Death notification: Breaking the bad news

Why does so little training exist for the most grim job in law enforcement?

     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.

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."

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