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

(Released May 2009)

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  by Emil Moldovan  

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Correct Notification Procedures

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The Office of the Attorney General for the State of Iowa, in cooperation with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the National Association of Medical Examiners (N.A.M.E.), produced "In Person, In Time - Recommended Procedures for Death Notification." (1992) Many law enforcement agencies as well as Medical Examiners and Coroners throughout the country, adopted this manual as the model for making death notifications. The basic procedures identified are:

In Person
police officer at door
Canadian police officer

  1. Always make death notification in person - Never by telephone.
  2. Arrange notification in person, even if the survivor lives far away.
  3. Never take a death notification over the police radio.
In Time - and with certainty
  1. Provide notification as soon as possible.
  2. Be absolutely certain, first, of the positive identification of the victim.
  3. Notify the next-of-kin and others who live in the same household, including roommates and unmarried partners.
In Pairs
  1. Always try to have two people present to make the notification.
  2. Ideally, the person would be a law enforcement officer, in uniform, and the medical examiner or other civilian such as a chaplain, victim service counselor, family doctor, clergy person, or a close friend.
  3. It is important to have two notifiers. Survivors may experience severe emotional or physical reactions.
  4. Take two separate vehicles.
  5. Plan the notification procedure. Before they arrive, the notifier team should decide who will speak, what will be said and how much can be said.
In Plain Language
  1. Notifiers should clearly identify themselves, present their credentials and ask to enter. Do Not Make Notification On The Doorstep.
  2. Relate the message directly and in plain language. Phrases such as "Sally was lost." or "passed away" may cause confusion as the recipient may not understand the finality of the death and may think the victim is still alive, thereby suffering twice unnecessarily.
  3. Call the victim by name, rather than "the body."
With Compassion
  1. Remember, your presence and compassion are the most important resources you bring to the death notification.
  2. Accept the survivor's emotions and your own. It is better to let a tear fall than to appear cold and unfeeling.
  3. Never try to talk the survivors out of their grief.
  4. Be careful not to impose your own religious beliefs. Many survivors have reported later that statements like: "It was Gods will" or "She led a full life" or "I understand what you are going through" are not helpful.
  5. Take time to provide information, support and direction. Never simply notify and leave.
  6. Do not take a victim's personal items with you at the time of notification.
Police academy training includes a module for death notification. For example, the Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Council publishes a manual dealing with death investigation that in most cases parallels the policy depicted in "In Pairs, In Time" mentioned above. Connecticut also mandates that each police department, agency, or individual be required to adopt a policy based on the manual of death notification. (Connecticut Police Officer Standard and Training Council , 2008) A review of a sampling of various large police training facilities (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations, Virginia State Police and Yolo County, California Sheriff's Department), shows that at least one hour of training on death notification is offered at the Police Academy level. This limited training barely covers information needed to make a proper death notification. Little time, if any, is devoted to response to the notification officers might experience, leaving them exposed to a variety of reactions they could be unprepared to handle.

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