The ultimate sacrifice: Coping with line-of-duty death in law enforcement

Q: We’re a medium-sized department in a busy metropolitan area. Recently, one of our officers was killed in the line of duty. We think we’re dealing with it pretty well, but some of the guys have been acting pretty strange and it seems like our department is either obsessively interested in what happened or ignores the whole thing completely.

Also, how do we help this guy’s family? This is the first time something like this has happened here. Is there anything like “normal” in a situation like this?

A: There are few events more traumatic to officers than the line-of-duty death (LODD) death of a comrade. In addition to the normal grief and loss reactions that officers feel at the death of someone they worked with and knew, the demise of a fellow officer reverberates with all cops everywhere because of the powerful identification factor: “It could happen to any of us.” In addition, such deaths are traumatic for the families of deceased officers who have suddenly and often brutally been deprived of a loved one in what is usually the prime of his or her active life.

Reactions of fellow officers to a line-of-duty death

Based on a survey of the literature and my own clinical experience, the following are some common reactions of fellow officers to a comrade’s LODD, along with some recommendations for keeping things safe and healthy.

Shock and disbelief are often the initial reactions. Officers may feel numbed and disoriented and “just go through the motions” of their jobs while trying to grapple with the enormity of what has just happened. Many report that they expect to see the slain officer sitting at his desk or in his patrol car. A few will even reluctantly admit to quasi-hallucinations of the dead compatriot (“Geez, I swear I saw Smitty standing in the hall, like he was really there”), which under these extreme and time-limited circumstances is not necessarily a pathological reaction, but a form of sensory-perceptual wish fulfillment.

Telling stories about the deceased is a form of self-prescribed narrative therapy, wherein the officers share reminiscences and experiences involving their deceased colleague, often utilizing the venue of the local tavern. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the alcohol is used moderately and constructively to oil the mechanism of self-expression in a supportive atmosphere, not self-destructively to drown feelings by getting totally smashed and/or drinking alone.

One place where officers should feel free show tears is at the slain officer’s funeral. It is here that the proper example of grief leadership by upper management can have a powerful healing effect. Be advised that normal expressions of grief do not make you a weak person and that showing your honest feelings in a dignified way is actually a sign of respect for the deceased. Expect emotions to be on a hair-trigger for several days or weeks following the death.

As time since the funeral passes, many surviving officers continue to experience a feeling of profound sadness. You may experience a sense of overwhelming fatigue, feeling drained most of the time, dragging your butt through your shift. Appetite and sleep may be affected and you may have dreams of the slain officer. It’s probably premature to label this as depression per se, because this is usually an expectable part of the grief process; however, some officers may actually become clinically depressed if they had a special relationship to the slain officer or if they have had a history of mood disorders or other problems in the past. If you or a buddy are going through this, don’t be a jerk; get yourself or him some help.

Sadness may be tinged with anger, which may have several targets. Anger at the perpetrator of the officer’s death – whether a cold-blooded skell in a gunshot death or a stupidly careless motorist in a traffic fatality – is common, often fueled by what cops see as the inadequacies of the criminal justice system in redressing this outrage against one of their own. Anger may also be directed against members of the perpetrator’s broader group, such as all lawbreakers or all traffic violators; this may lead to overzealous enforcement efforts on the surviving officers’ parts.

Supervisors should keep watch that these don’t escalate to abuse-of-authority complaints. Even if not leading to work problems per se, a general smoldering resentment may adhere to friends, family members, and the general civilian population who “just don’t get it” about the dangerous work police officers do, and who are regarded as spoiled, ungrateful recipients of society’s protections that these officers risk their necks to provide.

Some of this anger may be stoked by survivor guilt, especially where the LODD incident involved a number of officers on the scene: “There but for the grace of God could’ve gone I.” More rarely, grief over the comrade’s death may be mixed with anger at the slain officer himself, where it is believed that he somehow contributed to his own death by impulsivity, negligence, or frankly illicit behavior – especially if his actions also put other cops in danger and/or may now result in more work and stress for the surviving officers:

“Dammit, we told Manny to call and wait for back-up, but he always had to be Mr. First-In.”

“What the hell was Jones doing in a high-speed chase during a damn thunderstorm? We all could’ve been killed in that pile-up, and now we’re all gonna be investigated.”

“I didn’t want to believe J.D. was involved in that drug deal, but it looks like the bangers greased him, and now we gotta run this down and fix it.” In still other cases, there may be anger at command staff who assigned the patrol or operation, or more generally at the department or city government for cutting manpower and equipment that might have prevented the death, or for administratively hamstringing the cops’ ability to adequately control the scene through the imposition of unrealistically “soft” policies for dealing with dangerous suspects.

Although most officers in most departments are able to resolve their grief and get on with their life and work, a few are unable to let go of the LODD and may experience a permanently altered world-view about policing, society, or life in general. A small percentage of these individuals may leave law enforcement, but most hang on, although with a radically changed perspective of their job and their role in society. In the best cases, surviving officers continue to do their good work as a way of honoring their fallen comrade.

Family survivors of a line-of-duty death

The untimely death of a loved one under any circumstances is a wrenching experience, and family members of a slain law enforcement officer must undergo the further trauma of investigations, court proceedings, and media exposure, during which they will be forced to relive the tragedy again and again. To add further stress, not all family survivors of slain officers are treated equally, with families of officers slain by criminal assailants sometimes receiving preferential treatment over those killed in accidents or judged to be suicides.

Family members may display a number of typical reactions in the aftermath of their loved one’s death. They often show an obsessive preoccupation with the nature of the injuries inflicted on the officer, the brutality of the killing, the types of weapons used, and whether and how much the officer suffered. Families may clamor for information about the identity of the murderer, and the circumstances under which the killing occurred. Unlike accidental death, murder always involves a human perpetrator, and the greater the perceived intentionality and malevolence of the killing, the greater the distress of the survivors.

Family survivors may be seized with an impulse to action, an urge to “do something.” A deep and justifiable anger toward the killer alternately smolders and flares as the investigation and trial meander along. Even after sentencing of the perpetrator, the anger may persist for years. A common coping dynamic consists of ruminating on fantasies of revenge. Some of this anger may be projected onto the department: “You gave him this dangerous assignment, you took him away from me.”

Even more common than anger, a pervasive free-floating anxiety, or “fear of everything,” begins to loom in the survivors’ consciousness, beginning with their first news of the slaying and sometimes persisting for several years or more. Family survivors may experience psychophysiological hyperstartle responses to such ordinarily nonthreatening stimuli as TV crime shows or news stories of any tragedy, including noncriminal deaths such as traffic fatalities or fatal illnesses.

Survivors may have disturbing dreams of the imagined death of the officer, or wish-fulfillment dreams of protecting or rescuing him. This may be compounded by irrational guilt if they somehow feel, however illogically, that they should have “done more” to keep their loved one safe: “He had the flu that day, but he said ‘no big deal,’ he needed the overtime to cover the trip he planned for us for our twentieth anniversary and was glad to go in. I should never have let him go to work sick for a goddamn stupid vacation – I’ll never take a vacation again!”

Survivors’ heightened sense of their own vulnerability may spur them to change daily routines, install house and car alarms, carry weapons, or refuse to go to out after dark or to visit certain locales. There may be phobic avoidance of anything reminiscent of the trauma, including people, places, certain foods, music, and even well-meaning approaches by departmental representatives.

Certain factors exacerbate the stressful challenges of families trying to cope with an officer’s LODD. “Cop-killed-in-the-line-of-duty” stories are second only to “cop-gone-bad” stories in terms of being media favorites. Indeed, where the media can connect these two themes, the prurient interest level of the story rises sharply. The elevated visibility and scrutiny of such high-profile cases virtually assures that family members will be assailed by the media, using every available channel – phone calls, home visits, e-mails, mobbing on the courthouse steps, and so on. Paradoxically, in low-profile cases, some families may feel that their plight is being totally ignored: “Doesn’t anyone even care what happened?”

Family coping strategies for a line-of-duty death

Following a LODD, police families may employ a range of coping strategies to help themselves make it through the aftermath of the death. Some try to mentally distance themselves from the experience, at least for brief periods of time, by immersing themselves in work or family responsibilities, including the various and sundry details surrounding the arrangements for the funeral and financial matters in the wake of the death. This represents an adaptive intellectualization process that protects the survivor against being emotionally overwhelmed.

To this end, many families make a conscious effort to exert self-control, keeping their feelings to themselves, especially in front of outsiders. Paradoxically, this may cause well-meaning friends to urge them not to “hold back” and to “let it all out,” when what the family really needs right now is some composure so they can feel normal even for a brief period of time.

Many families seek social support, and are able to accept sympathy, understanding, and advice from friends and family members. On the other hand, some withdraw from people and isolate themselves. Others become irritable and snappish, and may thereby alienate potential sources of support. Children may complain that their surviving parent is “taking it all out on us.” Many survivors are so cracked and scarred emotionally that they fear any kind of human contact will cause them to lose what little emotional control they have and “split wide open.” Others are still dealing with rage and resentment at how “other people just get to go along with their damn lives because their spouse wasn’t a cop.”

Children and line-of-duty death

The death of a parent or other close relative from any cause has a special impact on children, and this applies to children of officers killed in the line of duty. As with all untimely deaths, children must cope with the loss of the parent and the disruptions in family routines, living standards, and family roles that this entails. Death that is sudden and unexpected leaves no chance to say goodbye or to take care of unfinished business. Death that additionally is violent and traumatic can leave bereaved children with mixed feelings of shame and horror. At too early an age, children are faced with the existential reality of life’s fragility and impermanence and the fact that bad things can happen to good people unexpectedly at any time.

The palpable distress of the surviving parent, as well as his or her distraction by numerous activities and responsibilities following the officer’s death, may cause children to fear that they will be abandoned, either because the parent has “better things to do,” or because their last remaining caretaker will die too.

Compounding the distress, the high media attention afforded a law enforcement LODD virtually assures that families, including children, will be subjected to endless replays and retellings of the event that keep the traumatic memories stingingly fresh in everyone’s mind long after bereaved families of more “ordinary” deaths have had a chance to apply the balm of time and regain their bearings.

The following are some recommendations to help children cope with the LODD of a parent or close relative. First, accurate information, at a level that is appropriate for the child in question, should be provided. Contrary to popular belief, children are hardly ever reassured by dismissive, “there-there”-type answers, and such ambiguity only adds to their anxieties and amplifies their fearful fantasies about what may have happened to the deceased parent.

As much as possible, the surviving parent and other family members should strive to create a semblance of normalcy, so that the child does not feel that his or her whole world has been completely turned upside down. At the same time, as noted above, adults should not go too far in the opposite direction of pretending that “nothing’s wrong,” because, clearly, the child will be aware of the overall atmosphere of grief and stress hanging over the family.

A much healthier response is to model mature strength under pressure: adults should strive to let their children know that it is okay to grieve and that the adults are hurting too, but that they will not break under the pressure, and that, above all, they will be there to protect and take care of their children as needed. This is, in fact, the family version of grief leadership shown by supervisors in law enforcement agencies where a fellow officer has been slain.

Children can be encouraged to participate productively in memorialization activities by helping with funeral and other memorial arrangements – at an age-appropriate level, and only if the child wants to – as well as writing stories, drawing pictures, making a photo scrapbook, and other activities to remember the slain parent.

Finally, the help of the child’s school should be enlisted by informing teachers and school officials about the bereavement, providing classmates with age-appropriate information, helping the other kids know how to make the returning child feel safe and welcomed, and by trying to make the classroom an oasis of stability and normalcy, a haven apart from the turmoil that may be going on at home in the first few months and years following the traumatic bereavement.

Administrative policies and actions for family survivors of a line-of-duty death

Police agencies have been criticized for neglecting or abandoning the bereaved spouse and family after a line-of-duty death by failing to provide adequate follow-up support services. Surviving officers and their spouses may dislike interacting with the widow of a slain officer because of the contagion effect: it reminds them of their own loved one’s vulnerability and mortality. Both police administrators and mental health clinicians can encourage the sharing of grief responses with others who have walked in the same shoes, as an adjunct to more formal clinical grief work. Recently, a number of law enforcement family self-help support groups, such as Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS), The Family Badge, Under the Shield, and others, have begun to respond to the challenge; survivors should be urged to consult local directories and websites. A cop’s life encompasses all those around him or her in police family and home family alike. Each deserves proper consideration, support, and respect.

To learn more about this topic, see:

Miller, L. (2007). Line-of-duty death: Psychological treatment of traumatic bereavement in law enforcement. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 9, (in press). [Reprints available from the author: send request and mailing address to].

Miller, L. (2006). Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. [Learn more about this book at].

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

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