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Line-of-duty death policies: preparing for the worst.

"Killed in the line of duty." This phrase strikes not only sorrow but also concern in the hearts of law enforcement administrators. Most law enforcement managers realize that their responsibility to a fallen officer reaches beyond the apprehension and conviction of a killer. Whenever an officer dies while on duty--whether the victim of a training accident, a traffic accident, or a murder--the administration must consider certain factors.

Law enforcement administrators must not only ensure that the deceased officer's family receives compassionate treatment but they must also anticipate the possible effects of the death on department employees. These and related issues can be dealt with more effectively with a written line-of-duty death policy. Writing a Policy

Departments that have written line-of-duty death policies in place prior to an unexpected death experience fewer problems during this type of crisis. Indeed, such policies offer far-reaching advantages. Not only will officers be better prepared to deal with this sudden, violent trauma, but departments will also find fewer job-related disabilities arising from the aftermath of such an incident. A definitive plan allows agencies to function more effectively during one of the highest stress situations officers may ever face.

An effective line-of-duty death policy addresses several areas of concern. These include notifying the victim's family, friends, and coworkers; providing debriefing and/or counseling to department employees; completing a thorough and objective investigation of the incident; and conducting training sessions to help employees prepare for any future incidents.

Notifying Family Members and Friends

Immediately following an officer's death, the department should notify the victim's family and assist in every way possible as they attempt to cope with the sudden loss of their loved one. If requested, family members should be given private time with the deceased. Furthermore, trained personnel should accompany the family to the hospital or morgue, assist with funeral arrangements, and provide support during both the wake/visitation and the funeral. In addition to short-term assistance, a department's ongoing support for the family eases feelings of grief and abandonment. This support can come in the form of information concerning death benefits available to them as survivors or helping the family to understand the judicial process in the event of a trial. Essentially, the department should be there to assist in any way it can. Oftentimes, officers form close bonds with certain coworkers. Management should treat employees who were close to the victim with the same respect and compassion accorded the family. Having a peer support group member or the employees' supervisors advise them, in person, of their friend's death can help to ease the trauma. Also, prompt notification prevents employees from learning of the incident by telephone or through the news media.

While the department should assign employees to assist the deceased officer's family, the victim's partner or close friends in the department should not act as the agency's primary liaison with the family. These individuals should be considered survivors, and as such, they should not be responsible for notifying the family of the death or making funeral arrangements. Nevertheless, any officer should be free to assist the family, upon request, if the officer feels capable of carrying out the responsibilities. But this should remain the officer's choice, not a task assigned by the department. At the same time, administrators need to understand that a partner or close friend in the department may need to be placed on leave until after the funeral. Notifying Other Coworkers

Following a line-of-duty death, management often neglects the people who worked with the deceased officer every day. Yet, most likely, these people will also be greatly affected by the incident.

Department managers must handle the notification of their staffs with great sensitivity. A supervisor--designated beforehand by the department's line-of-duty death policy--should convey the news in person to all officers on duty at the time of the incident. This information should never be transmitted over the radio.

As members of later shifts report for duty, their supervisors have the responsibility of notifying them. This can be accomplished during roll call or line-up. Officers who report on the street directly from their homes should be instructed by radio to call their supervisors as soon as possible. Again, supervisors should not broadcast this news over the radio.

Debriefing and Counseling

Special consideration needs to be given to officers who assisted at the incident scene. These individuals should be given a mandatory debriefing, not a critique of the incident. This debriefing educates on-scene officers regarding the common reactions that they might encounter because of the traumatic incident. Critical incident stress debriefing teams, available in many areas, can provide valuable assistance at this time.

Psychological counseling is recommended for officers involved at the scene, as well. This counseling benefits them most 2 to 4 weeks following the line-of-duty death and should continue for a period of 3 to 6 months. In fact, any employee directly involved in the incident should receive a debriefing, followed by counseling.

The department should also offer counseling to the family members or other significant individuals of any officer directly involved in a line-of-duty death. Counseling for these individuals should include how to recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Failure of the family to understand this phenomenon creates additional stress for all concerned parties. Investigating the Death

The department should not overlook the importance of conducting a thorough and objective investigation of an officer's death. For this reason, a partner, close friend, or officer who worked with the victim on a daily basis should never assume an active role in the investigation.

Consequently, law enforcement agencies may require outside assistance to investigate the incident. Obviously, small- to mid-sized agencies, which would likely have a greater ratio of officers who knew the victim well, could be more adversely affected by a line-of-duty death than larger agencies.

As the case progresses, the department needs to keep, to every extent possible, all personnel informed of the circumstances surrounding the case, progress of the investigation, court dates, and any other pertinent information. Providing concise, factual information precludes rumors from spreading throughout the department. This is important for the well-being of the other officers, as well as to keep a direct line of communication open that may provide information pertinent to the case.


A line-of-duty death policy is ineffective without training to accompany it. In fact, one of the most effective ways to deal with interdepartmental issues concerning a line-of-duty death is to educate officers prior to such an occurrence.

First, administrative officers--lieutenants and above--must understand all aspects of line-of-duty deaths and have a plan to deal with such incidents. In addition, because of the additional responsibilities given to sergeants and other front-line officers in such instances, they should receive comprehensive training that also stresses interpersonal communication skills.

All other officers should receive training, conducted by an expert in the field, on the dynamics of line-of-duty death and critical incident trauma. Covered in this training are such topics as crisis intervention and resolution, the causes and symptoms of stress, stress reduction methods, post-shooting and critical incident trauma, and the likelihood and effects of chronic involvement in critical incidents.

While discussing death is never pleasant, training sessions should, nevertheless, prepare officers for the worst. This involves learning how to prepare a will and completing or annually updating information for their personnel files. Information placed in personnel files should include insurance policy beneficiaries, next-of-kin information and any mitigating health factors affecting these individuals, specific wishes for funeral arrangements, locations of important papers or safety deposit boxes, and other pertinent information that the department needs to know in the event of an officer's death. Conclusion

Law enforcement administrators are ultimately responsible for the proper handling of line-of-duty deaths. With preplanning and training, individual officers and the agency itself can cope more effectively with these tragedies.

Law enforcement agencies that invest time in proactive planning reduce their long-term personnel and financial losses. In fact, preparing to deal with line-of-duty deaths before they occur may be one of the most important issues facing any department.

Nancy A. Newland, a former law enforcement officer, is currently a consultant and trainer in critical incident trauma and line of duty death in Gulf Breeze, Florida.
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Author:Newland, Nancy A.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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