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Responding to line-of-duty deaths.

An average of 143 law enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty annually in the United States.(1) Whether the result of an adversarial action or an accident, the trauma caused by each death is felt by family survivors and department personnel for many months, or even years, after the event.

Still, most law enforcement agencies have not experienced a line-of-duty death. Perhaps for this reason, less than one-third of the agencies responding to a recent survey reported having any policy dealing with this sensitive issue.(2)

It is little wonder, then, that agencies dealing with a line-of-duty death for the first time often respond inadequately to the needs of survivors. This may stem from several factors, including the lack of information available regarding actions that agencies should take after the funeral. This article discusses some of the policy issues involved and recommends appropriate responses to family survivors and coworkers of officers who are killed in the line of duty.


The subject of departmental response to survivors remained a largely uncharted and undocumented area until the mid-1980s. Before that time, only a few metropolitan agencies that had experienced line-of-duty deaths developed policies for such situations. This began to change on May 14, 1984, when 110 survivors formed Concerns of Police Survivors, Inc. (COPS), while attending a National Police Week seminar sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police. This represented the first effort to form a national networking organization to aid survivors in the healing process and to provide guidance to agencies concerning line-of-duty death policies.(3)

Since that time, an increasing number of administrators have come to understand the importance of adopting line-of-duty death policies. As the threat to officers becomes more menacing and the list of police fatalities grows each year, the need for such policies becomes more apparent. The highly sensitive nature of on-duty deaths and the long-term response to survivors that agencies must provide underscores the need to formulate a policy before a tragedy occurs.


No one wants to contemplate their own death. But, because law enforcement is a high-risk occupation and the very real possibility of death from accidents and felonious assaults exists, agencies have an obligation to their officers-and officers owe it to their families-to prepare for such tragedies.

Preparation should include educating officers about emergency notification of family members, funeral arrangements, survivor benefits, counseling options, and departmental support to survivors. Officers should take considerable comfort from knowing what benefits and support their families will receive in the event they are killed. Although the tragedy of losing a loved one will not be lessened, with preparation and forethought, the grieving process will not be aggravated by uncertainties and a lack of information.

Emergency Notification Forms

Agencies should use employee emergency information forms not only to obtain critical personal information from their officers but also to record officers' desires for notification of family members in the event of serious injury or death. While departments commonly notify the spouse of an officer after injury or death, they usually fail to contact the parents or grown children of an officer simply because that information is not available. In the absence of prior instructions from the officer, agencies should provide official notification to surviving parents and grown children, or make arrangements with another department if distance prohibits notification by the officer's agency.

One of the procedural orders of the Charleston, South Carolina, Police Department, entitled Handling a Law Enforcement Death or Serious Injury, includes the "employee emergency information form," which is used to record notification information. The form also reserves space for special notification instructions and special family considerations. These forms are periodically updated and kept in the personnel section.

The National Association of Chiefs of Police publishes helpful line-of-duty death guidelines that contain a comprehensive officer questionnaire. The confidential questionnaire allows officers to record information about wills, insurance policies, funeral wishes, and the distribution of possessions. After the officer completes the questionnaire, it is sealed in an envelope to be opened only in the event of the officer's death or serious injury.(4)

Death Benefit Information

Agencies also should make sure to provide complete death benefit information to all officers so that they can prepare their families. This includes information about death benefit life insurance paid by the employing agency, survivor death benefits or annuities paid by a retirement plan, State and/or Federal death benefits, social security benefits, fraternal or labor group benefits, and financial benefits provided by civic organizations or special law enforcement support groups. Still, officers should review the benefits periodically because they may change over time.

The Mobile, Alabama, Police Department provides a comprehensive death benefits booklet for surviving family members. Officers who have this information possess an added degree of peace of mind knowing that their families will be provided for in the event of their death.


Because of the complexity of issues surrounding a line-of-duty death, every agency needs to develop a family support team to provide a structured response to survivors. The Dallas, Texas, Police Department created such a team. The 10 team members handle everything from family services to ceremonial considerations.

Although few agencies require a team as large as the one in Dallas, every agency should develop a team to address five critical areas. Team members should be designated by their specific roles: Command liaison, benefits coordinator, financial coordinator, chaplain or minister, and family liaison.

Command Liaison

A senior command officer should head the family support team. This officer ensures that team members receive an appropriate level of training in their duties and supervises the team response. The command liaison officer also keeps the department head informed of problems or needs of the family.

The command liaison officer must possess ample rank and authority to implement fully the department's response to the survivors. This officer also should maintain a log of actions and prepare a calendar of significant dates that should be observed. These include the officer's birthday, spouse and children's birthdays, marriage anniversary, and graveside memorials.

Benefits Coordinator

The benefits coordinator may be a line officer, supervisor, or command officer from the administrative unit. As the title suggests, the benefits coordinator compiles all information on funeral payments and financial benefits provided to the family. This officer also explains other benefits and assistance programs that may be available. The benefits coordinator should meet with the primary survivor a day or two after the funeral.

Financial Coordinator

The financial coordinator may be an attorney or financial consultant who has been hired by the department or has volunteered to assist the officer's family. This person provides financial advice and assistance to family members so that they can make informed decisions concerning the amounts of money and benefits they will receive.

Chaplain or Minister

Chaplains or ministers provide comfort and support both to the family and to the department. Skilled in dealing with death and dying, they can offer insight and advice to survivors trying to cope with the trauma of loss. Many chaplains from larger agencies possess considerable experience with line-of-duty deaths and can provide invaluable assistance to chaplains of smaller departments.

Family Liaison Officers

Family liaison officers--assigned either permanently or on a rotating basis to this duty--maintain frequent, scheduled contact with the family. They remain available on a standby basis to respond to any special request by family members.

Administrators should grant them broad latitude and flexibility in the initial months of the grieving process. However, they should keep the command liaison and/or agency head fully apprised of the emotional state of the family and inform them of any problem that they have encountered. They also should maintain a record of activities that they perform for survivors.



In the aftermath of an officer's death, agencies often ask, "Who are the survivors?" The answer is anyone in the immediate family--spouse, children, siblings, mother, and father. Too often, agencies focus on a married officer's spouse and children and forget the parents. Because of the unexpected circumstances involved in law enforcement deaths, agencies should give special attention to notifying all immediate family members, and especially to anyone listed on the officer's emergency notification documents.

Officers may leave instructions to exclude some immediate family members from the official notification process. While this leaves the task of notification to primary survivors, an agency representative still should contact these family members later with condolences and to offer assistance. Law enforcement agencies have only one opportunity to provide a proper and caring response to family members. Departments should spare no effort in assisting them.

Fellow Officers

In the wake of an officer's death, law enforcement agencies also must respond to another group of survivors--the police family. Officers spend a great portion of their lives on the job with fellow officers and employees. This close contact results in strong bonds of friendship and camaraderie among agency personnel.

The loss of an officer in the line of duty affects every department member. Without adequate support, some may develop emotional and performance problems that adversely impact the department.


Support to survivors--both family and departmental--includes regular contact by members of the family support team, members of the department who knew the deceased officer, and department commanders. These contacts should be both formal and informal, planned and spontaneous.

Studies show that in the months following an officer's death, survivors frequently feel abandoned by the department that was supposed to be so close to their loved one but now seems to have forgotten the officer after death.(5) Members of the family support team and agency officials should make special efforts to call, visit, or send cards on birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.

The agency also should give special attention to surviving children. While members of the department often make offers to get involved with the fallen officer's children, other obligations may soon take precedence. Officers must avoid making promises they cannot keep.


In addition to a compassionate, understanding response from the department, some family and police survivors may require professional counseling. A report published by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) states that the reactions of police survivors (i.e., spouses, parents, siblings, friends, and coworkers) may be so profound as to be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.(6) This psychological disorder is associated with traumatic events considered outside the usual range of human l experience.(7)

In the past, police survivors often suffered prolonged psychological stress because they did not seek help, or agencies did not extend offers of assistance in this area. Traditionally, most law enforcement agencies have not considered the emotional and psychological needs of survivors to be a part of their responsibility. However, the NIJ report indicates that sensitivity and effective agency response procedures have a definite impact on the well-being of survivors.

Uniform Response

Research into police deaths also reveals that spouses of officers killed accidentally experience the same level of stress as do spouses of homicide victims. At the same time, research indicates that parents of officers killed accidentally respond differently than do parents of those who are murdered. The latter were found to be more traumatized, hostile, and depressed.

Survivors also reported a difference in the response they received from departments. Researchers found that the survivors of homicide deaths received more preferential treatment than survivors of officers who died as a result of accidents.

Although some insensitive observers may question the heroism of an officer's accidental death, the department's response must be identical, regardless of the nature of the death. As with any memorial, it is the heroic life and the recognition of the supreme sacrifice made by the officer that is being honored, not the officer's death.

Court Proceedings

Deaths that result from adversarial actions create additional concerns, primarily relating to the attendance of family members at court proceedings. While the department should make every effort to honor the wishes of the family, agency commanders must address other considerations.

The media pose a particular concern because any appearance of family members in court will be recorded most likely in print and on film. Reporters understandably will seek interviews with survivors to capture their feelings and reactions. To deal with these possibilities, the prosecutor should be consulted and should help develop a plan for family members to attend hearings and trials.

A prearranged plan is essential to satisfy the family's need for representation at court, as well as the prosecution's concern that the jury pool not be unduly influenced by the family's attendance. If family members do attend the hearings and trial, the department should offer to provide transportation and escorts.

The department and the prosecutor also must coordinate whether agency personnel should be present at hearings and the trial. Procedural rules in some States prevent involved officers from being present in the courtroom during testimony.

Whatever the case, some effort should be made to project the officer's memory at trial. If neither the family nor the agency represent the fallen officer, who will? Considering the support groups that exist for other types of victims, it is an unacceptable irony that police officers may be forgotten victims when suspects come to trial.


For the family, the months following an officer's death become particularly traumatic and stressful. As the initial shock begins to wear off, the reality of loss sets in. The department's actions during this period--what it does and does not do--will greatly impact the longterm recovery process for survivors.

No time limit exists for how long it should take a family to recover. Everyone deals with death and grieving differently. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the department now stands in the fallen officer's place.

Unfortunately, some agencies have done little or nothing for officers' families after the funeral. In contrast, other agencies have purchased and installed appliances, made arrangements for officers to mow the lawn, taken family members shopping, cared for children, provided transportation to and from school, or performed other simple, inexpensive, but meaningful, tasks that the slain officer once did.

Of course, departments should not overwhelm survivors with attention. Nor should they devote an unreasonable amount of time and effort to providing support to survivors. No matter what a department does to assist the family and to compensate for the absence of the officer, a great feeling of loss remains inevitable.

However, departments can and should take steps to provide an ongoing response to survivors. The following timeline incorporates aspects of policies and guidelines from several law enforcement agencies, as well as other sources.

First Month

For a month following the funeral, agency officials should make daily phone calls to check in with family members to see if they need anything. Family liaison officers should make regular visits; the command liaison officer, weekly visits. These visits need not be lengthy but are meant to reassure the family that they have not been forgotten.

The agency head also should place telephone calls and make personal contact with primary survivors when possible. In addition, department personnel might encourage their spouses to contact the surviving spouse or parents.

Second Through Sixth Month

The family liaison officers should continue to maintain regular contacts with the family. If the family indicates that the contacts can be reduced, the agency should honor their wishes, but the contacts should not be discontinued altogether.

Sixth Month and Beyond

Family liaison officers should continue to make calls and visits and provide any assistance necessary to the family. The agency should continue to invite family members to department functions and events. Research indicates that as time goes on, survivors take great comfort simply in knowing that the department will be there if they need assistance.(8)


When an officer dies in the line of duty, the department, fraternal and civic organizations, friends, neighbors, and concerned and caring members of the community often feel the need to create a memorial in the officer's honor. Such acts of remembrance represent a fitting and lasting tribute to officers who have fallen in the service of their communities.

Law enforcement agencies can provide several appropriate memorials to an officer's family. Departments can:

* Lobby for a special resolution from the State legislature or the city/county council

* Arrange for special certificates from law enforcement-related organizations

* Mount the officer's service weapon, handcuffs, badge, patches, and/or medals in a shadowbox for presentation to the family

* Assemble a scrapbook of photos, articles, and personal stories about the officer. Children especially value such mementos in later years.

In addition, the department and local governing body can create more public memorials, such as:

* Renaming a street, building, park, or bridge after the fallen officer

* Placing the officer's photograph in the lobby of police headquarters or another public building

* Publishing, on the anniversary of the officer's death, a story of the officer's life.

The community also can provide a memorial by establishing a scholarship fund for the surviving children or for students of criminal justice at a local university.


After the line-of-duty death of an officer, citizens often ask the chief of police if the department has gotten "back to normal." The fact is, a department that experiences the line-of-duty loss of an officer will never be the same. As long as the fallen officer's coworkers remain with the agency, the memory of the officer will be kept alive.

On a daily basis, law enforcement officers must cope with an inordinate amount of stress brought on by constant conflicts with violators, complainants, irate citizens, and demanding supervisors. Compounding this burden is the fact that death could be just the next call away. All law enforcement officers deal with this burden every working day.

Officers should not have to bear the additional worry that their department will fail to care for their family adequately if a tragedy should occur. By developing a comprehensive response strategy, agencies can relieve officers of this burden.


(1) Timothy Flanigan and Kathleen Maguire. eds., Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 1991, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1992, 413, 417. (2) Suzanne F. Sawyer, Support Services to Surviving Families of Line-of-Duty Death, Concerns of Police Survivors, Inc., March 1994. (3) Ibid. (4) G.S. Arenberg, Line-of-Duty Death of Law Enforcement Officer: Easing the Pain for the Family and Fellow Officers (Washington, DC: National Association of Chiefs of Police, 1988). (5) Frances A. Stillman, "Line-of-Duty Deaths: Survivor and Departmental Responses," National Institute of Justice Research In Brief, January 1987. (6) Ibid. (7) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (3rd edition) (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Associations, 1980). (8) P. Radford, Concerns of Police Survivors, Inc. (COPS) National Trustee, interviewed December 5, 1994.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Federal Bureau of Investigation
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Haddix, Roger C.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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