Balance your words

One of the most important things we do as officers is interface with victims, and what we say to them is much more important than we realize. Although officers are taught defensive tactics, driving skills, arrest procedures and constitutional law, I don’t know that many are schooled in how to deal with the emotional fall-out connected with the job in a caring, compassionate way. I know I wasn’t.

I’ve spoken with many families whose loved ones were involved in crimes or serious accidents, and many say they felt there was a lack of connection with the officers involved. Contrary to what we might think, most said they were not comforted by empty reassurances (like the officers who told the parent of an older missing teen that he was probably spending the night at a friend’s house and just forgot to tell them); they preferred the officer to be warm and friendly, but sincere and professional. I think it’s a hard balance to maintain when dealing with delivering bad news or dealing with situations that are ripe for heartache.

I once had to give a death notification I was not prepared to give. We were working a murder/suicide in which a man forced his way into an apartment where a group of people were playing cards. Among those present were two ex-wives and several teenage children of the man and the two women. He shot one former wife as the others fled, then turned the gun on himself. The surviving wife and children were taken to the police department for interviews and statements — they did not know the two were dead, only that the woman had been shot.

My lieutenant and I were standing on the sidewalk in front of the department with the other ex-wife and one of the older teens. He had told me to ask them to step outside so we could inform them that their loved ones had died. When the family came outside, the lieutenant turned to me and said, “This detective has something to tell you.” Then he walked away.

I have searched dark warehouses for armed men, climbed on tops of buildings in the pitch-blackness of night and have been on felony takedowns that panicked me less than that simple command. Suddenly I had to deliver terrible news to this very emotional and already devastated family. I had no idea what to say or how to say it.

While I was trying to figure out how to break the news, the woman asked me how everything was going. Reacting conversationally, I replied, “Fine” — a totally stupid thing to do — she misinterpreted and screamed with joy. I had to physically grab her and say, “No, I’m sorry, that is not what I meant.” I had to then tell her that both her former husband and her friend were dead. It was a horrible moment and entirely my fault. I simply wasn’t properly prepared to deliver the worst news possible.

As police officers we must think through these moments before we get there. It’s hard being the bearer of bad news and it’s just as hard understanding that the way we handle people in crisis is something they will never, ever forget. In fact, when they go back and remember what happened at that pivotal moment of their lives — the day their child disappeared or their loved one died, the day their world changed forever — everything that was said and done will remain chiseled in their minds forever. They will never forget what you tell them, and will always characterize your department by what you and other