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EVAWI > Resources > Best Practices > FAQs > Critical Incident Amnesia
Q What procedures should we use for staff to document critical incidents?
A What procedures should we use for staff to document critical incidents?

In a publication by PPCT Management Systems (1989), the authors describe a phenomenon called “critical incident amnesia” that experienced by law enforcement professionals in trauma. According to that publication: “This temporary amnesia will affect both the officer’s memory and the officer’s ability to write an incident report” (p. 1-6).

Such a characterization is generally consistent with the research on trauma and memory (for a review, see Koss, Tromp & Tharan, 1995). Research suggests that memories of traumatic events are typically quite accurate, because emotional experience heightens memory. However, the traumatic nature of the experience tends to focus a person’s memories on central rather than peripheral details. The research also suggests that the amount of accurate information a person can recall may actually increase over a limited time, because of the short-term memory impairment that is caused by the trauma (Koss et al., 1995). Memory of the event may also be facilitated when the person has had some time to rest and recover; it is important to keep in mind the restorative power of sleep on memory and well-being in the aftermath of any traumatic event.

Applying this to the context of critical incidents, the PPCT Management Systems publication recommends that the first version of a critical incident report completed by law enforcement should be verbal and titled as a “preliminary” report. The “supplemental” report should then be completed after the officer’s first sleep cycle, and the final report prepared after the officer has had a second full sleep cycle. This is something other professionals might want to consider in facilities where critical incidents occur and staff members are required to participate in an interview and investigation of the report.

This response is an adapted excerpt from the article entitled, Incomplete, Inconsistent, and Untrue Statements Made by Victims: Understanding the Causes and Overcoming the Challenges.

Koss, M.P., Tromp, S., & Tharan, M. (1995). Traumatic memories: Empirical foundations, forensic and clinical implications. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2 (2), 111-132.

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