Writers know that being a cop is tough; that it can be boring and mind-numbing. There’s paperwork. The five seconds it takes to make a routine arrest can mean five hours of report writing. There are also car chases, hold-up alarms and bar fights. These don’t happen often but when they do cops get the chance to test their skills. But there’s another challenge that cops don’t want to face yet must deal with all too often. They’re the death notifications, and cops and writers need to know how to handle them.
You’re at the scene of a horrific auto accident—car vs. pedestrian. A young man stepped in front of a SUV doing sixty. The fire engine and ambulance sirens have long since faded. The medical examiner has declared the teen—or what’s left of him—dead. “PSA,” she mutters while gesturing at the dismembered corpse. “PSA – Person Scattered About.” It’s a grisly scene and some make grim jokes to keep sane. The body is removed. The elderly driver of the SUV is taken to the ER after he complains of chest pains. The accident reconstructionist has taken his photos and measurements, and the wrecker has tugged the SUV onto its lift-back for removal to a storage facility. There the car will be weighed and gone over with infinite care. But others will do that. In the meantime you’ve got a job to perform, one that must be done with infinite care—you’ve got to notify the young man’s parents that their nineteen year old son, the star lacrosse player and straight-A student, is dead.
Now what? Unfortunately, there is no best way to handle a death notification. There are only tired-and-proven ways, and bad ways.
The prevailing wisdom dispensed in police academies more than thirty years ago suggested it was best to keep it brief. Tell the survivors what they’ve already surmised after answering that 3:00 a.m. knock at the door. You say, “Good morning, sir.” Then you lock eyes with the mother. “Good morning, ma’am.” You give a slight nod toward the mother because mothers always know. Always. Then you verify that you’re talking to the right parents—if there is such thing as “right” in this situation. You ask, “Is your son William Smith?” The father fidgets with his glasses while the mother keeps her eyes on yours. Finally, you begin. “Your son was involved in an automobile accident a short time ago.” Then you tell them. “I’m sorry. He’s dead.”
Just like that.
And you’ve shattered the parents’ world.
All cops knew the job was dangerous when they pinned on the badge—and writers know it too. But this is a danger that cops prefer not to deal with, yet they have no choice. It’s going to happen, again and again. So what is the “better” way to handle this—whether in real life or on the pages of fiction?
Begin with mind-set. A cop has to get his or her mind in a proper mode for dealing with the pain that’s about to come for the survivors as well as for the cop. First, you resort to the comfort of routine. You stop for a cup of coffee. Not that you need the caffeine; you’re already amped. But you stop anyway. You take that first sip, then grimace and say, “Ugh” whether you mean it or not, and toss it in the trash can. Then you start your cruiser and head toward an address that’s much closer than you hoped, robbing you of the time you still need to prepare yourself.
Here’s the thing. And it’s important. We’re not being robbed. If anything, we’re about to become the robber—the cruel thief of someone’s dreams for their child. So we begin by losing the self-pity. This is all about the survivors, not us. We think back on previous notifications and ask, “How did those come off? What lessons did I learn?” And then we’re there; we’ve arrived at the house on the darkened street at 3:00 a.m., and before we know it we’re knocking on the door. Now what?
- Introduce yourself. It’s obvious from your uniform that you’re a cop but if there’s ever a time to personalize yourself, this is it. “Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I’m Trooper Brown and I need to speak with you.”
- Next. Verify. You’ve got the victim’s license but you still make sure. “Is William Smith your son?” You should confirm the date of birth and ask for a brief physical description. Once you’re sure, you tell them. “Your son was involved in an automobile accident a short time ago.” Be precise. Don’t use terms such as “crash” or “pile-up.” Saying “automobile accident” instead of “crash” provides them with a brief moment to understand that something has happened—and your use of professional language helps prepare them for the dreaded news they still hope isn’t about to come.
- Then you tell them. Clear, concise and to the point. You get it out, because you don’t want to prolong their agony. Still, you need to make it clear. “I’m sorry. Your son is dead.” In this fashion you let them know that there are no false hopes to cling to. You didn’t say, “He’s been hurt and um, they took him to a hospital and um, the doctors worked on him but um . . .”
- And then you provide pertinent details and offer assistance. You might call a neighbor or a spiritual adviser. Perhaps you can have a taxi bring them to wherever the body of their son has been taken.
- More often than not, the survivors will whisper, “Thank you,” and quietly close the door. That’s it. You’ve completed the task. You return to your cruiser, notify communications that the next-of-kin have been informed, then drive off with your thoughts.
Try to Avoid
- Don’t begin with, “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this . . .” Again, this duty is all about them, not you. Don’t diminish the dignity they seek by implying that this is a chore and that you’re sorry that you would rather not be there.
- Avoid a mix-up. Confirm the address and the people involved. Sounds simple, but horror stories abound where an officer knocks on the wrong door. As soon as someone answers the officer blurts, “Sorry to be the one to tell you this but your wife’s just been killed. ‘Bye now.”
- Maintain eye contact. This is a painful moment but there’s nothing to be ashamed of. More importantly, this is when professional peace officers can demonstrate the compassionate side of law enforcement. Once again, the instant a mother sees you standing there, they know and will watch your eyes for clues. Don’t look away. Instead, give ‘em your eyes along with the compassion that’s in them. She will understand. She might not ever thank you personally or verbalize the message that’s transpired, but at least you’ve acknowledged the dignity of her soul; at least you’ve given her a portion of yours.
- If asked for details about a violent death or, for example, a suicide, don’t say, “Your daughter just killed herself.” Offer facts instead. “Neighbors heard a shot and called the local police. They arrived and found her on the bed with a revolver in her hand. They’re still investigating.” It’s not much, but at least you’ve avoided categorizing this as a suicide, a notion that can be more painful than news of the death itself. And—it might not be a suicide. That’s why it’s still under investigation. As Sgt. Friday said, “Just the facts, sir.”
- Should you knock on a neighbor’s door first, on the chance that they’re friends of the family that you’re about to give the news to? Probably not. Even if you’re personally aware of a close relationship between the neighbors, it’s not a good idea to involve an outside party. You’re there for an official purpose—to notify next-of-kin of a death—and certain social machineries will begin to grind once you’ve given them “the word.” Keep others out of it at first, but suggest to the survivors that they call someone for comfort.
- The death scene might have been so gruesome that you’ve gotten blood on your uniform. You’re going to clean-up first, of course. But in the confusion, and when you’ve got other issues on your mind, you might not have a chance. Explain the problem to another officer and ask him or her to make the notification for you.
Then you write your report. Or as a writer, you create that scene. If done properly, both the cop and the writer have shown something—professionalism, creativity in the approach, and an authentic portrayal of a sad reality. And, the cop and the writer have shown compassion. It’s why cops wear the badge; it’s why people read the stories that writers create.
Thanks to Putin the cold war is heating up. Earlier this week a Russian-built surface to air missile blasted a civilian airliner from the sky, killing all 298 aboard. Now the saber-rattling has begun with eerie echoes of the show of sabers that resulted in the outbreak of World War One. That was in August 1914 – 100 years ago. I posted this article sometime back and its relevance to current events is obvious. Here’s the article:
There’s a community on this planet that’s been targeted by nuclear missiles countless times. The targeting isn’t a computer simulation or the conceptual paradigm of some faceless think-tank. The place I speak of is real, and if missiles are ever made ready to fly in Korea or the Middle East, residents of Kwajalein Atoll should be on the short-list of talk-show experts. I should know. I’m among the few who’ve lived there.
Kwajalein is an isolated chain of coral islands buried deep within the Central Pacific. It’s a genuine tropical paradise whose several islands possess exotic, wonderfully textured names, such as Omelek, Gagan and Illeginni. Coconut palms sway in balmy breezes and furiously blue, green and turquoise waters compete with talcum powder beaches for the eye’s favor. Tranquility runs rampant.
Kwajalein is all this and more; Kwajalein is also a target. The United States test-fires its ICBMs—Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles—at Kwaj, and the tracking and telemetry equipment that sprout from beneath the palms possess equally alien appellations—Altair and Tradex and Super Radot, among them.
The end of the Cold War supposedly meant freedom from nuclear death; all that has changed thanks to North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. But Kwajalein is an isolated lagoon, and isolation cushions the impact of current events. The tests command everyone’s attention, and discussions are matter-of-fact. Missions are routinely announced in the island paper. Warning, the announcements begin; a hazard area will be in effect in the lagoon’s mid-atoll corridor tonight due to incoming MIRVs. MIRVs—Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles—are the warheads, and up to ten of these City Busters can be packed into a single ICBM. Just be sure to substitute dummy warheads for the real thing, and fire away.
Open the pod bay door, HAL.
On a battlefield soldiers yell, “Incoming!” to warn of inbound artillery. On Kwajalein however, the announcement of a mission means it’s time to form “incoming parties.” It means groups of five to fifteen lug ice chests and barbecue grills to the nearest beach; they snap open cans of beer as cooks slap hamburger patties down to sizzle. The talk is festive, and laughter mingles freely with the intoxicating blend of burgers and bougainvillea. The smiles on faces bronzed deep by the constant sun are radiant; the trades blow cool air across the parties. Day-glo Frisbees and tattered footballs fly between leaping youths. Giggly children chase each other as watchful parents keep sight of them
Daylight eventually capitulates to dusk, and as the time for the missile re-entry draws near the athletics, the banter and particularly the laughter fade away. It’s as if a Fourth of July crowd has grown silent in anticipation of that first cluster of iridescent reds, blues and shimmering golden spiders. The revelers search the sky.
Fourth of July crowds can see their rockets being launched, but Kwajalein’s rockets take off from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, 5000 miles away. There is no whoosh, only an odd star that suddenly appears seventy-five miles overhead among the constellations. With a heart stopping jolt it blossoms into a super-nova. The beach partiers watch raptly as the MIRVs streak toward their targets at more than 13,000 mph.
There are no “ooohs” or “ahhhs.”
The MIRVs race toward their targets with streaks of white-hot vapor trailing behind each. Three, four, five of them zip past, and all the natural similes are there I suppose—that an angry Thor has been roused from perpetual slumber, or that God Himself has thrust His hand into the great pickle barrel that we call the Pacific Ocean.
The MIRVs strike the lagoon with furious kinetic energy. Sometimes in their wake there is this—a murmuring sound, a desiccated sigh that travels across the lagoon on the backs of the trades. That noise is haunting. It is every freight train or crying child or howling wolf that leaps, fleetingly, from the recesses of our memories.
The whispers eventually fade. A tentative burst of applause is followed by scattered talk of nuclear blackmail. The crowds move away. Conversations are muted. Many in the crowd are withdrawn, their faces grim. Mothers and fathers hug their offspring with something more than simple tenderness; they seem to engulf their children as though their arms are protective shields. The gesture, born of instinct, is so inadequate. The children, too, are hushed. They neither laugh nor shout as they had moments earlier, but look to their parents for a reassurance that does not exist.
It is impossible not to think of T.S. Eliot:
. . . This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper . . .
The crowd disappears. The party—this one at least—is over.
I’m proud to announce that my last thriller, Cobra Clearance, is now a finalist for the Royal Palm Literary Award. The prize will be announced on October 25, 2014. I’m also proud to add that my editor, Jean Jenkins, deserves the credit for getting me on that list of finalists. Thanks, J.J.!
True crime stories—many of us read ‘em, some write ‘em. In the April 2014 article about the missing Malaysia Air flight, I discussed the criminal investigator’s maxim that it’s always SOP to look behind all doors at a crime scene. There’s a body on the floor? Then the investigator better open that closet door which is near the body, because he or she never knows what they might discover behind it. This leads to the trial of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. There’s been a lot of testimony and speculation about whether Pistorius murdered Reeva, or accidentally killed her while defending his home against an intruder. A big question mark hovers over his version, but in fact the answer has been there all along—and it’s all about that closed bathroom door.
Ah yes, that door. Locked from within by the victim while she used the facility. At least that’s his story—a part of it, anyway. Overall, Pistorius asserts that he was sleeping when he heard an intruder crashing through the bathroom window. He claims he didn’t know of Reeva’s presence in that bathroom, and in fear for his safety at the hands of an as-yet unseen criminal, he grabbed a pistol and began shooting through the closed door. Of course, it was only Reeva behind that closed and locked door, and she died from gunshot wounds from that hail of bullets.
The defendant’s story is plausible at face value. Except for one tiny detail; the question that’s not been asked; the point that none of the talking heads or investigators have raised. And the question is this: why would a woman who has been having intimate relations with a man who has no legs and would therefore not be all that prone to impulsively leave the bed—why would a woman in that situation feel the need to lock that bathroom door?
Come on—how many couples lock the bathroom door when they go inside to use the toilet? What would compel someone to seek such modesty in the wake of a long-term intimate relationship with the only other person in the house? I can’t think of anyone who has ever expressed that need. Furthermore, the need to lock a bathroom door when that only other person in the house is asleep and has no legs should have raised any number of red flags.
That mainstay of philosophy, Occam’s Razor, argues that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. And in the final analysis, Reeva was not likely to lock that bathroom door unless she was in fear of physical harm. It’s just that simple—because Pistorius was attacking her. And that’s why she locked the door.
This site is dedicated toward writing but there are times when it’s necessary and proper to stray from a baseline in order to hold a line against nonsense. This is one of those times.
On July 2, 2014, the CEO of Target Stores announced that “Bringing firearms to Target creates an environment that is at odds with the family-friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create.” This applies even in places where people may lawfully carry concealed weapons. The decision follows protests organized by a gun control group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. In recent months they’ve convinced many other major American companies to take a stance on guns.
U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) was quick to issue the following knee-jerk statement regarding Target’s new policy: “I am pleased that Target has announced its commitment to prioritize customer safety by asking guests not to bring firearms into Target stores. As noted in a letter to Target’s CEO last month after a loaded gun was found in the toy aisle of a South Carolina Target store, when policies are not in place to prohibit firearms in stores, everyone is at risk. Today’s announcement demonstrates a strong sense of responsibility by Target’s management, and follows the customer-friendly approach other companies, such as Starbucks and Chipotle, have taken to prohibit firearms in their establishments. The fight against gun violence in our communities isn’t something any one person or organization can take on alone. I applaud Target for the implementation of this policy, and encourage other retailers to follow their example. “I also want to recognize the advocates, consumers, and everyday citizens who pushed Target to ban guns in its stores. These advocates are working tirelessly to encourage Congress and private organizations to take a stand against gun violence, and I’m proud to stand with them every step of the way.”
This is all warm and fuzzy, but the Senator’s statement is so full of erroneous, impulsive demands for actions that it’s frightening. And while Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America might have good intentions, they’re thinking with their emotions and not with facts. In previous articles, I’ve pointed out that it’s not guns that are creating the violence in America. The reasons are far deeper than the existence of firearms, and by taking a popular stand rather than a leadership role, Senator Murphy has violated a sacred trust to act responsibly in his government post.
Yes, a loaded firearm was found in the children’s section of a Target store—a chain that features a target as its logo, by the way—and suddenly people are giving credence to that old saying, “When in doubt, run around and scream and shout.” But here’s the thing: nobody has pointed out the obvious—that responsible parents teach their children not to touch anything with a potential for danger—as parents once did before blaming others for problems became the norm.
If the good Senator from Connecticut is concerned about firearms left inside stores, should we then disarm all local, state and federal law enforcement officers, simply because some of them regularly leave issued firearms inside lavatory stalls in malls and even on aircraft? Yeah, it happens all the time, and using Senator Murphy’s knee-jerk logic, it makes sense to disarm all cops. Otherwise a child might find one of their unattended firearms.
Target doesn’t want customers to be lawfully armed in its stores. Yet one month ago in Las Vegas a young husband/wife team murdered two cops while they were eating lunch. Then they fled into a nearby Wal-Mart, where an armed customer tried to stop them but was killed as a result. Yeah, violent criminals are everywhere—and now they’ll be coming to a Target store near you. Yep, that store—the one with the prominent logo.
CEOs and U.S. Senators who push for policies not founded in fact resemble the extremists who made it more difficult to end the war in Vietnam with unqualified public statements. Here’s what Henry Kissinger said about this in his memoirs: “The old . . . Establishment thus abandoned its preeminent task, which is to contribute balanced judgment, long-term perspective, and thoughtful analysis to the public discussion of our international responsibility [to lead].” Kissinger adds, “As a result of this abdication, the so-called peace movement came to be driven by a relatively tiny group of radicals, whose public support in the country was close to nil.” Put another way, “That which is popular is not always right—and that which is right is not always popular.”
What is right? I’m not sure I have all the answers. But I do have nearly forty years of public safety experience. I’ve lived in a war zone. I hold a graduate degree in history. And nearly every law enforcement professional I know feels we should make it easier for people to lawfully carry weapons, not harder. That’s because we understand that there are too many nut-jobs, vicious criminals and terrorists out there who are quite willing to turn unarmed citizens into victims, and . . . there aren’t enough cops out there to stop them.
The bottom line is this: as a student of history I’m convinced that violence in America escalated around 1980 for reasons that have very little to do with the availability of guns. I’ve outlined my theories in recent postings and others are free to disagree. But what none of us are free to do is to avoid the problem. We have to man-up and face the fact that studying the problem and doing some soul-searching are key to ending today’s violence—a wave of violence that increasingly incorporates not guns, but home-made bombs and kitchen knives. But don’t go by my word—just ask any kid with access to the ‘net, and he or she can instantly pull-up how-to sites on bomb making—and they’ll do it in a New York second. Then they can reveal sites that cater to children and young adults, but advocate violence.
Today’s politically correct nonsense has got to stop. Men and women need to stand up and put an end to the misguided, ostrich-in-the-sand approach to curb violence that Senator Murphy has demonstrated. Otherwise, Target stores—and other politically correct businesses and groups—will turn you into someone’s target.