What is a tactical debrief?

by Bill Lewis II

Tactical debriefs are a review and critical critique of a tactical operation, K9 deployment, warrant service, training session or high risk patrol encounter.  A debrief following an operation, training session or a high risk encounter is essential and should be mandatory because it serves as an invaluable source in determining lessons learned from the incident so that good performance continues, satisfactory performance improves, and poor performance is not replicated.

The formats, responsibilities of assigned facilitators, and reporting procedures will vary by agency, but the fundamentals of conducting a debrief, soliciting information and subsequently sharing the information are essentially the same;

  • Tactical debriefs are a review and critical critique of the actions taken or not taken and thoughts by all personnel involved during a tactical operation, K9 deployment, warrant service, training session, reality-based training scenario, or high risk patrol encounter to include the lessons learned.  The incident can also include a “close call” situation with either a positive or potential negative outcome.
  • Tactical debriefs are not limited to tactical teams and pre-planned tactical operations. 
  • Debriefs should also be conducted following unplanned (spontaneous) tactical operations and high risk patrol encounters or planned operations involving patrol personnel, specialty units, detectives, and/or K9 teams.
  • Debriefs are essential because they are a key element for planning and executing future operations and incident responses.
  • Debriefs provide an opportunity for an assessment of training needs and assist in the planning of future training via the lessons learned.
  • Debriefs should be done immediately after an operation or as soon as possible.
  • Debriefs should include all personnel involved in the operation.  If some personnel cannot be physically present at the formal debrief, their actions and observations should be obtained and shared during the debrief.  Lessons learned during the debrief must then be shared with the personnel not present.
  • Personnel must be honest, open to criticism and willing to share information in an open forum to make the debrief successful.  Exceptions may exist and should be handled accordingly.
  • Debriefs for tactical or specialty unit operations or incidents should include an operational critique to be later documented in the after action report or other reporting format. 
  • Debriefs with valuable lessons learned from a patrol incident or K9 deployment should be shared with others formally through an agency’s established information-sharing protocols.
  • Important debriefs and lessons learned should be shared within an agency as well as other tactical teams and outside personnel in a timely manner.

Whenever possible, or as a part of the formal debriefing protocol, police personnel should debrief non-police participants of an operation or call, including, but not limited to, victims, hostages, suspects, witnesses, and suicidal and barricaded persons.  These debriefs can occur as post-incident interviews in jails, prisons, hospitals, mental health facilities and residential homes.  The information should be shared later with the involved police participants.

Eric L. Haney, Command Sergeant Major, U.S.A. (Retired), addresses after-action reviews (AAR) in his book “Inside Delta Force” as such; “The purpose of the review was to learn everything we possibly could about what we had just done – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  We dissected problems and we came up with solutions – and the whole group profited from what we learned.  There is no better way for an organization to improve itself and move forward in a professional manner.  But it is a process that must be fundamentally rooted in trust and mutual respect.  The instant it becomes a weapon rather than a lens for analysis, the process is dead.”

Bill Lewis II © October 2011