According to Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS), about 150 police officers are killed every year. That is three per state. The PIO must prepare for the inevitable. Most large departments have policies regarding officer deaths and how the department and the PIO will handle them. But most agencies are small and lack such policies. This will leave their PIO in a whirlwind of emotions and mess to clean up on his own, for better or worse.
The department needs to be able to offer counseling to the family and fellow officers. While a spouse or child will likely be most distraught after the death, fellow officers may also need some guidance when one of their own goes down. One idea might be to contact the organization, COPS, a nationally recognized support group for the families of fallen officers. There are COPS chapters in most states, and a PIO should familiarize himself with them before a tragic event occurs.
The COPS national office contacts each surviving family at least six times a year. The family also gets newsletters from the organization with messages of hope and encouragement and stories of survivors’ accomplishments since the death of the officer. COPS also sends a remembrance card to each survivor during the anniversary month of the officer’s death. Should the family need to talk to someone immediately, or years after the death, the group is there to listen.
Daryl Gates, in his book “Chief: My Life in the LAPD,” says he organized a family support group, which he says is his crowning achievement. He describes how after an officer dies, the officer’s captain goes to the family to tell them the news. And then after that, he goes. Gates said he always felt helpless and never knew what to say to the family. And he realized that while other officers may come around for a couple of months, there becomes a point where no one comes to visit anymore, and the widow feels abandoned and no longer has that support group.
Gates started a program where if an officer was ill, wounded or killed, the Los Angeles Police Department would do its best. If the officer wasn’t getting the proper care at the hospital, the department would hire a specialist. They even hire baby-sitters to help the families out. Gates said when an officer was shot in the abdomen and the department learned the wife was driving an old car with bald tires, they used the police memorial fund to recondition the car. They would also fly family members in, if needed. Gates said as captain, he always made sure to stop by the hospital and send cheerful cards to the officer’s home.
With the family support group, families of slain officers may join if they wish and offer themselves as support to other families going through the same things they went through. The LAPD gives all members an ID card, and they are invited to all social functions. There is someone in the department who is assigned to keep track of everything that is going on to make sure that those families are taken care of. The support group will watch the kids and help the families through their time of grief. “Best of all, they instinctively know the right things to say,” Gates writes.
Roger Wade, with the Travis County, TX Sheriff’s Office was a new PIO when his nightmare became reality. A SWAT officer was shot while serving a search warrant. For Travis County, it had been 20 years since an officer had died in the line of duty, and there was no policy in place concerning the handling of an officer’s death. Since then, some standard operating procedures have been put into place. The department now has a victim services unit that would go to the family and provide comfort and grief counseling.
The PIO would also step in to help and act as a spokesperson for the family or assist the family spokesperson with the media. The COPS Web site can also help a PIO with creating these types of policies. Even if a department already has a written policy, it might be helpful to read what other departments are doing to get an idea where there may be any gaps that need to be filled. The site also has links to each individual state’s death benefits.
Wade said that a PIO should play the “what if” games to keep on his toes and try to be possibly prepared, not only with dealing with the family but with the rest of the community as well. If something should happen, where would you get the information you need? How about if the incident occurred at 3am? And if a PIO wants to make his job a little easier, he should also keep in mind what the media will want to know and when they will need it by to meet deadlines.
Wade said to be ready to tell the media as much as you can. Quickly find out the facts and get information on the officer. Hold a press conference so that all the media can get all the facts at the same time. Besides the usual information about what happened that night, provide background information about the officer, what was he like, what did the sheriff say about his character/personality, etc. Even if the PIO does a press conference, also send out press releases to the media so that they get additional info as it comes out. The media will be interested in the visual aspect of the story, so send out a staff photo of the officer.
When dealing with the media frenzy that often follows an officer’s death, Wade said that a PIO may want meet with all the news crews and organize them, so that on the day of the funeral they don’t try to one-up each other—and everyone gets what they need. The same with the subsequent court case, a PIO may want to try and arrange one camera in the courtroom and allow all the media to pull from that footage.
Wade said that PIOs, even in a time of internal crisis, need to understand they have jobs to do and not to forget their responsibilities to the department. Despite being overwhelmed with concern and grief, Wade still had people to answer to. He said that above all, the agency owes the family of a fallen officer respect and dignity. “The family should be included and remembered always because they will be forever part of the agency, just like the fallen deputy is,” Wade said.
Christy Whitehead is a freelance writer/photographer based out of Jacksonville, FL. She worked for a time in public relations and has done freelance work for a daily newspaper for seven years. She can be reached at WritingArticles@aol.com.