain said.
KYPCIS is the brainchild of Department of Criminal Justice Branch Manager Travis Tennill. The program is modeled after a successful South Carolina program and the results are impressive, he said.
“It’s amazing when officers attend PCIS,” he said. “Officers will show up on that Monday saying, ‘I’m good. I’m OK.’ Then on that Tuesday, it starts getting into the weeds a little bit deeper and they find out they’re not OK. By Wednesday, we’ve given them some coping skills and therapy that will help them move forward.”
One of the goals, Tennill said, is for the advisory board to get together and come up with a best practices list, that will aid agencies in the event of a critical incident.
The checklist will be extensive, including critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings, crashes with loss of life and cases involving children.
“That has to take on some special recognition and acknowledgment from leadership that says, ‘My officers are going to need a little something more than usual because of these circumstances,’” Tennill said.
Anderson County Sheriff Joe Milam knows first-hand how important it is to take care of those who have gone through a critical incident. In March 2017, two of his deputies were involved in a shooting in which the suspect died.
“PCIS is an amazing tool that I strongly feel should be utilized for officers who have been through a critical incident,” Milam said. “The responsibility for proper aftercare falls on every supervisor, chief or sheriff, and PCIS is a huge part of that.”
Each individual officer is going to react differently to a critical incident, Milam said, adding that programs such as PCIS and the peer support team through the Kentucky Community Crisis Response Board (KCCRB) helped his deputies tremendously following the incident.
“KCCRB is a godsend,” he said. “They send someone who talks to them who has been through a similar incident. It is very important to remember that everyone who goes through a critical incident is going to react differently.”
The PCIS program matches up officers who have experienced a critical incident, such as an officer-involved shooting, with someone who has experienced a similar incident, Tennill said.
“The sooner they call, the better, because there is going to be an investigation and the officer is the de facto suspect in a homicide investigation. That brings with it a lot of stress and anxiety and there are a lot of unknowns,” Tennill said. “That officer cannot talk to anybody other than investigators, but they can talk to a peer-team member.”
Anything the officer says to the peer team member is protected by confidentiality, Tennill added.
As of this writing, House Bill 68 – The Professional Wellness and Development Program – passed with a unanimous vote in the House of Representatives and is being considered by the Sentate. The bill’s passage would mean annual funding for the KYPCIS program and ensures an officer confidentiality.
There are times when law enforcement officers have to discharge their weapons, and this can cause loss of life or serious injury to someone. It’s an unfortunate part of the job, and this was the case in March 2017 in Anderson County when two deputies responded to a non-injury crash in a rural portion of the county.
No one likes to hear the phrase, “shots fired.” On this day, over his radio, that is exactly what Milam heard.
“The chief deputy called out, ‘Shots fired, need EMS, no officers hurt, suspect down,’” the sheriff said. “As sheriff, my immediate concern was for my guys when you know they’ve been involved in a critical incident.”
Chaos, coupled with high levels of stress typically follow officer-involved shootings, West said.
“One of the things officers shouldn’t do, but yet they always do, is they look for reaffirmation from their peers,” West said. “They want to know that, ‘Hey, what I did was right.’”
That reaction is normal, West said, but it is not a good question to ask.
“The reason is, those things could come back to haunt you because that conversation is not protected,” he said.
In the immediate aftermath of an officer-involved shooting, the officer should give a brief statement telling their supervisor or investigator the nuts and bolts of what occurred.
Once that has taken place, the agency needs to switch out the officer’s weapon and remove the officer from the scene.
“This is huge,” West said. “I have heard officers for years who said that this was one of the most psychologically debilitating things that happened to them, and that is when their gun is stripped away from them. You have an officer who has been involved in a situation where somebody has attempted to murder him or her, or they’ve intervened when someone has attempted to murder someone else. As a result, they’ve shot and seriously wounded or taken the life of another human being.”
Officers who have been involved in shootings should be handled differently from a suspect who has committed a homicide, West continued.
“A police officer who uses deadly force within the confines of his job and the law should not be treated like the typical homicide suspect,” West said. “It’s not the same, not unless there is evidence that manifests otherwise. What you have is a witness who has been traumatized by a stressful event.”
West said officers who are involved in a shooting should not be placed in the back of a patrol car and once their weapon is taken, it should be immediately replaced.
In Anderson County’s case, Milam said once the officer’s weapon was taken from him, the sheriff provided the officer with another weapon from his house.
Three Sleep Cycles
In the immediate aftermath of an officer-involved shooting, a brief statement is given by the officer who discharged his or her weapon. Afterward, the officer is removed from the scene and is given three sleep cycles to help the officer process and recall details.
“It takes time for the stress hormones to bleed off,” West said. “We know after those intense stressful times, there are gaps in memory – it’s the way we are hardwired.”
If an officer is required to give a formal, detailed statement right after the event, 99 percent of the time, the statement will change in the days following the incident.
“It’s not because the officer is trying to be deceptive, it’s that they don’t remember,” West said. “So we give them the sleep cycles. In three days, we’ll sit down with them and take the full statement.”
KSP’s CIRT Team
Immediately, Milam chose to turn the investigation over to the state police’s Critical Incident Response Team, which investigates officer-involved shootings that results in serious injury or death.
The CIRT team was formed in January 2017 with three lieutenants, two sergeants and a detective. In November, the team added two more members and in 2017, the team investigated 24 officer-involved shootings and one in-custody death investigation.
In the immediate wake of the Anderson County incident, KSP was notified, and the team was activated, Milam said.
“We secured the scene, and within minutes, there were four or five troopers there,” the sheriff said. “They took care of the investigation. When you call in an outside entity, you let them do it; you don’t become involved.”
According to CIRT team member, Lt. Claude Little, the first step is being called in by a local agency.
“It has to be their request for us to come in,” Little said. “They could investigate on their own, or they may have arranged for another neighboring agency to investigate.”
When the CIRT team is called, it may take time for members to arrive on the scene. So in the interim, Little advises the local agency tend to any medical emergencies and secure the scene.
“The first thing you want to do is take care of any emergencies,” Little said. “Get EMS there and take care of that first.”
The second thing is secure the scene and identify and separate witnesses.
“They wouldn’t have to necessarily take witness statements, but they need to identify them and separate them for us,” Little said.
Little said from start to finish, it takes about two months to conclude an officer-involved shooting investigation.
Toll on Family
During and after Covington’s event, Wietholder said his thoughts were on the family he left just hours earlier while making cookies.
“For me, at that time, I had a son who was just over two, and my wife was pregnant with our second son who was born in February 2014,” he said. “All that stuff runs through your head. What’s going to happen? How will my kids be raised without a dad with me not being able to go to their basketball games, baseball and soccer games? Who is going to take them fishing?”
He discovered afterward that his wife had the same thoughts going through her head.
“She voiced those to me after the fact,” he said. “She wondered how was my family going to carry on.”
“(Police officers) are portrayed as robots in a society that we just go out and do our jobs,” Wietholder said. “But we have a heart and soul like everybody else. We need the same type of attention.”