Vol. 81, No. 1Cover stories

Police officer aiming a firearm at a firing range.

Return to work

Program supports officers after critical incidents

Facilitators with the Re-integration Program in Alberta work with officers to ensure they're ready to perform their operational duties after a critical incident. Credit: RCMP


Helping RCMP officers get back to work after a critical incident involves a network of people who provide professional help, patience and time to support their colleagues' return.

In Alberta, the Re-integration Program was established in 2015 as a peer-driven initiative to ensure officers involved in shootings or other critical incidents — such as serious motor-vehicle accidents or in-custody deaths — can perform their operational duties when they come back to work.

"Historically, we did not have a formalized process to ensure members were comfortable using their intervention options prior to coming back," says Sgt. Ray Savage, whose work developing the program has inspired others to advocate for a national program. "Since its inception the Re-integration Program has emerged a standard of care for members."

Dealing with trauma

After a critical incident, officers are referred to an RCMP Health Services psychologist who will debrief the individual, discuss the incident and decide if their participation in the Re-integration Program is required.

An officer referred to the program will speak to a pair of re-integration facilitators who are selected based on their operational experience and interpersonal skills. The facilitators meet with the officer, talk about the incident, and discuss how the officer feels and what procedures will facilitate their return.

But it's the officer receiving the help who actually steers the process.

"Critical-incident events can cause a significant emotional impact for officers that can overwhelm their traditional coping mechanisms," says Savage. "We give them the time to come up with a plan to allow them to drive what they want to do so they can return."

For example, an officer involved in a shooting may have trouble dealing with the smell of gun powder or the sound of a shot. They may also need to regain their confidence to work with live fire.

"So if they want, we can take them down to the shooting range. We can recreate the incident in a controlled environment to make sure the member can become comfortable using their operational skills again," says Savage.

That's why Insp. Betty Gilholme, an administration and personnel officer in Nunavut, has been sending officers who need help, south.

"We have small detachments, a higher-than-normal ratio of critical incidents and we don't have an environment here that can provide that kind of support," she says.

Gilholme says officers participating in the program get help dealing with the aftermath of critical incidents and any trauma that could emerge down the road.

"It allows a safe place to go through an exercise that helps the officer understand things they may not have been aware of," she says. "We don't want members to freeze when they are back on the job because they haven't processed the previous trauma."

Regaining confidence

Cpl. Steve Oster, with the RCMP's National Use of Force Unit, is leading the initiative to take the Re-integration Program national. He's also a big fan of the work done in Alberta.

"I'm confident they have prevented members from leaving the force, even saved lives," he says.

One officer who participated in the program after shooting a suspect, reported that re-integration should be mandatory for any officer who has gone through a critical incident.

"The days following the shooting are filled with stress, disbelief and uncertainty. Nobody can be expected to function normally and get over a traumatic experience without help and support," the officer wrote in a statement. "The re-integration program helped me regain my confidence and the belief in myself, which allowed me to get back on my feet."

Oster, who has also endured critical incidents, agrees.

"Sometimes we fake it in the field. We can't be emotional because we're the ones who are supposed to be helping people, not the other way around," Oster says. "But those feelings kept inside will catch up with you."

Savage says 77 officers have been through the program, which has since expanded to include those returning to work from physical or psychological injury.

Once they return after getting the OK from the psychologist, the officers often become instant advocates of reintegration.

"Those members pay it forward and they become a point of contact for the program and encourage other members," says Savage.

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