End of watch: How to prepare your agency to handle a line-of-duty death
Preparation eases an agency’s response to an LODD, plus helps provide care for a fallen officer’s family and grieving members of the department
By Chief Chris Moore
On May 19, 2013, my cellphone rang in the middle of the night. As anyone in public safety can attest, late-night or early-morning calls fill you with dread. That night, a brother in blue, Officer Daryl M. Raetz of the Phoenix Police Department, had been killed in the line of duty. Soon, I was at the hospital with other brothers and sisters in blue. Daryl’s wife, Stephanie, arrived with their daughter.
Because information travels so fast in modern society, a friend of Daryl’s had awakened Stephanie with the news of her husband’s death. Ideally, she should have been notified in person by members of the Phoenix Police Department, who would have then driven her to the hospital or the department. She would have been assigned liaisons to comfort her, answer her questions and help her navigate all the tasks that must be dealt with at such a time.
As a 25-year member of the Phoenix Police Department, I personally had to knock on a family’s door more than once to deliver the tragic news of an officer down. It’s always hard, but familiarity with agency procedure provides a template that will help you and the downed officer’s family get through those early hours and day.
The procedures for LODD response are or should be, in your department’s manual or handbook. Things happen quickly in a crisis and we all need to be prepared. Unfortunately, we sometimes aren’t so let’s take a look at what should happen in the days following an officer’s death.
As soon as you get the news, call the watch commander. The agency has to move quickly to notify family members because the information will make the rounds via social media, television, the internet and other media. An area sergeant or another officer should be sent to the officer’s home to notify the spouse and family.
Next, the assigned officer should take the spouse to the hospital. If there are small children, you may have to help arrange for someone to stay with them at the house. Suggest that the spouse bring a sweater or jacket because hospitals are always cold. Provide any information available at that moment, although this may not be the time to reveal that the officer has died, as that notification may be done by someone of higher rank or a physician.
Your department’s representatives at the hospital should be organized much like incident command at a public safety event. The role of each officer should be clear. Sergeants, for example, can set up a site for dignitaries, a private area for immediate family and one for agency members gathering to support their comrade and his family. The department’s chaplain should be on hand.
The department’s chief or sheriff will be the person to inform the spouse of the officer’s death, plus be a symbol of strength for the officer’s family and fellow officers.
After family members have had time to say their good-byes to the deceased, the body will be transported to the medical examiner’s office. The deceased officer will be draped in a flag and will be moved through a cordon of officers, public servants and hospital staff. A police motorcade may provide an escort to the destination.
From that point until the day the officer is laid to rest, one or two people from your agency should stay close to the family to assist them, but mostly to reassure them that they aren’t alone in their time of grief.
Assign a family liaison
Your agency should assign someone who was a close friend or partner of the fallen officer as the liaison officer. Provide the liaison with an unmarked car so he or she can help with such things as shuttling family members to and from appointments. The liaison may also babysit children, if necessary.
The department chief or sheriff should enlist the leadership team to help. Also, assign one public information officer (PIO) to keep the media abreast of any developments, as well as provide information about memorial events. Assign another officer to help coordinate the department’s role in the officer’s funeral.
Planning the funeral
To prepare for the funeral, the family liaison and your team need to meet with the family and a mortuary director. Funerals for police officers are large affairs, with attendees coming from other towns and counties, possibly even from out of state. The church or other venue might need to accommodate 1,000 to 5,000-plus people.
While families handle the usual funeral expenses, some costs should be discussed at an agency level and with local non-profits. If a family needs financial assistance, there may be local organizations and nonprofits that can help. Also, your liaison may be able to assist the family with arranging for accommodations for family and friends attending from out of town.
If another law enforcement agency asks how they may help your department, don’t hesitate to tell them.
While other arrangements are proceeding, someone at the department should complete the crime report, as well as final reports for workers' compensation and the pension system. The Bureau of Justice Assistance needs to be notified so the family can receive the federal LODD benefits.
A team from human resources, as well as your benefits analyst and representatives from life insurance and the pension system, should meet with the officer’s family within seven to 10 days after the death to discuss final compensation and any benefits due.
During the pre-funeral period, the agency honor guard will be busy organizing aspects of the funeral. As a cautious reminder, the downed officer may be your employee, but he belongs to his family. You will be a guide in the process, but the family makes the decisions.
Peer support and care
Make sure officers who witnessed the death are connected with mental health professionals, peer support, critical incident stress management or departmental counselors within 30 days. The investigators involved should be cared for as well. Keep watch for signs of post-traumatic stress, which can appear at any time.
Plan how long to keep officers off the street and who will cover your agency the day before, day of and day after the funeral. If your agency is large, this is easy; if you have fewer than 50 sworn officers, you may need to ask for assistance from neighboring agencies.
Reality and fatigue set in
Everyone in the department may be running off adrenaline. Crime didn’t stop with the loss and calls for service are ongoing. Although you’ve lost one of your own, the agency still must serve and protect the community. But be mindful of members, taking note when someone might not be ready to return to duty.
There will be a lot going on that’s related to the LODD. Vigils, both organized and impromptu, will be held at the location of the incident, in the precinct, at the Fraternal Order of Police headquarters, or in city hall. They should be attended although work must go on. After each memorial, an agency employee should collect all material from the memorials for proper distribution and reference when writing thank-you cards. Notes of appreciation to local agencies, vendors, community members and others is the hallmark of a great agency. They should be sent within a month of the event.
Because officers and staff may be attending funeral-related events while putting in a full day’s work, fatigue can set in. Remind members to get rest and food. Also, meals should be scheduled and provided to the officer’s family. You may want to ask faith-based groups and community groups to do this.
Wearing our uniforms to the funeral is one way we honor the fallen, but officers will have questions about specifics. For instance, do you have a designated Class A uniform? Does everyone have a hat? Do pallbearers wear white gloves?
End of watch
Your agency may have guidelines about who will speak at a funeral, but remember that the fallen officer belongs to the family and they have the final decision. So, if they decline your offer to speak at the funeral, don’t take it personally.
Police work is a dangerous business. Over the next 12 months, you’ll likely find yourself attending funerals for people from your agency, as well those in other cities, counties and states. All deaths of our men and women in blue are devastating. How your department responds will set the trajectory for recovery, as well as honoring the sacrifice of the fallen.
In memory of Officer Daryl M. Raetz
In Memory of Officer Daryl Raetz
Shortly after 3:30 a.m. on May 19, 2013, Officer Daryl Raetz, #8899 and his partner were finishing the processing of the scene from a DUI stop in the area of 51st Avenue and Cambridge when Officer Raetz was struck by another vehicle. Officer Raetz was transported to a local hospital, where he died of his injuries. At the time of his death, Officer Raetz was 29-years-old. Officer Raetz also served as a Navy Corpsman, serving two combat tours in Iraq before becoming a Phoenix Police Officer approximately six prior to his death. Officer Raetz is survived by his wife and young daughter.Posted by City of Phoenix Police Department on Saturday, May 19, 2018
About the author
Chris Moore retired as a lieutenant from the Phoenix Police Department after serving 25 years. His last dream assignment was as the officer-in-charge of the employee assistance unit. He currently serves as a college police chief in Southern California and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The article is intended as a guideline for agencies to consider.