Delivering a death notification is often referred to as the worst assignment a cop will ever receive. I agree, it’s tough duty. The drive to the house, thinking about and rehearsing in your mind what you’ll say, is never long enough—one of the shortest drives a cop will ever take.
However, no matter how tough emotionally it is for a police officer, many survivors of homicide victims say that receiving the notification of their loved one’s death is the most traumatic and horrifying event of their lives. Therefore, what officers say during the notification, and how they say it, can either complicate the moment and the survivor’s grieving process, or the officer’s words can go a long way toward helping the survivors begin rebuilding their lives.
A few simple steps help make the process a little easier. Such as:
1. Before the officer begins that drive to the survivor’s home, he/she should familiarize himself/herself with the victims family, if possible, and if time allows. Notifying the nearest kin/closest survivor is always best.
2. Always deliver the notice in person, and always do so with a partner. One officer should assume the lead and do all the talking, while the partner watches for signs of trouble and/or danger. Death notices should always be delivered in private. Not on the front doorstep or in the driveway. Also, in cases where it’s known that a survivor may have a medical condition, it’s a good idea to have medical personnel standing by.
3. Know the details of the victim’s death. Family members want to know what happened, when it happened, and where it happened. Don’t use “cop speak.” Talk in plain language. Be honest. Knowing details of injuries better prepares the survivor in the event they’re called on to make identification, or for the moment when they hear those same details in court.
4. Always refer to the victim by name. Never say things like, “the deceased,” or “his remains.”
5. Survivor’s first reactions are often of denial. Have information ready to verify the victim’s identity. However, never bring a victim’s personal items to the home.
6. Be sure the survivor is seated before the officer delivers the news.
7. Deliver the news to an adult. Separate children from the adults, but offer to assist with delivering the news to the children.
8. No beating around the bush. Be direct. “I’m sorry to tell you that your husband was killed during a bank robbery today at 4:30.” Do not use phrases like “passed away” or “he left us.”
9. Different people react differently to the news. Don’t judge.
10. Be prepared for “If you’d done your job instead of drinking coffee, he’d still be alive.” Police officers are often the first people blamed. Roll with the punches and remain supportive.
11. Assist with notifying other family members (phone calls, etc.), if needed.
12. Never make frivolous promises such as, “We’re going to catch this guy and put him away for a long time.”
13. Be sure the survivor has a support system handy—someone to stay with them, etc.
14. Leave your contact information.
15. Provide written information regarding other support services—victim/witness services, crime scene clean up, etc. Always leave written information. Memories aren’t in tip-top shape during those moments.