The Unthinkable: Killed in the Line of Duty
by Chaplain David J. Fair, Ph.D., D.Min., BCETS, BCCC, BCSCR, BCFT, FAAETS


A 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 at large.

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.

• Felony assault
• 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 the officer.

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 dealing with.

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 their emotions.

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 in absolutes.

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 of need.

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 Column.

Fair serves of the board of the Academy of Certified Chaplains holding their certification as a level three master chaplain (ACMC-III)

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.