The following post is somewhat out of order. So much for best laid plans…
Hal is beginning a series on types of calls. I don’t know what came before this one so we are starting anew and will post one every week for the next six weeks. Enjoy!
By Hal Collier
If you found my last Ramblings depressing, this one won’t cheer you up. I usually like to write about the fun and sometimes exciting side of police work. This is a darker side that most cops dread—death. I’ve put off writing about death for over a year and even waited for the holidays to pass.
I’ll admit that most cops won’t shed a tear when some dirt bag gets killed trying to rob a liquor store that is owned by a gun carrying NRA member. Drug overdoses where the hype still has the syringe sticking out of his arm won’t even cause a rookie to blink. The news media always makes a big deal out of cops giving each other a high five after surviving a “my life or your death” shooting. You will never see the news show an emotional cop who just had to tell a family member that their loved one is not coming home.
Death Notifications: That task usually falls to the coroner but when the deceased passed away in another state, the coroner needs someone to make arraignments for the body. They call the local police and ask them to inform a family member also known as a Death Notification. If it’s a homicide the Detectives will make the notifications because they have questions for the surviving family members, like did you know he was a gang member or mass murderer?
Some notifications go easy, the recipient already knew that their uncle had died, or expected the news any day. Some didn’t care, but asked if they were in the will. Most were very difficult. A complete stranger in uniform comes to your house, often in the middle of the night and knocks on your door. The cop gives you the worst news imaginable and then leaves. If he’s a rookie, he probably says something stupid like, “Have a nice day” because he doesn’t know what else to say.
The most difficult one I handled was telling a women at 3 A.M. that her husband had been killed in an auto accident in Bakersfield. First, she wouldn’t open the door to us, she didn’t believe we were the police. Then she wanted to see where we parked our police car, and when I moved our black and white to below her apartment window she called 911. She thought we were impersonating police officers. It took us 30 minutes to get inside her apartment and sit her down and tell her the news. It’s been 35 years and I’m still not over that one.
The first look you get when you knock on someone’s door is panic. They see two cops standing at their door and asking to speak to Mr. or Mrs. Whatever. They know it’s not good news. They want to know what you want right away. Death Notifications rule # 1: you don’t tell them on the front porch that their only son or daughter has died. All react differently, some faint and injure themselves, some attack the messenger, the cops, but almost all are in some form of denial. It’s best to get them inside sitting down and out of public view. You don’t need the nosey next door neighbor butting in.
Ok, you’ve broken the news that they’ll never forget. Trust me you’ll never find the right words. There aren’t any right words. You offer your sympathies and if they’re alone, you offer to call someone to come stay with them. Then you leave, feeling like a piece of crap. Heaven help the next traffic violator who pisses you off.
It doesn’t make much difference how much experience you have or how compassionate you are, death notifications suck. Some people don’t understand why cops drink, have a high divorce rate or commit suicide.
Next and thank goodness, my last on death, I’ll discuss “Welfare Checks.” Welfare Checks can be a hodge podge of outcomes. Some bad, some good and some of them sort of amusing.