Experienced law officers still struggle with the ‘the visit’
by Travis Svihovec
Delivering the news of a death is never easy.
Jim Spiry remembers the mother of an accident victim who screamed uncontrollably for several minutes. Corson County Sheriff Keith Gall recalls the 24-hour period when three people died in accidents. For South Dakota State Trooper Tom Hannan, it was the call on Christmas Eve.
When they have to deliver the news of an unexpected death, law enforcement personnel remember it.
“Nine times out of 10 it’s the middle of the night, you’re there, and they know it’s not good news,” Hannan, 38, of Selby said.
People in law enforcement deal with many situations, but there seems to be agreement among them that breaking that kind of news could be the hardest part of their job. It’s not just that they bring the bad news to a family or friends, though they say that’s certainly tough. It’s that they don’t have time to prepare. They don’t know how people will react to the news. And they don’t know how people will treat them in the coming months or years for bringing that news to them.
“It goes along with the job, and every reaction is different,” Hannan said. Some react with disbelief, some say thank-you and close the door. He estimates he’s had to deliver such news eight or nine times in his 15 years as a trooper. It’s the second worst thing about his job, he said.
“First is getting called to a fatal accident,” he said. “The second worst is if you have to deliver a death message.”
It’s something anyone in law enforcement has to be able to do without notice. In a small community, it means knocking on the door of a family he or she might have known for years. It also means they might know or work with family and friends of the victim.
Gall, 43, has been sheriff in Corson County for 20 years. He remembers talking to a McIntosh man one day and being called the next day to the scene where a tractor had tipped and burned.
“I had to deliver the message to his wife as she was out trying to find out where the fire was,” he said. Later that day, the father of one of Corson County’s volunteer ambulance crew died of a heart attack. That night, a local teenager died in a car accident. It was homecoming weekend.
“With young people, it’s really hard,” he said.
If a minister or priest is available, law enforcement personnel will try to have them accompany them to see the family. Spiry, 78, now retired but a veteran of more than 35 years in law enforcement, said he delivered the news of a death dozens of time.
“Every time it got harder,” he said.
The deaths might be the result of accidents on the highway, farm accidents, drowning, suicide or an unattended death. There were times when he had to advise the family that they should not see the body of a loved one because the accident was so severe.
“I can remember an incident where the mother never did see her daughter and to this day it bothers her,” Spiry said. “It was terrible.”
Some parts of the job will be similar each time: they have to deliver the news, they wait for a reaction, they offer to help or call someone.
“You just don’t prepare for it. It’s something that has to be done,” Spiry said. “When you tell them you just stand there, wordless. You tell them what happened, the family might break down and so on. You just stand there like a post. You tell them if there is anything they need or want, you will assist them.”
The only training Spiry and others in that era had was “on the job training.” “You handled it the best you could,” he said.
Today, law enforcement certification in South Dakota includes training in handling such situations. Training coordinator Greg Williams of the George S. Mickelson Criminal Justice Center in Pierre said trainees take part in discussions and learn from the experiences of law enforcement veterans during the 12-week certification course.
“There is some hands-on training,” Williams said, “as much as we can do in a training environment.”
The training stresses that the news should be delivered in person, in time, with certainty, and preferably by more than one person. They are taught to use plain language, compassion and empathy, and to follow up to help people find the assistance they need. They learn to avoid certain statements (“I know how you feel”), not to disempower (“you don’t want to do that”), and not to bring religious clichés into the conversation.
“It’s like going into an interview. You have to be prepared, think and plan,” Williams said. “We realize there’s nothing we can say to make it better. There’s a lot we can say to make it worse.”
Family members of a victim should not be left alone, and law enforcement has to be prepared to spend time with them to make sure they are safe.
“No two are ever the same,” Williams, a retired Air Force military policeman, said.
The job isn’t finished after the family has been informed. In small communities, a sheriff or state trooper will see those families in the future. Whether the family reacted calmly or not, they might associate the law enforcement person with the loss of their loved one.
“For a moment they put the blame on you,” Gall said. “We’re the ones that deliver the news and it’s something no one wants to hear. That’s all they can think of through the years.”
The family might also want details of the death. Because they want to be there in person, before a cell phone call is made or a picture is sent by cell phone, law enforcement might not have as many details as they’d like.
“Sometimes we have answers. Sometimes it frustrates them because we don’t,” Gall said. “But people are pretty understanding.”
Hannan said he’s never had anyone get angry with him but said it’s obvious that his presence can act as a trigger of sorts.
“You say hi and they just ignore you,” he said. “I bring back a memory they’d prefer not to associate me with.”
It’s only been in recent years that law enforcement personnel could get help dealing with their own feelings after delivering a death message. Gall and others in Corson County attended a debriefing after the deaths they dealt with during that 24-hour period. A critical incident stress debriefing team from Rapid City, trained to work with law enforcement and emergency responders, came to Corson County.
“That probably should occur a lot more often, but our resources are so far away,” he said. “And it’s foreign to us. We go back to work and then when you think about it, it’s tough on you mentally.”
Capt. Justin Jungwirth of the Mobridge Police Department is part of a CISD team based in Mobridge, who went through training at the criminal justice center in Pierre. Also on the team are dispatchers, emergency medical service personnel, a mental health professional and ministers. The team encourages participants to open up and share their thoughts and gives them guidance about the best way to cope.
“We let them know what they are feeling is normal, they’re not alone, and we’ve all been through it,” he said.
It’s a start in healing what Williams called a “scar of policing.” In years past, officers just returned to work.
“It was taboo to talk about your feelings,” he said. “We never looked at how we felt.”
That’s changing, he said. Trainers are trying to instill in new officers that they need to talk about how they are feeling instead of bottling those emotions. Some departments handle it internally. State troopers, for example, can contact a state chaplain if they wish.
“Everybody involved takes it personally. Over the years it’s never easy, but you learn coping skills better,” Hannan said.
Still, it’s something he wouldn’t miss if he never had to do it again.
“I don’t want to get good at it,” he said.
- Travis Svihovec