Line-of-Duty Police Death Notifications
Donna J. Wade
Planning for the Unthinkable
One of the most dreaded, traumatic events any law enforcement agency can experience, line-of-duty deaths create chaos within any organization, impacting every sworn officer and civilian employee. During such emotionally challenging times, only the quick and efficient implementation of a well-prepared plan of action can keep the “organized” chaos from degenerating into full-blown dysfunction.
Even before command officers can respond to the crime scene or hospital, they have seen numerous simultaneous events set in motion. While crime-scene protection, tactical operations (if the suspects are outstanding), and witness interviews may constitute primary investigative concerns, the timely and compassionate notification of the fallen officer’s family must remain the highest overall priority. No one deserves to get that kind of gut-wrenching, life-shattering information from a television news bulletin.
Even when the news media withholds the name of the deceased officer, family members often can narrow the possibilities to their loved one. Will they wait for the chief to arrive at their front door? What if they call the station and ask? What will they be told and by whom? Agencies will find it better for all concerned if they formulate answers to these questions when compassionate, clear-thinking heads rule, rather than in a moment of emotional and organizational chaos.  One such agency–the Los Angeles, California, Police Department (LAPD)–has a plan for responding to a line-of-duty death that includes prompt, compassionate notification of both the victim officer’s next of kin and the police family while reducing the stressful impact of such a tragic duty on the messenger.
THE LAPD PLAN
For the last 15 years, the LAPD has averaged two line-of-duty deaths per year.  In light of this unpleasant reality, the LAPD Employee Assistance Unit (EAU) implements a comprehensive plan for a coordinated response to these tragedies. Though this plan does not exist as a formal written policy,  it has become standard operating procedure for LAPD’s EAU by detailing the order in which survivors are to be notified, the individuals responsible for making those contacts, and resources available to assist the department and the surviving family. By implementing such a plan, LAPD reverses a commonly held assumption that all an agency must do is have a fellow officer drive to the victim officer’s residence and inform the family. While this represents the most important, and often the most emotionally difficult, aspect of the entire death notification process, the fact that only one opportunity exists to deliver such horrific information may elevate substantially the stress level of the person designated to br eak the news. LAPD’s notification plan ensures that the people charged with performing such a solemn duty have an accurate idea of what they may encounter and are as prepared as time and circumstances allow.
Notifying the Immediate Family
When a line-of-duty death occurs, officers report it immediately to the department command post, as they do with all unusual occurrences. Then, the command post makes the initial departmental notifications to the chief, the Robbery Homicide Division (which investigates all LAPD line-of-duty deaths), and the officer in charge of EAU. Supervisors at the fallen officer’s division quickly assemble and assess data on the next of kin to develop the most expeditious, yet compassionate approach possible, subsequently dispatching personnel to notify these individuals. The officer in charge of LAPD’s EAU and EAU’s primary funeral coordinator respond immediately to the family’s location.
Always notified first, the immediate family customarily receives this news from the fallen officer’s divisional commanding officer and another officer that the family knows. These officers assess the family’s need for a counselor or clergy to meet with them, rather than having one come along on the initial notification. EAU personnel repeat this assessment throughout the first day.
The department attempts to limit the police presence at the residence because the family is experiencing a highly private, emotional time, and an overwhelming police presence potentially exacerbates the situation. To this end, LAPD assigns a department member of the family’s choosing to act as a support person and liaison with the department. Not a pressing need at the beginning of the notification process, this action can wait until the family’s initial shock has passed. The selected officer chooses whether to accept the assignment. If, however, this officer is in crisis because of being the deceased’s partner, someone so involved may not be the best person to support the family. Instead, LAPD includes the partner in the support system, but discourages this person from becoming the primary liaison because of the close relationship. Additionally, agencies may consider having officers list in their personnel records the individual they would prefer to notify their families in the event of their death.
Variables, such as the incident’s time of day and day of the week, as well as the number of family members involved, their ages, and geographic location, will influence and sometimes place specific demands on even the best plan. For instance, if the next of kin resides locally, LAPD representatives always make the notification in person. If the next of kin resides outside the area, LAPD will request the local law enforcement agency to send officers or a chaplain to break the news and remain with the family until LAPD representatives arrive, or until they can arrange for transportation to Los Angeles. Because many of LAPD’s 9,400 officers reside well outside the city limits (some as far away as 100 miles), personnel from EAU often arrive at the residence after the local agency has made the initial notification. While notification via telephone or telegram would prove faster, it is neither personal nor compassionate.
A situation where a fallen officer is married with two children and the death occurs in the middle of the day presents additional challenges to a timely, compassionate notification. Will the spouse be at home, work, or elsewhere? Are the children likely to be at home, school, or day care? Will they require transportation to the hospital or another location? As a general rule, LAPD representatives will inform the spouse first, alone, and follow the spouse’s wishes regarding how the representatives should handle notifying other family and friends.
By contrast, if the officer is critically wounded, transported to a hospital, and later dies, the family and coworkers usually are present, as are members of the media. In such cases, it proves imperative that a department spokesperson field all media inquiries until such time, if any, that the family expresses a desire to speak to the press.
Inaccurate information in officers’ personnel packages sometimes inadvertently delays the notification process. Responding to a location to make a notification, only to find that the surviving family no longer lives there, represents a waste of precious time. “The most significant impediment to the prompt implementation of our notification plan is inaccurate or incomplete information in the fallen officer’s personnel records. Time-critical, emergency situations are not when you want to discover that you have outdated records….” 
While it remains an officer’s responsibility to update these records as information changes, far too many procrastinate. LAPD has learned through experience to regularly review these records with officers and verify all information as current. While some officers prefer to list their station
address and phone as their home address and phone, LAPD strongly discourages this practice because havoc can ensue if that officer becomes a victim or is required as an integral part of the response effort. Moreover, LAPD impresses upon officers, first and foremost, that while personnel records remain confidential, they also must contain comprehensive updated information if they are to serve any useful purpose in an emergency.
LAPD has encountered several other problems with incomplete records. For example, officers frequently–
* list their spouse/domestic partner while omitting parents, siblings, dependent and adult children, and clergy;
* become estranged, divorced, or no longer cohabit with their spouse/domestic partner;
* fail to include additional children or other dependents; and
* omit or list domestic partners as “friend.”
While LAPD considers domestic partners as a spouse for notification purposes, omitting or incorrectly categorizing these individuals usually results in the department notifying them after any family members listed or, perhaps, not at all. Such problems illustrate the need for agencies to keep personnel records as current as possible.
After the initial notification, LAPD’s EAU funeral coordinator establishes rapport with the family and begins to provide basic emotional support, assuring them that LAPD representatives will help them through the difficulty. For example, a few hours following the initial notification, surviving family members usually begin to ask a variety of questions. While quite normal, these questions often have nothing to do with what is going on that day. Who is going to pay for the services? What church are we going to use? Has anybody notified distant relatives? LAPD representatives answer these questions to allow family members to simply take care of themselves that first day. This helps prepare them for the realization that, maybe not the first day, but probably the second, they will have to start talking about and planning the funeral. 
The family typically does not want to wait more than a week to hold the funeral. The officer in charge of LAPD’s EAU handles logistical preparations for the funeral, which require a certain amount of time to complete. “We like to have 5 working days to coordinate things. We can do it in 4 if we have to, but 3 days would be almost impossible. In a line-of-duty death, there will be several thousand people attending, so it goes beyond just the church and cemetery arrangements. We have to realize that not only does our department have to prepare, but other agencies want the opportunity to participate as well.” 
Notifying the Police Family
Death notifications do not end with the immediate family. LAPD carefully considers how to inform the police family and what counseling resources to immediately mobilize to help them process their feelings of fear and grief. Shortly after an officer dies, LAPD’s Press Relations Unit releases the available details. The unit sends this notice not only to the media, but distributes it throughout the department. A few days later, the unit follows up the press release with a funeral announcement, detailing the logistics of the services and ceremonies.
One of the agency’s most pressing needs involves providing emotional support for the fallen officer’s coworkers and other officers who were on the scene when the incident occurred. LAPD realizes that many employees, civilian and sworn alike, will need some sort of comfort or care. A line-of-duty death potentially traumatizes every employee and, perhaps more important, their families, now painfully aware that they just as easily could be the grieving survivors.
At such times, LAPD’s Behavioral Sciences Section deploys critical incident response teams to the impacted divisions.  Teams consist of a psychologist, a chaplain, and a pair of peer counselors, all trained in crisis debriefings. Group debriefing sessions assess the impact of a fellow officer’s death on involved personnel and advise them of available resources if they find that they need long-term assistance.
Personnel from outside agencies that work closely with the department, such as firefighters and paramedics, also may experience a strong emotional reaction to the tragedy. How each responds to the situation, of course, varies with the individual. LAPD’s organized response demonstrates that when an agency’s reaction plan includes helping employees psychologically process this kind of tragedy, the likelihood of an individual experiencing serious emotional or professional consequences is reduced significantly.
Certainly, no one relishes planfling for the unthinkable. Evidence of this exists in the number of families each year that experience devastating financial difficulties after the death of a primary breadwinner. In these situations, the mere thought of a person’s own untimely demise is sometimes so frighteningly overwhelming that actually planning for the inevitable seems more unpleasant than the ramifications of not doing so.
Further spurring the refusal to even consider the possibility of untimely demise, the prevalent superstition that planning for tragedy causes it reveals how many law enforcement agencies ascribe to the emotionally convenient, though unrealistic, attitude of “it won’t happen here.” Unfortunately, such agencies remain in denial. Sooner or later, a line-of-duty death will occur, regardless of whether a department has 8,000 members or 8. When it does, the difference between a well-handled response and chaos rests with an effective notification plan and comprehensive follow-up care for the fallen officer’s immediate family and coworkers.
The Los Angeles, California, Police Department has experienced the tragedy of losing several of its members over the years. Because of this sobering reality, the department has devised a well-developed plan to effectively and compassionately notify next of kin and its own employees when such a calamity occurs. By preparing for the unthinkable, the department has helped its officers face one of the most appalling, yet inherent aspects of the law enforcement profession.
Ms. Wade, a former Los Angeles, California, Police Department specialist reserve officer and civilian instructor of cultural diversity training for over 10 years, currently is a freelance writer and a civilian member of administrative trial boards that adjudicate allegations of officer misconduct in Los Angeles.
(1.) For assistance and training, agencies can contact Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) at http://www.nationalcops.org and the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(2.) Sergeant John Cooley, officer in charge of LAPD’s Employee Assistance Unit (LAPD/EAU, 977 North Broadway, Suite 409, Los Angeles, California 90012; 213-485-0703), who is responsible for making timely notifications and handling funeral arrangements in LAPD line-of-duty deaths, interview by author, July 2000.
(3.) For an example of a model line-of-duty death notification policy, contact the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) National Law Enforcement Policy Center, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314-2357; telephone 800-THE-IACP; http://www.theiacp.org/pubinfo/; accessed March 6, 2001.
(4.) Supra note 2.
(5.) Supra note 2.
(6.) Supra note 2.
(7.) “Those that are closest to the officer or those who were at the scene are ordered to attend a debriefing. Once they get there, they do not have to participate. They can sit there quietly, but they have to attend” (Sergeant John Cooley, officer in charge of LAPD’s EAU, interview by author, July 2000).
Death Notification Guidelines
Law enforcement agencies should conduct line-of-duty death notifications in person, in pairs, with compassion, and in the order of kinship.
1) Spouse/domestic partner
2) Minor children: living with spouse/domestic partner or with biological parent, resulting from divorce or estrangement
3) Adult children
7) Other relatives and friends listed in personnel records
8) Spouse/domestic partner’s relatives and friends: notify only with the spouse/domestic partner’s consent and recommendations
9) Clergy, if listed on personnel records or requested by spouse/domestic partner
The Trauma of Law Enforcement Death, Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS), P.O. Box 3199, S. Highway 5, Camdenton, Missouri 65020; telephone 573-346-4911; Web site http://www.nationalcops.org.
Death Notifications: Breaking Bad News with Concern for the Professional and Compassion for the Survivor, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD); telephone 800-438-6233; Web site http://www.madd.org.
Roger C. Haddix, “Responding to Line-of-Duty Deaths,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February/March 1996, 22-27.
Brian J. Scott, “Preferred Protocol for Death Notification,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1999, 11-15.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Federal Bureau of Investigation
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group