Making Death Notifications

Some may collapse emotionally, even become assaultive to you; others may appear apathetic, even relieved.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

One night, an Asian motorist struck a curb while attempting to park his vehicle outside a Southern California nightclub. Directly across the street, a group of young men—many of whom were security guards at the location—started laughing at the man's frustrated attempt to park. The laughter gave way to derision, with at least one man loudly attributing the man's inability to park to his ethnicity.

For the better part of five minutes this went on, the lack of any demonstrable protest from the motorist apparently emboldening the men to escalate their roadside commentary. What the laughing men did not know was that the man had driven from San Francisco that day to do a hit on someone inside the club. He sat brooding in his car as a loaded .45 lay beside him on the passenger seat.

Finally, the aggrieved motorist decided that he'd had enough. Abandoning the mission that he'd driven hundreds of miles to execute, he jumped out of the car and began firing. A nineteen-year-old was dead before he hit the ground.

My partner and I had the suspect in custody when homicide detectives responded and assumed control of the investigation. (I couldn't help but note that if the man had been half as proficient with his car as he was with his gun, he would have carried out his mission without incident.)

Passing the Buck

I was still handling crime scene integrity when a distraught man showed up just beyond the crime scene tape, begging one of the homicide detectives to let him know if it was his son beneath the sheet. The detective looked around until he saw me. Pointing in my direction, he said, "See that deputy over there? Go ask him."

The detective's response pissed me off on several levels. First, he acted like he didn't give a shit about the distraught man. Moreover, he knew as well as I that it was the man's only child that lay beneath the sheet. Yet here he was trying to pass the buck of breaking the bad news to me.

I asked the man where his wife was. He said he was waiting for her to respond to the location. I told him I thought that it would be best to wait until she was on scene, in the event that it was his son. I'd bought myself enough time so that the detective ended up doing what he was supposed to do in the first place. And in doing so, I was no better than the detective in cowardly deferring the obligation.

Baptism by Fire

If you've any empathy for your fellow man, making a death notification may be one of the hardest aspects of your job. For a secular humanist such as myself, bereft of any assuredness of a hereafter, it's perhaps even harder.

To the best of my knowledge, death notifications are not routinely part of any police academy curriculum. Often, it comes down to a baptism by fire.

While notifications are often made by the coroner's office, law enforcement officers are not immune from the responsibility.

The reactions you will receive from those notified can vary considerably. Some may collapse emotionally, even become assaultive to you; others may appear apathetic, even relieved. As there is no predicting how one may react, it is always best to act as professionally and as compassionately as possible.

Don't Make Relatives an Afterthought

It's best to make notifications in person, and even better to have two people present. Make sure that you make the notification as soon as possible. Many families have been left with negative impressions of law enforcement because notifications were made after a seemingly unreasonable period of time. Family members have complained of being treated "almost as an afterthought."

I screwed up a notification once by making a long distance call to the daughter of a man who'd passed away. Although a friend of the daughter answered the phone, I asked to speak with the daughter herself. I ended up repeating the notification several times, each time restating the matter until the words, "Your father has died," finally surmounted her denial. She let out a scream that actually scared me.

In retrospect, I should have contacted the local law enforcement office and asked them to make the notification. Failing that, I should have spoken with the person who answered the phone to find out more about the daughter's relationship with her father, and the best manner to go about advising her of the situation.

Don't call and ask relatives of a deceased person to "Come down to the station" without letting them know why. Family members who've done so have been blindsided with the news. It's been done, and it leaves a bad taste. Also, don't call and leave the notification on an answering machine (for those who don't need to be told that, sorry—it's been done, too).

In-Person Notification

When making a notification in person, consider having a chaplain accompany you. Another option is to have a mental health professional with you, if one is available. Try to arrange it so that the person is seated (you don't want them passing out and falling down on you).

Speak clearly, use plain language, and be compassionate. Don't use euphemistic phrases like the deceased was "lost" or "passed away." Refer to the deceased by name, not as "the body." Once you've made the notification, see if there is a friend or relative who can stay with the person after you leave. There is no lonelier feeling than dealing with the loss of a loved one.

If the deceased was the victim of a homicide or accident, have appropriate referral information on hand to minimize the frustration and aggravation of the bereaved. They may never go out of their way to let you know it, but they will appreciate it.

Finally, when the person answers the door, don't ask, "Are you the Widow Jones?"

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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