Shift Debriefings: How Can We Be More Deliberate, More Disciplined, and More Thorough in our Approach to Learning?

As cops we often cry loudly about the lack of training in our profession (I am guilty myself). However while we complain and whine about the seemingly lack of interest in ongoing training we also miss the opportunities to train and learn from the everyday lessons available to us. Those lessons that come from every call we respond to and every shift we work. The uses of training tools such as; tactical decision games and after action reviews still are rare occurrences in our profession and seemingly only used when some catastrophic or unconventional crisis has occurred i.e. a cop killed in the line of duty or a deadly force scenario that leaves the public calling for an explanation. We should be doing more to harness the wisdom of the street cop and what he learns from each and every day on each and every shift. The shift debriefing is a training tool we can and should utilize to develop full spectrum cops capable of making sound decisions and employing sound tactics to resolve crisis situations and record and report them accurately in the aftermath.

“Only those who have challenged themselves with countless tactical situations in peacetime, only those who have refined their ability to make decisions and communicate clearly with subordinates, are prepared to command in war.” ~GEN Paul K. Van Riper

Police departments by their very nature are learning organizations and eventful or not, every shift yields fruit in the form of lessons learned. Hence, some effort needs to be made to “harvest” knowledge that can be used in bettering future shifts. While methods may vary, they usually take the form of a debriefing. A debriefing is a facilitated discussion focused on gaining understanding and insight regarding specific actions, taken on shift and involving those people who were personally involved.

Because lessons learned by police personnel play such important role, it is necessary that a system be in place to insure that such lessons are properly and correctly recorded. Experience is a powerful teacher, but experience by itself is not the most efficient way to learn. The process can often be painful and time-consuming. To learn as quickly as possible, we must be more deliberate, more disciplined, and more thorough in our approach in order to squeeze as much as possible from each experience. As with everything else about better execution there is no magic here.


A debrief includes a careful examination of the tactics, techniques and procedures, decision and actions that took place on shift; and is focused on improving performance. While there are no rules for conducting debriefings, the focus of a shift debriefing is on fact-finding, not fault-finding. Open discussion facilitated by the supervisor is nearly unlimited in scope as long as the focus remains on the shifts operations. Consequently, any person is allowed to introduce any subject for discussion and recommendations.

Shift debriefs are an opportunity to discuss incidents that took place on shift and the tactics, techniques and procedures, utilized as well, as, the need for ongoing investigations and to ensure evidence and information have been gathered and reported and acted upon. The shift debrief allows for early resolution of incidents where mistakes may have been made and an early identification of officer safety, work practices, policies and procedures and other issues that arise on shift and effect department wide execution.


  • Was there a sound tactical response and approach to an incident?
  • Were the decisions made in a timely manner?
  • What was the rationale of the individual or shift in making their decisions?
  • Could we have done something better, safer, and more effective?
  • Was communication effective?
  • Were there any officer safety or innocent by-stander concerns?
  • Were the proper tools, troops, tactics, techniques and adaptable procedures utilized?
  • Were the outcomes sought met? If not why not and how do we adapt?
  • Were there any novelties, rare occurrences, methods and tools used by the subjects involved that effected decision making and our overall response to a specific operation that we need to develop new tactics for?
  • Were complainant, witness, victim and suspect information gathering completed?
  • Was property and evidence gathering completed and documented?
  • Did the narrative report include officer observations, orientation, decision and actions, to include probable cause and elements of the crime?
  • Is a follow-up investigation necessary and if so who is conducting follow-up investigation (patrol/detectives)?
  • Were there any new training and equipment needs discovered?
  • Shift Supervisors should facilitate shift debriefs to ensure tasks have been completed and updated with the outcome of each task. The examples listed above are just some of what may be covered in a shift debrief and are normally associated with tactical responses and safety related issues but those things so crucial to a successful operations such as; the dreaded but all important paperwork process (listed above) needs to be included in the debriefs as well.

    Supervisors should meet with their personnel prior to the end of the shift for a debriefing, where the shift’s events and reports will be reviewed. The Shift debriefing should ideally occur at the end of a tour of duty although this may not always be practical. Supervisors should view debriefing as an ongoing process that should take place at the first available opportunity. The shift debriefing process will become a routine and essential part of everyday policing, if we take an interest and make a habit of doing them daily, much like roll call.

    The shift debriefing is one of the ways through which shifts and individual officers will know how successful they have been and a way in which all will learn from specific planning, tactics, techniques and procedures as well as the decision making process utilized. The shift debriefs also enables supervisors to properly access assigned tasks, which evolved during their shifts, that they have been completed and processed properly in accord with the departments overall mission and intent.


    The Item, discussion and recommendation (IDR) format is great for recording shift lessons learned. The IDR format is a simple, three-step process for identifying and describing issues, items or ideas with their related recommendations after a shift.

  • The item, issue or idea step identifies the particular subject and provides a brief but precise description of the concern. It also serves as the title of the subject and as such is normally just a few words and never longer than a single sentence.
  • The discussion is the second step and is a short summary explaining why the concern is relevant. It provides sufficient information to convince an uninformed reader of how the problem was manifested and in what circumstances and context. When more than one contributory cause is identified, they are all listed if they can be addressed by a single recommendation. The discussion component may be several paragraphs to as long as a single page. Those items that require longer explanations and descriptions are normally reserved for more formal reports.
  • The recommendation is the last step and is a short statement suggesting a corrective course of action, countermeasure or remedy.
  • Shift debriefs are normally informal discussions as described above, however at times the problems identified and there solutions require documentation and follow-up on lessons learned. Follow-up can include policy and procedure review and or revisions, training and equipment needs assessments. Either in discussion or written form, the IDR format is a great tool to facilitate the, debrief and document lessons learned.

    As stated above and, it bears repeating; to learn as quickly as possible, we must be more deliberate, more disciplined, and more thorough in our approach in order to squeeze as much as possible from each experience, as with everything else about mental conditioning there is no magic here. If our goal is to be better than good we must focus our efforts to get there. The shift debrief is one way of doing just that!

    I adapted much of this piece on shift debriefings, from two sources; Sid Heals, Field Command, and Don Vandergriff’s, Raising The Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability To deal With The Changing Face of War both are great books and a must read for any cop.

    Stay Oriented!