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Death Notification: Breaking the Bad News

Death Notification: Breaking the Bad News

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Published by Douglas Page
Why does so little training exist for the most grim job in law enforcement?
Why does so little training exist for the most grim job in law enforcement?

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Categories:Types, Research, Law
Published by: Douglas Page on Jun 28, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Death notification: Breaking the badnews
Why does so little training exist for the most grim job in lawenforcement?
 From the
Douglas Page
 A suicide driver traveling at high speed crosses the center divideintentionally and rams head-on into an 18-wheeler in the pre-dawn hours of aSunday on a rural highway.A 54-year-old pedestrian is run over and killed in a crosswalk returningfrom lunch early on a Tuesday afternoon in front of her urban office.A high school basketball player is stabbed to death outside a busysuburban pizza house on a Friday night after a game.All of these events have two things in common. Someone died violentlyand unexpectedly, and police officers will most likely be required to make thedeath notification to the next-of-kin. About 45,000 people are killed inautomobile accidents in the United States every year, another 32,000 commitsuicide and 17,000 more are victims of homicide.Death notification is considered by police officers to be the least desirable job they have. It is also the one for which they are the least trained.The Association for Death Education and Counseling, a 2,000-memberorganization composed of mental and medical health providers, educators,clergy and others, recently funded a University of Georgia study to evaluatethe effectiveness of educating law enforcement officers in death notification.Principal investigator Brandon Register states he hopes results of the studywill compel lawmakers and police departments to reevaluate the way in whichdeath notifications are performed, which will aide both officers and the public.
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Emotional drain
 Performing death notifications is physically and emotionally exhausting.Officers are expected to express the right words, anticipate andunderstand family emotions, and respond with empathy. The delivery of anotification will likely remain etched in the family memory forever. It alsostays with the officer; most can remember their first notification, in detail,years later.When done wrong, notifications leave families with the perception thatpolice officers are callous, thoughtless and insensitive. A 2001 University of Florida study found that 41 percent of death notifiers had received neitherclassroom nor experiential training in death notification, although 70 percenthad performed at least one notification."Death notification is one of the toughest things to hand somebody in lawenforcement, and a lot of officers are simply thrown into it," says Rick Tobin,CEO of TAO Emergency Management Consultants in Spring Branch, Texas."They can cause a lot of harm when they do or say the wrong things."Notifications should be done in person, in time, in pairs, in plain languageand with compassion.One of the biggest taboos committed in death notification is the use of thetelephone, which is sometimes used to make notification if the victim's familyresides outside the jurisdiction."Using the phone to make death notification is cold-hearted and a sign of intellectual laziness," says Joseph Morgan, an assistant professor of criminal justice and forensics at North Georgia College and State University. "For allyou know, the survivor might have a heart condition, be suicidal or eightmonths pregnant."Morgan trains students to arrange for in-person notification by the localpolice department or medical examiner if the survivor lives far away. If thatproves impossible, he teaches them to at least arrange for them to be onstandby while you talk to the family on the phone.Death notification is important for both practical and humanitarian reasons."Humanitarian because this is the worst news any family will ever hear,"says Laurence Miller, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Boca Raton,Florida. "Practical, because family members who feel they were treated fairlyand sensitively by law enforcement during notification are more likely to becooperative in any subsequent investigation or criminal proceedings."Negative perception of police resulting from a botched notification can beovercome with adequate training, but no formal national death notificationstandards exist. Most police departments are left to devise their own polices.The Texas Municipal Police Association, for instance, reports they do nothave a protocol or training specific to death notifications. "Most departmentsdevelop policies internally," says executive director Chris Heaton.The International Association of Chiefs of Police (theiacp.org) does providea model death notification policy, but does not track how many agencies haveactually adopted it.
Policies vary
 Death notification practices vary depending on geographic location. The
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Death notification: Breaking the bad news from Law Enforcement Technology at Officer.com
medical examiner or coroner's office may make notifications in larger urbanareas, but there are far more officers than medical examiners so notificationsoften fall to police.If the officers are fortunate, the departments that employ them will haveprovided adequate death notification training. Training doesn't makenotification any easier, but it might keep officers from making matters worsefor themselves and the families of the victim.Too few police agencies, however, provide any formal death notificationtraining. The focus of law enforcement is on solving crime. Not many policedepartments have a specific policy regarding notification of next of kin."A lot of people in public safety, especially in higher ranking positions, givedeath notification lip service, but it really is the redheaded stepchild becauseit's the dirty job no one wants to do," Morgan says. Death notification is alarge component of the death investigation course he teaches at NorthGeorgia College and State University. He also teaches a death notificationclass twice a year at the Northeast Alabama Law Enforcement Academy of theJacksonville University. Morgan's death notification course is one of what heestimates is fewer than 15 nationwide.Since so few death notification classes exist, too many officers are forcedto learn death notification practices on the job, usually from older, moreexperienced officers who have been through the drill many times."It may be better now, but when I was on the street we received littletraining on death notification," says Troutdale, Oregon, Chief of Police DaveNelson. "Mostly, it was on-the-job training. We'd get the most experienceddeputy we could to go with us and take two deputies and a member of theclergy to do the notification."
Role of chaplains
 Most police departments these days have police chaplains available to helpmake notifications. The International Conference of Police Chaplains (ICPC)estimates 65 to 70 percent of all departments, including all large urbanagencies, now have chaplains assigned to them."There is still some old guard out there who think their guys can suck upeverything, but they're so far behind the curve of what's happening today itwould be funny if it weren't so reckless," says the Rev. Chuck Lorraine,executive director of the ICPC.How police utilize their chaplains varies from department to department."I spent 25 years as a frontline chaplain in California and we were involvedin all death notifications, but we still have places in this country where somedesk sergeant makes notifications over the phone, which is ludicrous,"Lorraine says.Police chaplains are trained in the proper way to perform death notificationand are emotionally equipped to deal with it. The officers are there in anofficial capacity to answer questions."There are resources to teach departments how to do death notificationproperly, but why have your officer involved notifications if you have achaplain that can handle it for you?" Lorraine asks.There are situations, however, where police chaplains are less welcome bypolice detectives, particularly after violent crimes.
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