Police officers routinely face myriad situations involving death. For instance, an article on loss and its influence on law enforcement personnel described some of the disturbing events that a former officer experienced in the line of duty. These included encountering a girl who died from severe head trauma after being struck by a vehicle while snow sledding and a man who was dismembered after being hit by an oncoming train. In the second, particularly gruesome, instance, responding officers had to locate the victim’s severed body parts to identify him.
In many cases, officers’ contact with decedents includes witnessing the intense emotional suffering of the deceased’s relatives. Additionally, law enforcement personnel commonly experience the loss of fellow officers from on-duty fatalities and permanent, career-ending injuries. Further, like everyone, they must cope with deaths of loved ones in their personal lives.
As a result, officers’ wellness becomes significantly compromised because of the ongoing exposure to on- and off-duty deaths. In this article, the authors explore death and loss in law enforcement to help bring needed attention to this area of police wellness.
Danger, loss and death are embedded in a law enforcement career. From the onset of their initial training, officers learn about protecting themselves and the citizens they serve. They are instructed that survival on the streets is paramount and that even routine incidents may escalate to potentially life-threatening ones. During this training and annual refresher training, they receive consistent reminders pertaining to the criticality of physical survival.
Police equipment (e.g., body armor, firearms, Tasers) and bullet-proof windows in cruisers serve as additional reminders that officer or civilian safety may become jeopardized at any point. Thus, preparedness for survival is crucial.
Law enforcement officers are sworn and mandated to respond to critical incidents in which civilians must escape and, perhaps, receive emergency workers’ help. As a prime example, officers heroically responded to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Even though they knew the buildings could collapse at any moment, they remained on-site to save as many lives as possible. Similarly, in active shooting situations, officers will attempt to impede the shooter and save civilians, although they know that this may involve sacrificing their own lives.
Officers respond to many critical incidents over the course of their careers. They are exposed to loss directly or indirectly, often in a prolonged manner. Direct exposure includes, for instance, responding to shooting situations, investigating crime scenes involving dead bodies, and encountering motor vehicle fatalities.
Police can have indirect exposure to loss in different ways, such as writing reports or participating in judicial procedures. As another example, the main lobby of every police precinct and academy contains a memorial featuring the images of officers who have died in the line of duty. Even though these memorials rightly honor the heroic sacrifice made by these officers, they consciously or unconsciously remind current personnel that death and loss are facts of life in police work.