Discovery Guides Areas


The Bad News Bearers:
The Most Difficult Assignment in Law Enforcement

(Released May 2009)

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  by Emil Moldovan  


Key Citations



Law Enforcement Notifications


Police agencies, like the military, often have a manual of operations with protocols describing procedures for making a death notification. Police academies contain at least one training module on the subject. Unfortunately, it is generally limited to the very basics of notification - that is, always go in pairs, never give a death notification over the telephone, make certain that the right information is given to the correct next of kin, etc. Topics are covered in an hour or two and then never approached with any further training. The usual method of field training is to accompany another officer with experience in death notifications and copy his or her technique.

Because law enforcement officers seldom have advanced training regarding death notifications, some may question why police are selected for this important function. According to D.B. Clark (1981), some reasons are that police become involved with almost every family who experiences the death of its members, and they are the only community agency able to offer assistance immediately after a death has occurred. Clark adds that traditionally the police department is both an investigative and a reporting agency in cases of homicide, suicide and accidental deaths. (Clark, 1981) According to Dr. Lawrence Miller (1995), many police officers carry out their duties and responsibilities with dedication and valor, but some stresses are too much to take. Perhaps a complicated death notification that requires spending time with families who openly display crying and hysteria may be more than inexperienced officers can handle.

police officer comforts victim
A police officer makes a death notification
Aside from the daily stresses of patrol, higher-ranking officers, such as homicide detectives involved in the investigation of particularly brutal crimes, experience other pressures. Often the manners of death (homicide, suicide, accident) present inherent difficulties for police officers making a death notification. Homicides notifications are especially difficult and often dangerous to the police officers. Miller (1995) notes that "the pain of homicide bereavement is described by most survivors as intense, persistent, and inescapable, and the cruel and purposeful nature of murder compounds the rage, grief, and despair of the survivors." Many police officers and even some clinicians feel uncomfortable dealing with crime victim's on-scene, partly as a result of individual personality and partly due to lack of training. (Miller, 1995)

Police officers who patrol low-income neighborhoods, or those where minorities may have a predisposition to distrust or dislike police, may face difficulties in making death notifications. In some cases, distrust of the police prevents the officers from making contact with family, even when someone is home when the police knock. Language barriers and foreign customs can also present obstacles to a proper death notification. Becoming knowledgeable of how local residents deal with death may facilitate a better understanding of reactions during difficult death notification.

Few empirical studies have explored the grieving process among different ethnic groups within the United States and very little is known about how African Americans and Caucasians may differ in their experience of loss. (Laurie, 2008) Police officers without training on cultural behavior to severe grief reactions, physical complications, or other forms of grieving that are not within their experience levels, could over-react or under-react.

Assigning a police officer to make a death notification may depend on the circumstances of the death. A homicide usually requires that the investigating homicide detectives respond to the residence of the victim, if only to interview and eliminate family members as suspects. Homicide detectives would have the most knowledge concerning the death and can make important decisions as to how much information they can release during the death notification. If someone other than the homicide detective makes the death notification, it is possible for the notifier to provided critical crime scene information to a suspect, potentially allowing them to avoid apprehension.

In some situations, particularly when the notification is requested by another agency, the assignment is usually given to low-seniority or less experienced officers. The assignment may be to the first available patrol officer, or the most junior person may wind up with the task. In many cases, the notifying officers may never have been involved in a previous death notification. Aside from the academy classroom training, there is little to prepare the officer for what may be a very difficult emotional experience. Notifying family members that a loved one has died can be stressful, even for professionals, such as medical clinicians, who deal with life and death issues. (Nardi, 2006) Making a death notification for a suicide or accident victim can present additional problems for police officers. Suicide and accident deaths, especially where juveniles are involved, may be especially trying due to the nature of the death and the guilt often felt by the survivors. According to Miller (2008), "the fact of a victim's death may signify that the professional has 'failed' to protect their charge." Frequently notifiers experience difficulty in handling their own emotions when confronted with a volatile and protracted grief involving family members. Miller (1995) points out that police officers generally carry out their sworn duties and responsibilities with dedication and valor, but some stresses are too much for them to take and every officer has a breaking point. In many situations, outside assistance from an experienced professional such as a chaplain can support both the bearer of the news as well as the recipients.

Many police departments have police chaplains available to help make notifications. The International Conference of Police Chaplains (IPC) estimates 65 to 70 percent of all departments, including large urban agencies, now have chaplains assigned to them. Police chaplains are trained to deal with death notifications and are emotionally equipped to handle the stress of emotionally charged family crisis. (Page, 2008)

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