Police officers get sensitivity training on breaking bad news to victims' kin

April 03, 1994|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County Police Pfc. Paul Yodzis remembers the time '' he had to notify a family he had known for years about the motorcycle accident that killed their son -- an old Glenelg High School friend.

"I was shocked when I saw his license on the investigator's desk at 7 a.m.," said Private Yodzis, who works in the department's traffic section. "I knew it couldn't be good. It was tough because it was people I know."

Law enforcement officials and victims' advocates agree that the most difficult communication between police and citizens occurs during death notifications.

Many departments don't have formal debriefing sessions for officers to deal with their own pain and fears.

However, the Howard Police Department has a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing team to counsel troubled officers, firefighters and other emergency personnel. County police and fire Chaplain George Grimm, who is often called upon to console victims' families, as well as police officers and firefighters, said: "You almost end up playing it by ear depending on the family's response, which can range from anger to denial. . . . Bearers of news can be traumatized by a family's response."

Private Yodzis was one of more than 200 officers who participated in a seven-hour seminar in Ellicott City last week aimed at teaching them how to deliver the worst possible news with as much sensitivity as possible.

Speakers also lectured on post-traumatic stress disorder -- an often devastating effect of psychologically painful events, such as car crashes, shootings, fires or drownings -- on both emergency workers and victims' families.

Sponsored by the Maryland office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, much of the seminar was based on information provided by victims' families, said Janice Harris Lord, director of victim programs for MADD's national office.

"When you do a death notification, you have to be a real person," Ms. Lord said. "Many officers don't cry. Some do. Families appreciate that. It shows you're a real person."

In 14 years on the force, Baltimore County Officer Patrick H. Zito has seen more than 70 fatal traffic accidents. But he says the hardest part of handling fatal wrecks is bringing the news to victims' relatives.

"A lot of times people don't want to accept the sudden death of a loved one," Officer Zito said. "It's not like cancer where they are expecting death. They might be making plans for dinner and then all of a sudden their whole world has changed. They just want a chance to say goodbye."

Some officers keep their feelings behind a hard shell they've formed from seeing so many tragedies, creating internal tension for themselves, Ms. Lord said.

In fact, she said, because most police departments do not have formal or adequate debriefing sessions for officers to talk about their anxiety, many of them take their worries home, where it often disrupts family life, she said.

Officers often are told to confide in police chaplains or police psychologists, but many fear those conversations will go in their files and refrain from doing so.

Bonnie Cook, of the Howard MADD chapter, said some emergency workers "feel like people view them as terrible" because they have to deliver bad news. But survivors sometimes feel attached to officers who may have been the last to see their loved one alive, Ms. Cook said.

One of the biggest complaints from bereaved families are chaplains or clergy members who say that a tragedy was "God's will," said Portia Cox, who heads the Prince George's County Police Department's victim-witness assistance program.

Victims' advocates say officers sometimes make one of the biggest mistakes by lying to families, or telling them what they want to hear, to spare their feelings. Relatives then keep a false sense of hope alive and are inevitably hit by a harsh reality.

Natural Resources Police Sgt. Sharon Brannock recalled a July 4, 1992, accident in which a 4-year-old boy fell off a boat and drowned in the Chester River while his parents watched fireworks.

"They were filled with 'ifs,' " Sergeant Brannock said. "What if he had on a life jacket, what if they had been watching him. They were still hoping that there was time for us to find him and revive him. Of course, there was not."

Victims' advocates and police have long debated whether families should be allowed to see a victim's body or the photographs taken at accident and crime scenes.

"Many folks have a tremendous need to know, to put together what happened to their loved ones," Ms. Lord said.

The trauma can be worse for families whose relatives' bodies are missing, said Capt. Tammy S. Broll, of the Natural Resources Police.

The body of one of two men who drowned last fall after their small fishing boat capsized in the Chester River still has not been found.

Captain Broll said the family still calls and asks about search procedures.

"It's very difficult because they're reaching out for someone to help them deal with their grief and loss," Captain Broll said. "The officer has to deal with grief, too, but also with a little guilt and anxiety for not being able to find the body."

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