The worst possible news: Death notification and body identification for law enforcement officers

Most officers dread this kind of assignment for good reason: it is unpleasant, stressful, and emotionally draining

Question: Recently, we had a multiple-casualty incident involving a traffic pile-up due to a drunk driver, in which four civilians and one officer were killed. Many of the deceased were badly burned and a number of their relatives had to be located, as some of the victims were from out of town. A few of us were given the job of notifying the relatives, including the officer’s family, and of accompanying two families to the morgue to make an identification. We weren’t sure how to handle this and I’m afraid it didn’t go very well. Is there any way to make this horrible situation any easier?

Answer: No way something like this is ever going to be easy, but there are ways of making it easier on both the victims and the notifiers. The following recommendations apply generally to dealing with surviving family members of both deceased civilians and fellow officers who have died in the line of duty.

Death Notification

Surprisingly, a frequently neglected topic in law enforcement training curriculums is how to properly notify family members that a loved one has been killed or that the body of a missing relative has been located and identified. Though not ordinarily a routine police patrol function, officers in homicide investigation and other special units may be called upon to make such notifications as part of their duties. In other jurisdictions, special departmental crisis outreach officers make the call, or it is something undertaken by supervisors or administrative staff. In the case of law enforcement line-of-duty deaths, there may be established protocols for handling such calls.

Most officers dread this kind of assignment for good reason: it is unpleasant, stressful, and emotionally draining. However, like all of the law enforcement activities discussed in this column, the task of death notification can be made more effective and tolerable by understanding a few basic principles and implementing a few key strategies, developed from the recommendations of law enforcement personnel, victim advocates, and family members themselves.

To begin with, always go in person. Unless there is absolutely no other choice, death notification should never be made over the phone. Go in pairs. Ahead of time, decide who will be the lead person, the one whose job it will be to say the words and give the bad news. The other team member provides backup support, monitors the survivors for adverse reactions, and provides temporary supervision of young children during the notification if needed. If no one is home when you get there, wait a reasonable amount of time. If you are queried by a neighbor, ask about the family’s whereabouts, but don’t reveal the purpose of your visit to anyone but the immediate family. If the family still doesn’t show up, leave a card with a note and a number to call. When the call comes, return to the family’s home to make the notification.

Needless to say, make sure you have the correct family and residence. This may seem obvious, but under circumstances of stress and confusion, or where the name is unfamiliar or very common, it may be easy to confuse the victim’s residence with someone else’s. When you do arrive, ask for permission to enter. Suggest that family members sit down face-to-face with you. Get to the point quickly and state the information simply and directly. If the facts are clear, don’t leave room for doubt or false hope. Of course, you don’t want to be brutally blunt or insensitive, but try to use straight language and avoid euphemisms. Use the deceased’s name or his or her relationship to the family member being informed, for example, “We’re sorry to have to bring you this terrible news, Mrs. Jones. Your daughter, Mary, was killed in a convenience store robbery by suspects who we’re actively trying to apprehend. Mary and her personal effects are at Municipal hospital.” 

Allow time for the news to sink in. It may be necessary to repeat the message several times in increasingly clear and explicit terms. Tolerate silence and be prepared for the calm to be broken by explosions of grief and rage. Intense reactions should be physically restrained only if there is some danger to self or others. Some family members may embrace you and cry on your shoulder. Be prepared to tastefully and respectfully offer this physical solace, if necessary.

Others may push you away or even pummel you for being the evil messenger. Again, be as understanding and as tolerant as possible and use physical restraint only to preserve safety – e.g. if there is no real harm done, this may be an appropriate time to overlook an assault-of-officer charge. These matters should be part of the policies and procedures for the overall death notification and body identification program that your agency develops proactively, so there is as little confusion as possible during a call.

In the face of outright denial (“No, no, you’ve got the wrong family, this couldn’t have happened…”), be as gentle as possible but make it clear that the death has occurred. Answer all questions tactfully and truthfully, but don’t reveal more of the grim details than is necessary at that time: the goal is to inform, not further traumatize.

Repeat the answers to questions as many times as you need to until the family members understand. Try to be as calm and supportive, as comforting and empathic, as possible. Let the tone and cadence of your voice register the appropriate amount of respect and dignity, but don’t become overly maudlin or lose control yourself. Death notifications are not rush calls: be prepared to spend as much time as necessary with the family.

Offer to make phone calls to family, friends, neighbors, employers, clergy, doctors, and so on. Ask family members if they want you to get someone to stay with them. Respect the family’s privacy, but don’t leave a family member alone unless you’re sure they’re safe. High emotionality can impair memory, so give pertinent information and instructions in writing. Provide family members with the names and telephone numbers of a victim advocate, prosecutor, medical examiner, social service agency, and hospital; try to consolidate all the information onto one sheet. Many departments have printed information cards for this purpose.

Explain to family members what will happen next, e.g. body identification, police investigation, and criminal justice procedures. If this is a high-profile case, brief them on how to handle the media. Give family members as much information as they ask for, without overwhelming them. Repeat the information as many times as needed. For the family of officers killed in the line of duty, explain carefully all of the departmental protocols and procedures, including which are mandatory and which they may have the option to decline.

Determine if the family members require some means of traveling to the medical examiner’s office, hospital, or police station. Offer to drive them or arrange for a ride if they have no transportation. Be sure to provide for a ride back home, and try to assist them with babysitting arrangements and other needs. If the notifying team is made up of police personnel and a victim advocate, the advocate may remain with the family members after the police leave.

Body Identification

The finality of identifying the deceased’s body can have a paradoxically dual effect. On the one hand, there is the confrontation with the victim’s remains and the final shattering of any hope that he or she may still be alive. On the other hand, the actual sight of the deceased often provides a strange sort of reassuring confirmation that the victim’s death agonies may not have been quite as excruciating as what the family member had been imagining. For others, the physical presence of the body means that at least the victim’s suffering is finally over.  

Outcome studies of relatives after a death from natural causes report shorter periods of denial and higher total recall of the deceased in mourners who were able to view the body before burial; whether this applies to cases of traumatic bereavement such as accidental death or homicide has not been systematically studied.

Like death notification, body identification is not usually a routine patrol officer function, but all law enforcement personnel who help survivors through this process should be guided by a few basic principles.    
Unless there is a legal requirement for identification or a security restriction, let survivors make the choice as to whether or not they want to view their loved one’s remains. Some family members may be anxious or intimidated about making or declining such a request or expressing their wishes, so ask them directly. In cases where it is forensically essential to involve the family in the identification process, be sure to provide the appropriate support.

Family members may want to touch the deceased. For some, it may be a way of beginning to accept the reality of the death, a way of finally saying goodbye. If the victim’s body is mutilated, dismembered, burned, decomposed, or disintegrated, identification may have to be made through dental records, personal effects, or other artifacts. Explain to the family members why this is necessary and give them the choice of whether or not to view or touch the remains.

Sometimes, if facial features have been badly damaged, the survivor can touch the victim’s hand or the top of the victim’s head. Try to be sensitively creative in assisting survivors in coming up with these options and provide the appropriate support.

Where no body has been recovered, state this plainly. If there is hope that remains may yet be found, state this, but try to be as realistic as possible about the odds. There is, in fact, some precedent for this. Ships sunk at sea or planes immolated in crashes rarely produce remains — not to mention victims pulverized in the ruins of the collapsed Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

In cases like these, notify the family of whatever identification procedures may be occurring, such as DNA-matching, and direct them to the proper authorities. Also, if artifacts from the victim are found at the scene, such as a pair of glasses, a piece of jewelry, or a child’s toy, these might be in police custody for use as evidence in later prosecution. Let the family know this, and explain to them the procedures for reclaiming these heirlooms, should they wish to do so.

As cognitively and emotionally demanding as the tasks of death notification and body identification may be for those charged with carrying it out, many victims have later said that it was just this kind of contact with sensitive, concerned, and competent law enforcement officials that turned the tide of their profound grief and made their ordeal at least livable.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.

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