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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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Medicolegal Death Investigator Notification

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Medicolegal Death Investigators are referred to by different names (See the ProQuest Discovery Guide The Medicolegal Death Investigator). They are called Deputy Medical Examiners, Deputy Coroners, Coroner's Investigators, Death Investigators and sometimes, forensic investigators. Many are affiliated with county Sheriff's offices, as the Sheriff is the designated County Coroner in many parts of the country. Others are affiliated with the Medical Examiner's office or with that of an elected coroner of a county. By whatever designation, they are involved in investigating the death of persons within their jurisdiction and most are responsible for locating the families of decedents and making a death notification.

MDIs usually handle death notifications as a result of their investigations into the manner and cause of death. Many areas of the country mandate them by statute to make the death notification (California Government Code 27471a). Due to limited staff and training opportunities, some states exempted them by statute from making a death notification (e.g. Texas TX 49 & 49.25).

cryingwoman in facemask
An earthquake survivor cries as she tells rescue workers to try to locate her family, Beichuan, China

In February 2009, an online, nationwide survey was conducted of members belonging to the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI). The survey asked how many agencies were involved in making death notifications and to identify differences in protocols, training and experience. 4 A ten question questionnaire was sent by E-mail to each member, requesting information about the agency's protocols in making death notifications. Of the agencies responding to the question of who is responsible for making death notifications in their jurisdiction, 47% (n=9) responded that the Medical Examiner/Coroner held that responsibility, 37% (n=7) responded that law enforcement held that responsibility, and 16% (n=3) responded that both held the responsibility in common.

Five agencies, including one in Canada, reported that the notification procedure was mandated by state statute. One agency responded that policy of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner mandated that law enforcement make the notification. Seven agencies reported there was neither a statute nor a policy dictating their procedures and it was left to the individuals investigating the death to determine the procedures for making a notification (n=11). Forty-two percent stated their policy manuals gave acceptable procedures for making notifications. The following results were reported to the question about making a death notification in person: 47% stated that they were required to do so (n=9) and 52% reported that making an in-person notification was not required. Of those responding that an in-person notification was mandated, only 16% reported that they required at least two persons to make the notification (n=3), 37% responded that a law enforcement officer was required when making a death notification (n=7), and 10% responded that either one or two persons could make a notification attempt (n=<2). To the question of notifying via telephones, 47% responded that they routinely made telephone notifications to families (n=9), 37% reported that they did not make routine telephone notifications (n=9) and 16% did not respond (n=3). The standout agency for this question was Hawaii, which responded that all their notifications were by telephone due to staff shortages and distances from island to island. Four responders stated that they used the services of a chaplain in making a death notification. One reported the use of chaplains in at least 60% of their notifications, two stated they used chaplains at least 50% of the time and one reported using a chaplain for between 5% and 10% of their notifications. Only one reported use of a chaplain in 90% of their notifications.

Many responders stated that the only training received for making a death notification was either a short module during an academy training period or accompaniment of more experienced investigators and observation during their initial training phase. Only a few responders reported additional training in death notification procedures as a continued education requirement.

Coroners and Medical Examiners deal with death notifications on a regular basis due to their involvement in death investigations. While most law enforcement agencies reported having a manual of operations dealing with death notification procedures, few of the AMBDI responders reported having one. Training for both Medical Examiner/Coroner personnel and law enforcement officers appears to be limited to minimum modules offered during academy training with little, if any, follow-up training. Given the complexities identified by researchers into death notification affects on families and survivors, enhanced training would be a strong recommendation for the professionals in this field.

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