Death Notification Delivery Tips for Law Enforcement

I have had the sad duty of delivering quite a few death notifications in my career.  It is one of the more difficult parts of our job from an emotional standpoint.  For me, the worst part of the notification has to be in the moments as you approach the house, or apartment, or room where the unsuspecting family members are.  They have no idea you are about to change their lives in a very significant way…

Knock, knock.


I’m Officer Smith and this is Chaplain Jones.  May we come in?

Why, yes–

Please have a seat, ma’am.  I am sorry to tell you your son, John, was killed in a car crash tonight.

(mother’s reaction ensues)

He was driving to a friend’s house from work.  His car was hit by another vehicle at Union Avenue and State Street.  He died at the scene.

Are you sure it was, John?

Yes, ma’am, it was John…

Basic Principles of Death Notification:

  • In Person
  • In Time
  • In Pairs
  • In Plain Language
  • With Compassion

Best Practices:

  • In a timely fashion
  • With certainty
  • Go.  Do NOT Call.
  • Don’t use euphemisms; do use “dead,” “killed,” etc…
  • Never notify a child
  • Never use a child or family member as a translator
  • Be direct, simple, and honest
  • Provide written information when possible

People’s reactions to the death of a family member can be very unpredictable.  Always take a partner or department chaplain.  In Counseling Crime Victims, author L. Miller identified five types of family reactions when faced with the trauma of a death notification. They are:

  1. The Contemptuous Family – They cope with adversity by getting upset, berating and blaming each other and denying the existence of problems.
  2. The Brittle Family – Members are reluctant to depend on one another for support and understanding.
  3. The Hierarchical Family – This family functions with a sense of internal unity and purpose but with little flexibility in roles and responsibilities.
  4. The Enduring Family – This family relies on faith, typically, religious faith to deal with tragedy.
  5. The Functional Family – When faced with trauma, this family supports and bolsters more severely affected family members while working harmoniously to afford support and caring to one another.

I have literally watched multiple arriving family members fall to the sidewalk one after another after another at a death notification scene.  At another notification, when I told an elderly woman her grown son had been stabbed to death in a bar fight, she calmly made us popcorn and coffee and went on to tell me what a waste of a life her son had been.  We watched Wheel of Fortune.  I left when I was sure her reaction was genuine.

When receiving an assist call from another jurisdiction for a death notification, it is important to obtain a general statement of how the death occurred.  If it is not relayed in a teletype, call the investigating officer at that agency and get at least a brief accounting of how the person died.  This way you are able to give the family basic information in person, before referring them to the agency contact.

If you must deliver a death notification related to a law enforcement action, know the point at which your presence is only escalating the situation.  Give the message, but do not try to speculate about the incident, mitigate the police response, or blame the victim/suspect for the death.

As a detective, the hardest notifications for me were in child death cases.  My best advice is to steel yourself to be professional and keep your own emotions in check.  If you are investigating the suspicious death of a child, you must not let their parental grieving interfere with your objectivity as an investigator.  I have found compassion and suspicion are not mutually exclusive.

Death notifications are not easy.  Delivering the message properly and with respect can help to ease everyone’s burden.


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