Thursday, August 13, 2009

Friendly Fire

It reads like the "before the opening credits" section of a Law & Order episode. On May 28, New York City Police Officer Omar Edwards finished his shift and came out to find someone breaking into his car. He wrestled with the suspect, who got away, and then chased him with his gun in hand. Officer Andrew Dunton, who was working in plain clothes, drove by with two other officers and saw an armed man chasing another man down the street. He got out of the car, crouched down behind the door and told Edwards to stop and drop his weapon. Edwards turned towards Dunton with his gun still in his hand and Dunton opened fire, killing Edwards. When responding officers removed Edwards shirt, they found a Police Academy t-shirt, and then found his badge in his pocket. Roll opening credits.

The thing is, this story is true, and today a grand jury in New York declined to indict Officer Dunton, who has been on administrative leave since the shooting. You probably didn't even need to look at the picture with this post to predict that Edwards is African-American and Dunton is White. I don't know what happened that night, and I didn't hear what the grand jury heard, but I have to imagine this outcome will not be without controversy.

Death of a police officer in the line of duty is a "big one" in Critical Incident Stress Management, as are most officer-involved shootings. While Edwards wasn't technically killed in the line of duty, I think for CISM purposes that is a distinction without a difference. The fact that he was killed by "friendly fire" is not going to make this situation any smaller.

One of the reasons CISM works is that groups that work together in the same job with the same experience support each other really well. But it is extremely important that groups for CISM interventions be homogeneous in terms not only of their exposure to the event but their cohesion before the event. You absolutely cannot intervene with a group if there are factions within it or blame and anger at each other. The CISM response to this incident would have to very carefully sort through who goes with whom, looking not only at who was where when it happened and who works with whom, but who is blaming whom.

In the CISM Planning 5 T's of target, timing, trauma, theme and team (or more rightly the 6 T's, including technique), sorting out the targets will in some sense be by theme, and you're going to need a big and trusted team to intervene appropriately. What a mess.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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