Death notification: Breaking the bad news

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


     Negative perception of police resulting from a botched notification can be overcome with adequate training, but no formal national death notification standards exist. Most police departments are left to devise their own polices.

     The Texas Municipal Police Association, for instance, reports they do not have a protocol or training specific to death notifications. "Most departments develop policies internally," says executive director Chris Heaton.

     The International Association of Chiefs of Police (theiacp.org) does provide a model death notification policy, but does not track how many agencies have actually adopted it.

Policies vary

     Death notification practices vary depending on geographic location. The medical examiner or coroner's office may make notifications in larger urban areas, but there are far more officers than medical examiners so notifications often fall to police.

     If the officers are fortunate, the departments that employ them will have provided adequate death notification training. Training doesn't make notification any easier, but it might keep officers from making matters worse for themselves and the families of the victim.

     Too few police agencies, however, provide any formal death notification training. The focus of law enforcement is on solving crime. Not many police departments have a specific policy regarding notification of next of kin.

     "A lot of people in public safety, especially in higher ranking positions, give death notification lip service, but it really is the redheaded stepchild because it's the dirty job no one wants to do," Morgan says. Death notification is a large component of the death investigation course he teaches at North Georgia College and State University. He also teaches a death notification class twice a year at the Northeast Alabama Law Enforcement Academy of the Jacksonville University. Morgan's death notification course is one of what he estimates is fewer than 15 nationwide.

     Since so few death notification classes exist, too many officers are forced to learn death notification practices on the job, usually from older, more experienced officers who have been through the drill many times.

     "It may be better now, but when I was on the street we received little training on death notification," says Troutdale, Oregon, Chief of Police Dave Nelson. "Mostly, it was on-the-job training. We'd get the most experienced deputy we could to go with us and take two deputies and a member of the clergy to do the notification."

Role of chaplains

     Most police departments these days have police chaplains available to help make notifications. The International Conference of Police Chaplains (ICPC) estimates 65 to 70 percent of all departments, including all large urban agencies, now have chaplains assigned to them.

     "There is still some old guard out there who think their guys can suck up everything, but they're so far behind the curve of what's happening today it would be funny if it weren't so reckless," says the Rev. Chuck Lorraine, executive director of the ICPC.

     How police utilize their chaplains varies from department to department.

     "I spent 25 years as a frontline chaplain in California and we were involved in all death notifications, but we still have places in this country where some desk sergeant makes notifications over the phone, which is ludicrous," Lorraine says.

     Police chaplains are trained in the proper way to perform death notification and are emotionally equipped to deal with it. The officers are there in an official capacity to answer questions.

     "There are resources to teach departments how to do death notification properly, but why have your officer involved notifications if you have a chaplain that can handle it for you?" Lorraine asks.

     There are situations, however, where police chaplains are less welcome by police detectives, particularly after violent crimes.

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