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Death Notifications: A Tough Police Assignment

Richard Weinblatt

Handling death notifications is a necessary part of the job that few law enforcement officers enjoy. It can be traumatic for the officer, as well as for the family members. Delivering a death message is a duty that is vitally important with far-reaching ramifications in people’s lives. Handled poorly, extreme situations can develop. Family members and others advised of the passing of a loved one can themselves become the object of a death notification after they have committed suicide.

I have personally made death notifications as a law enforcer and have even done so to my brother concerning the passing of our father. Here are some tips to help you to effectively handle death notifications.

  1. Be sure of your victim’s ID and status. Confirm by reasonable means the identity of the person who is deceased and that they are in fact dead. The nightmare of all officers is to deliver news regarding the wrong person or on someone who has not passed away. Have dispatch center confirm via teletype. Confirm the address and be aware of similar names and addresses in your jurisdiction that may lead to an erroneous death notification.
  2. Choose location. Make sure that you control the area and account for officer safety by picking, when possible, where you deliver the news. The knife-filled kitchen is not a good place to handle the call. You don’t want to risk injury to yourself or the person who may themselves develop suicidal tendencies upon hearing the news.
  3. Keep your objectivity. Keep your professional objectivity intact by minimizing your emotional involvement. Some show of concern is acceptable and it may provide solace to the person that hears the bad news. Additionally, the people in the situation may resemble individuals that you are attached to, but you must maintain your emotional distance to enable you to be supportive and act professional. This is particularly true with the death of a child. Your objective observations of the people you are notifying may be important if those persons are later developed as suspects.
  4. Keep information release minimal. Once the initial wave of emotion goes by, people often want details of how the death occurred. If the death was one that has homicide investigatory aspects to it, you should not give too much information. The release of information critical to the case might compromise the investigation. Even if those you are talking to are not suspects, they may have contact with those who are and, whether purposely or not, relay that information to those who are targets of the investigation.
  5. Plan media release. Related to the above tip, make sure that you know when you want to release information to the media. Information that is released too early may jeopardize your case. It may also flash on a TV screen prior to you being able to conduct the next of kin notification.
  6. Control scene. If your agency’s investigators are still working with the body and surrounding area, make sure that the scene is protected from any intrusions. Family members who are close to the scene may, upon your notification to them, attempt to enter the crime scene area to hug the body and grieve.
  7. Discreet radio traffic. Watch what you say over the radio. Many agencies have written policies dictating radio codes and protocol to use in a death notification. While some agencies have gone to the new digital radio systems which stop most police radio junkies from listening, many departments have their analog frequencies accessible to police scanners. Some dispatch centers give the notifying officer the particulars of the information via telephone.
  8. Different reactions. Be prepared for different reactions on the part of those who hear your news. Not everyone responds the same and some may be hostile towards you even though you are only the information bearer.
  9. Bring support. Many agencies have a volunteer chaplain division. Others use victim’s advocates. Use any resource accepted by your agency that will accompany you and provide longer term comfort to the family members.
  10. Leave contact info. Be sure to leave your business card with the case number on it. Questions often arise after the initial shock subsides and your phone number gives the person an avenue to address those issues. While you may not be able to answer all of the questions, the ability to vent or even be referred to an investigator, may be help the victim’s family member deal with the tragedy.

Handling the death notification in a compassionate and professional manner will help you and the family to face a difficult situation. These tips should assist you in that endeavor.

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