line of duty death. There is no bigger crisis
in law enforcement than an officer who has been
killed in the line of duty. The death affects
the officer’s family, the extended family
of the agency and/or department, and the community
When an officer dies it sends
shockwaves throughout the department and causes
major trauma. And, with this trauma comes the
repercussions of traumatic stress.
Two of the most likely immediate
reactions are shock and disbelief/denial. One
might struggle with thoughts such as “This
just couldn’t happen to him/her”
and/or “I was just talking to them last
night. He/she can’t be dead!”
Then the guilt. “I shouldn’t
have taken the day off. If I had been working
he wouldn’t have died”, and/or “If
we wouldn’t have argued he/she would have
been focused on his/her job”. The tormenting
thoughts of guilt can be endless.
The ever present bargaining
with God. “If you will only let him/her
live, I’ll never touch another drink”
and/or “I won’t ever complain about
the paperwork again”.
Eventually, acceptance comes.
But I’m getting ahead of the story.
There are at least three types
of line of duty deaths.
• Motor vehicle incident/ accident
• Heart Attack or other physical response
to the job
Although any death is a traumatic
loss to family and friends, the felonious assault
is perhaps the hardest to cope with. This is
because someone murdered an officer, a coworker,
a spouse, a father/mother, etc. Plain and simple.
Death can be through a shooting
or vehicular homicide. Regardless of the type
of death, this leaves someone to blame, and
usually the criminal justice system to deal
with the trauma. As if investigations, paperwork,
funeral, and heartache were not enough, then
all those involved must endure the judicial
process of this event. A trial of a murderer,
especially when one has become emotionally involved,
can re-traumatize the family and friends of
An auto accident is bad enough.
Usually, there is some reason for the accident
– there is likely some form of explanation.
Likewise, if the death is due to health issues,
there is often a precipitating cause, such as
extreme stress. Regardless of cause, anger may
well be directed at the agency or department
the officer worked for.
In my experience as a law enforcement
officer and police chaplain, I have worked line
of duty deaths. I have made notifications to
family members when their officer has been shot.
To be sure, there is typically a lot of initial
support for the officer’s family. And,
with law enforcement, it is very much indeed
a family. It is frequently called, ‘The
Thin Blue Line or Blue Circle”. Police
work is a sub-culture all of its own. Few if
any outsiders are trusted.
The 80/20 principal is in effect.
Officers deal day in and day out with other
people’s problems. They see and experience
the worst of the worst. They deal with the same
people over and over again. So much so that
officers begin to believe that everyone “out
there” is bad. It’s us (the cops)
against them (the crooks).
Fact is 20% of the people cause
80% of the problems. But when an officer deals
over and over with the same people day after
day, it is easy to see how everyone looks like
a “dirt bag”.
The truth of course is everyone
isn’t bad. At least 80% of the people
we meet are good. The perception just gets warped.
Thus, the 80/20 principal. But perceptions are
truth to the one perceiving. So those on the
outside dealing with law enforcement trauma
need to understand the officer’s perception.
Don’t allow your own perceptions to interfere
when working with officers. It’s not about
what you think or feel, it is about their perceptions.
Most often you are there for
crisis intervention .You deal with it through
respect and education. Respect for the officer
and the job he/she does, and educating yourself
about that job. The more you understand the
police sub-culture, the more apt you are to
have your help accepted in a trauma situation
involving an officer.
The families of surviving officers
in the department are always impacted. In a
recent line of duty death, the spouses of those
officers immediately wanted their husbands/wives
to quit the job. And it’s understandable.
They see the pain and grief the family of the
deceased officer is going through, and they
want their officer out, now! Problem is, it
only adds to the stress of the moment.
The usual signs and symptoms
of an acute stress reaction are there. Depending
on many variables, stress reactions can last
from a few hours to weeks. How close a person
was to the officer, their own personal trauma
history, social support system, and general
health are big factors in how each individual
handles the death of an officer.
You will find the physical,
behavioral, emotional, and spiritual reactions
are there, as with most any trauma. When it
is one of your own it is worse. The signs and
symptoms are seemingly more severe and appear
to take longer to resolve.
Those who are not involved
in law enforcement on a day to day basis, but
who may be called to help an individual officer,
family member, friend or an entire department
should understand what they are going to be
Another key component other
than the 80/20 principal is cops don’t
like to be counseled. They believe it is a sign
of weakness to seek help. Frankly, they want
to be in control, and being out of control can
potentially throw them into a panic. They will
struggle to take back that control.
They refuse to be perceived
by others as weak. They are afraid other officers
will question if they will be there to back
them up in a pinch. Cops are taught to restrain
The best thing an outsider can
do is move patiently through the process. Listen,
listen, and listen. When you are done listening,
listen some more. Be a sounding board. The key
thing is that you must be comfortable with silence,
something many of us aren’t.
They used to tell us in the
appliance sells business, when there is a pause
in the conversation, the first one to speak
looses. This is often true in dealing with officers.
If an officer is telling his/her story, and
there is a pause don’t be in a rush to
fill the space with words. Just let the officer
move at his/her own pace. Don’t rush the
process. The use of many words just to fill
a void doesn’t fix anything. Silence and
patience is far more powerful in the healing
process than speaking at the wrong time. Become
comfortable with silence and consider it to
be one of your greatest tools.
When listening, keep in mind
that officers tend to think in very black and
white terms, seldom in gray. They deal in absolutes.
Therefore you will need to set aside your own
ideas, meet them where they are at, and deal
Remember, the biggest part of
crisis intervention or counseling in dealing
with anyone who has experienced a trauma is
listening. My mom used to say, “God gave
you two ears and one mouth” that ought
to tell you something”.
Frequently just letting a person
who has experienced a trauma vent is all that
is necessary. Allowing them to talk is often
the best therapy. So let them talk. You don’t
have to provide the answer. You are not there
to “fix” anything. You are there
as a non-judgmental sounding board.
When an officer puts on his/her
uniform, kisses the spouse and kids goodbye,
and goes to work, never to come home again,
it takes a high toll on everyone around. A line
of duty death has far reaching effects on the
department. A line of duty funeral is a very
intense and a huge event that can draw thousands
of officers from many miles away. Hopefully
the department has a police funeral coordinator/consultant
or has access to one that can smoothly handle
the planning/coordinating of such an event.
The American Association of
Police Officers offers a funeral coordinator/consultant
at no cost. The director is John Cooley, a retired
LAPD Sergeant. He has handled countless line
of duty deaths prior to retiring from the LAPD
and continues to do so know as a consultant.
He can be contact through www.policeusa.com.
I’m also available to
any agency or department who needs help with
trauma, grief and/or loss. I may be contacted
at my email address below.
If training is needed to learn
how to assist departments, officers, families
of officers, etc. resources are available through
a number of agencies. Both the National Center
for Crisis Management and the American Academy
of Experts in Traumatic Stress have a number
of tremendous certification programs. These
programs are well designed to assist and/or
equip officers and departments in their time
The bottom line is grief and
trauma take time to resolve. Police officers
are human just like anyone else. You can be
of great help to an officer, agency or community.
But if you are serious about helping, prepare
yourself and be ready. You may be the one who
receives the call, ‘There has been a line
of duty death…..”.
David J. Fair holds a PhD
from Bethel Bible College and Seminary. He is
a member of the American Academy of Expert’s
in Traumatic Stress/ National Center for Crisis
Management. He holds board certifications in:
Expert in Traumatic Stress, School Crisis Response,
Crisis Chaplain, and Forensic Traumatology.
Additionally he is a Fellow of the AAETS.
Fair is Board Certified
in Homeland Security Level IV (CHS-IV) and serves
on the curriculum committee of the Board of
Certification in Homeland Security. He is also
a member of the editorial review board of Inside
Homeland Security where he writes the Chaplain’s
Fair serves of the board
of the Academy of Certified Chaplains holding
their certification as a level three master
Chaplain Fair is immediate
past chair of the International Conference Police
Chaplain’s Educational Committee and a
former board member. Dr. Fair is Chaplain Emeritus
of the Brownwood, Texas Police Department and
a Chaplain for the Texas Department of Public
Safety and a reserve officer/chaplain for the
Brown County Sheriff’s Department.
Fair is a professor for
Bethel Bible College and Seminary and on the
facility of the Wayne E. Oates Institute.
Chaplain Fair can be contacted at ChaplainDFair@gmail.com.