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From the March 2008 Issue
By Douglas Page
A suicide driver traveling at high speed crosses the center divide
intentionally and rams head-on into an 18-wheeler in the pre-dawn hours of a
Sunday on a rural highway.

A 54-year-old pedestrian is run over and killed in a crosswalk returning

from lunch early on a Tuesday afternoon in front of her urban office.

A high school basketball player is stabbed to death outside a busy

suburban pizza house on a Friday night after a game.

All of these events have two things in common. Someone died violently
and unexpectedly, and police officers will most likely be required to make the
death notification to the next-of-kin. About 45,000 people are killed in
automobile accidents in the United States every year, another 32,000 commit
suicide 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-member

organization composed of mental and medical health providers, educators,
clergy and others, recently funded a University of Georgia study to evaluate
the effectiveness of educating law enforcement officers in death notification.

Principal investigator Brandon Register states he hopes results of the study

will compel lawmakers and police departments to reevaluate the way in which
death notifications are performed, which will aide both officers and the public.$40885 (1 of 6)6/27/2009 6:48:55 PM

Death notification: Breaking the bad news from Law Enforcement Technology at

Emotional drain

Performing death notifications is physically and emotionally exhausting.

Officers are expected to express the right words, anticipate and

understand family emotions, and respond with empathy. The delivery of a
notification will likely remain etched in the family memory forever. It also
stays with the officer; most can remember their first notification, in detail,
years later.

When done wrong, notifications leave families with the perception that
police officers are callous, thoughtless and insensitive. A 2001 University of
Florida study found that 41 percent of death notifiers had received neither
classroom nor experiential training in death notification, although 70 percent
had performed at least one notification.

"Death notification is one of the toughest things to hand somebody in law

enforcement, 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 language

and with compassion.

One of the biggest taboos committed in death notification is the use of the
telephone, which is sometimes used to make notification if the victim's family
resides 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 all
you know, the survivor might have a heart condition, be suicidal or eight
months pregnant."

Morgan trains students to arrange for in-person notification by the local

police department or medical examiner if the survivor lives far away. If that
proves impossible, he teaches them to at least arrange for them to be on
standby 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 fairly
and sensitively by law enforcement during notification are more likely to be
cooperative in any subsequent investigation or criminal proceedings."

Negative perception of police resulting from a botched notification can be

overcome with adequate training, but no formal national death notification
standards exist. Most police departments are left to devise their own polices.

The Texas Municipal Police Association, for instance, reports they do not
have a protocol or training specific to death notifications. "Most departments
develop policies internally," says executive director Chris Heaton.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police ( does provide

a model death notification policy, but does not track how many agencies have
actually adopted it.

Policies vary

Death notification practices vary depending on geographic location. The$40885 (2 of 6)6/27/2009 6:48:55 PM

Death notification: Breaking the bad news from Law Enforcement Technology at

medical examiner or coroner's office may make notifications in larger urban

areas, but there are far more officers than medical examiners so notifications
often fall to police.

If the officers are fortunate, the departments that employ them will have
provided adequate death notification training. Training doesn't make
notification any easier, but it might keep officers from making matters worse
for themselves and the families of the victim.

Too few police agencies, however, provide any formal death notification
training. The focus of law enforcement is on solving crime. Not many police
departments have a specific policy regarding notification of next of kin.

"A lot of people in public safety, especially in higher ranking positions, give
death notification lip service, but it really is the redheaded stepchild because
it's the dirty job no one wants to do," Morgan says. Death notification is a
large component of the death investigation course he teaches at North
Georgia College and State University. He also teaches a death notification
class twice a year at the Northeast Alabama Law Enforcement Academy of the
Jacksonville University. Morgan's death notification course is one of what he
estimates is fewer than 15 nationwide.

Since so few death notification classes exist, too many officers are forced
to learn death notification practices on the job, usually from older, more
experienced officers who have been through the drill many times.

"It may be better now, but when I was on the street we received little
training on death notification," says Troutdale, Oregon, Chief of Police Dave
Nelson. "Mostly, it was on-the-job training. We'd get the most experienced
deputy we could to go with us and take two deputies and a member of the
clergy to do the notification."

Role of chaplains

Most police departments these days have police chaplains available to help
make notifications. The International Conference of Police Chaplains (ICPC)
estimates 65 to 70 percent of all departments, including all large urban
agencies, now have chaplains assigned to them.

"There is still some old guard out there who think their guys can suck up
everything, but they're so far behind the curve of what's happening today it
would 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 involved

in all death notifications, but we still have places in this country where some
desk sergeant makes notifications over the phone, which is ludicrous,"
Lorraine says.

Police chaplains are trained in the proper way to perform death notification
and are emotionally equipped to deal with it. The officers are there in an
official capacity to answer questions.

"There are resources to teach departments how to do death notification

properly, but why have your officer involved notifications if you have a
chaplain that can handle it for you?" Lorraine asks.

There are situations, however, where police chaplains are less welcome by
police detectives, particularly after violent crimes.$40885 (3 of 6)6/27/2009 6:48:55 PM

Death notification: Breaking the bad news from Law Enforcement Technology at

"The problem with having chaplaincy involved in death notification after a

homicide, for instance, is you are involving a third party less acquainted with
investigative procedures in the investigation," Morgan says. Since many
homicides involve spouses or family members, the danger is a chaplain is not
trained to be sensitive to something the family might say or do during
notification that could change the course of the investigation.

"Suppose the family says something about the victim planning to visit
someone," Morgan says. "That might not mean anything to the chaplain, but
to the detective the entire case might hinge on that one piece of information
— so it's essential that you try to handle notification within the bubble of
people directly involved in the case."

Trauma intervention

Police and hospital emergency departments in several states have begun

using volunteers from an organization called the Trauma Intervention Program
(TIP) to assist with notifications. TIP ( was founded in
San Diego in 1985 by a mental health professional named Wayne Fortin to
provide immediate support to citizens traumatized by personal tragedy.
Twenty regional TIP chapters now exist in eight states (Arizona, California,
Florida, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada and Washington), serving
more than 250 communities.

In these communities, TIP is dispatched on certain types of calls at the

same time as fire and police. The volunteer meets the police officer, goes to
the home with him or her, then the officer gives the notification and leaves. If
it's safe, the volunteer stays with the family for the next several hours to
provide emotional and practical support, something police have little time for.

Susan Rutherford, RN, the executive director of the Arizona TIP chapter in
Prescott Valley, says her chapter responded to 314 death-related calls in
2007. "Often, we end up giving notification to other arriving family members
when it is too difficult for the family on the scene," she notes.

While police usually do the notifications, some police departments are

beginning to utilize TIP to make notifications because the volunteers have
received specific death notification training whereas some police officers have
not. Nelson, for instance, says his department has the officer go out with a
TIP member and the TIP volunteer makes the notification.

"TIP volunteers are trained in crisis intervention and work out of one of the
Portland fire stations," he says. Volunteers receive 55 hours of training, part
of which covers death notification.

Other assets

Several death notification assets are available to police departments

interested in honing their death notification protocols.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has developed a training curricula

titled "Death Notification: Breaking the Bad News With Concern for the
Professional and Compassion for the Survivor," available free of charge by
calling the Office for Victims of Crime Resource Center at (800) 627-6872.

This four-volume MADD series contains training curricula and planning

steps for developing and conducting training seminars for those responsible
for making death notification. The course is aimed at law enforcement
personnel, medical professionals, crime victim advocates, members of the
clergy, and funeral directors. Each volume includes suggestions for planning a
seminar, tips for training adults, an annotated literature review, and copies of
the training curriculums, overheads and handouts.$40885 (4 of 6)6/27/2009 6:48:55 PM

Death notification: Breaking the bad news from Law Enforcement Technology at

Also, the ICPC has a training module available to anyone in law

enforcement on how to make death notification. Typically, the existing
department chaplain will use this material to teach notification techniques to
officers, but the ICPC can also dispatch trainers if departments don't have
their own chaplains.

Death notification procedures are also documented on the California

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Web site. Enter "OPVS (Office of
Prevention and Victims Services) Bulletin — Death Notification Procedures" in
any search engine for URL.

Douglas Page writes about science, technology and medicine from Pine
Mountain, California. He can be reached at

Best practices in death notifications

Next of kin are due the respect of having the death notification done by an
official, and to be given the news straight, with kindness.

Notification should be done:

● In person. Use of the telephone to make death notification is callous

and insensitive. Ask yourself how you would like your family notified.
● In pairs. Death notification is best done by two people, at least one of
whom should be in uniform. Do not arrive in a large group. Two
vehicles are best, in the event medical transport may be necessary.
● In private. Present credentials. Ask to come inside. Do not make
notification on the porch or in a public place.
● In plain language. Don't use medical jargon. Use simple,
straightforward language to describe how, when and where the person
died. Don't be afraid to use the "D" words — dead, died or death.
Terms such as "expired," "passed on" or "lost" are words of denial.
"Expired" can be used on a drivers license but not on a person — it's
not respectful.
● In time. Make notification before the family sees it on the news. Then
get to the point. Don't drag it out. People know when police arrive at
their door at 4 a.m. it is not because they won the lottery. Say
something like, "I'm sorry, your husband was in an auto accident
tonight. He died while paramedics were attempting to revive him." Then
give details as indicated.

— Sources: Sue Rutherford, executive director of the Arizona

Trauma Intervention Program and "In Person, In Time: Recommended
Procedures for Death Notification."

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