One of the tasks I enjoy least in my role as a command officer is the death notification to a fellow officer's loved ones. I've been death's harbinger to parents and spouses enough times I know how to deliver the blow with the appropriate level of empathy, but clearly and directly. One doesn't obfuscate in situations like this.
There is nothing more wrenching in this realm than driving a marked car with a chaplain at your side, pulling up in front of a law enforcement officer's house, and driving a catatonic spouse to the trauma unit where his or her mate lies critically injured and clinging precariously to life.
And once the shock and grief fades just enough to allow them to think clearly, they all face the same terrible question: What do I do now?
There are steps you can take now to make life easier on your loved ones should you fall on duty.
You need an "Open If" file. And your family should know where it's located in your home, preferably in a secure, fireproof document safe.
The exact contents of your Open If file may vary, but I'll flesh out the basic elements of what your survivors need to know should they peer outside the windows of their home one day and see their worst nightmare walking up the steps.
If you perish in the line of duty, your agency is supposed to roll out the red carpet for your family and ensure nothing of importance slips by the wayside.
Still, you should leave nothing to chance. That's why I recommend providing your family with a list of important contact numbers, in case the worst happens.
Your phone list should include a close friend on the job who might act as a liaison between the department and your family. You'll also want to provide them with contact information for your agency's chief, sheriff, or superintendent, its human resources director, and the elected leadership of your union or police association.
If you have children from a previous relationship, direct numbers to reach them (through your ex-spouse or partner) are to be included here. Finally, add phone numbers for your attorney and your clergy, if applicable.
Passwords and Account Information
There's a lot of financial and personal data that your survivors will need. Provide them with information on various bank accounts, e-mail accounts and passwords, retirement funds, life insurance policies, and memberships of any organizations you may be a part of.
A bulleted, comprehensive list of Websites, account numbers, policy numbers, and Website usernames and passwords should be part of your Open If file.
And be sure to add a copy of the statement from each creditor from which you receive a recurring bill, including your mortgage, utilities, credit cards, phone, and Internet provider. Spend some time brainstorming and don't overlook the obvious.
Federal Death Benefits
If you fall in the line of duty, it's likely your family will qualify for the Bureau of Justice Assistance Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program (PSOB). Enacted by Congress in 1976, this federal benefit can prove the difference maker between financial calamity and relative comfort for those left behind.
The current amount of the PSOB benefit is $318,111 for eligible deaths; the amount is adjusted annually in October to reflect the percentage of change in the Consumer Price Index. The onus for filing a PSOB claim falls primarily on the decedent's agency, but your family should be aware of the BJA benefit program.
In order to assist your family with applying for PSOB, place certified copies of your birth certificate and marriage license in your Open If file.
State Death Benefits
Some individual states have a survivor payout for line-of-duty deaths, but these benefits aren't uniform. Some states may provide a lump sum payment, tuition reimbursement at state-run universities, or health care coverage and/or reductions on property tax, so it literally pays to investigate.
The good news when it comes to these benefits is that Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) has done most of your homework for you. You can access the appropriate page for your state through the COPS Website.
Your Open If file is not just about information on benefits and bank accounts. Many police officers are, to one degree or another, firearms enthusiasts. If you have a gun safe at home, make note of the combination and whether you store your firearms loaded.
Even if you don't own a safe but do have a firearm or three stashed about the home, your family needs to know the exact whereabouts of your weapons so they can be retrieved and made safe. If your spouse is unfamiliar with guns, this task can be delegated to one of your cop friends.
Estate Planning Documents
I don't care how young and healthy you are; you still need a will if you wear a badge. Get a medical power of attorney, too.
These simple but very important legal documents are inexpensive and easy to procure through your personal attorney. You may also have satisfactory results with online resources such as LegalZoom. In any case, don't leave your family ignorant of your desires if you're not there to convey them.
If you have (a) explicit wishes regarding how your funeral is to be conducted, (b) specific religious practices you would like your survivors to adhere to, or (c) a fellow officer, boss, or spiritual leader you want to participate in your eulogy, write out the details and put them in your Open If file.
I know this is a hard thing to do. And it will make you feel morbid, but unless you've discussed these issues with your family, they may not know what you want. By writing them out, you can avoid worrying them about things that never happen and also ensure that your wishes will be followed.
Write Them a Note
If you've gotten this far, you're pretty much done with your work, but do take a little extra time to jot down your thoughts, prayers, and wishes for your family in a letter and seal it in the file.
Remind them you were doing a job you loved. And tell them you understood the risks going in. Explain the existence of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the healing benefits of Police Week each May; encourage them to attend for the fraternal support they'll receive there.
Finally, implore them to put the pieces of their lives back together. After all, the best way they can honor your life is to live theirs to the fullest.
Sgt. Jeff Baker is a decorated veteran of the Omaha Police Department. A law officer since 1988, Baker is a Federal Law Enforcement Training Accreditation (FLETA) certified police instructor.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program
Repository of State Death Benefits
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund