Death and Loss in Law Enforcement
By Konstantinos Papazoglou, Ph.D., Peter I. Collins, M.D., Daniel M. Blumberg, Ph.D., Mike Schlosser, Ph.D., and George Bonanno, Ph.D.
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.1
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.
Exposure to Death and Loss
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.2 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.3
Evidence they secure and document, reports they write, news stories they hear and testimony they provide in criminal trials serve as aide-mémoire of a specific incident and are thematic of loss. Such reminders cause a prolonged exposure to death and demonstrate how law enforcement work is death-saturated.
Likewise, in addition to job-related losses, officers must deal with loss in their personal lives. For example, this can involve the off-duty death of a colleague from illness or suicide. That officer is missed both as a colleague and as a friend.
Similarly, officers grieve the deaths of loved ones. In some cases, these losses mirror incidents to which they respond on duty (e.g., a fatal traffic accident or accident at home by an elderly person). Officers commonly respond to calls in which the decedent reminds them of their own loss, or the situation is eerily similar to the circumstances in which their loved one passed away.
Impact on Officers
The constant exposure to death and loss can have a cumulative impact on officers and their performance.4 Officers may not cope adequately with the resulting emotions. In turn, they will have more difficulty successfully regulating their emotions when interacting with the public, de-escalating potentially volatile confrontations and avoiding intrusive emotions that could impair their judgment in potential use-of-force encounters.
Foundationally, to regulate their emotions, officers must confront and successfully cope with undesirable feelings, such as grief and rage. The exposure to losses without the necessary resources to cope with their grief can be a recipe for officers to experience emotion dysregulation, which, beyond negatively impacting job performance, can intrude on their relationships with colleagues, family members and friends.
Research shows that loss exposure may impact law enforcement officers’ personal and professional lives in different ways. The authors offer tangible examples to help readers understand how prior research findings relate to law enforcement practice.
Dr. Collins is the operational forensic psychiatrist with the Ontario, Canada, Provincial Police and an associate professor in the Division of Forensic Psychiatry at the University of Toronto in Ontario.
Dr. Blumberg, a police psychologist, is an associate professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University in San Diego.
Dr. Schlosser is director of the Police Training Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Dr. Bonanno serves with Columbia University, Teachers College, in New York City as a professor; director of the Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab; and director of the Resilience Center for Veterans and Families.
For instance, officers responding to a violent crime scene may feel negative emotions, such as agitation and anger, toward perpetrators. This proves especially salient when victims include minors or elders because officers may identify them with their own family members (e.g., children, parents). This association often gives officers a strong urge to take action and resolve the case.5 On the other hand, officers who fail to save a civilian’s life may blame themselves or experience guilty feelings.
Additional research has focused extensively on the experiences of officers who have lost a colleague in the line of duty. Not only does the loss of a partner force officers to confront their own mortality but, for many, the pain can equal the loss of a spouse.6 Moreover, officers present at the time of their partner’s death are also highly likely to suffer from survivor’s guilt.7
Other behaviors have been documented among officers exposed to death and loss in the line of duty, most notably alcohol abuse and suicidal ideation and behavior. Researchers observed a significant increase in suicidal ideation and urgent care due to suicidal behaviors among officers who responded to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 terrorist attacks.8
Dr. George Bonanno’s comprehensive research on death and loss is also useful for understanding the death-saturated challenges in law enforcement. In one study, participants suffering from prolonged grief, a severe condition that impairs a person’s ability to function in important life domains, were less flexible regarding enhancing or suppressing their emotions — a strong indication of emotional dysregulation.9
Similarly, other research found that individuals suffering from prolonged grief were prone to general attentional bias away from happy faces.10 Additional studies found that persons suffering from prolonged grief cannot express either positive and negative emotions; further, they experience emotional dysregulation and disrupted emotional processes.11
Personal losses make it impossible for officers to “leave work at work and home at home.” Whenever such a loss occurs in an officer’s personal life, they find it difficult to grieve the loss while continuing to work effectively.12 Additionally, the grief process becomes complicated by comorbid conditions. For example, officers experience both loss and trauma when a sudden, unexpected or violent death of a loved one occurs.13 Not surprisingly, the symptoms of trauma and loss may become exacerbated and recovery inhibited when officers who faced such a personal loss must continue to conduct interviews, have meetings with prosecutors and testify in cases that involved similar types of deaths.14 Moreover, preexisting conditions, such as depression, anxiety or alcohol or drug dependence, can exacerbate officers’ trauma reactions and their experience of loss.
In contrast, findings have shown that resilient individuals dealing with the loss of a spouse react differently. They tend to be emotionally stable, less lonely, available to communicate with others and able to show greater capacity to experience comfort when recalling memories of the deceased.15
This body of research has significant implications for law enforcement professionals’ job performance, particularly considering the degree of emotional regulation required when interacting with civilians or attempting to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations. Indeed, emotional dysregulation can impair officers’ decision-making abilities, which can have dire consequences in cases requiring use of force. Emotional dysregulation can also have detrimental effects on officers’ relationships with their colleagues, family members and friends.
Recommendations for Prevention and Action
The authors recommend several suggestions for consideration by law enforcement agencies and personnel.
“Danger, loss and death are embedded in a law enforcement career.”
“ ... loss exposure may impact law enforcement officers’ personal and professional lives in different ways.”
- Following Dr. George Bonanno and his colleagues’ recommendations, resilience promotion should focus on targeted behaviors and on individuals who most likely will instill adaptation to death- or loss-related incidents.23 For instance, police leaders or health professionals may run focus groups or brief surveys to identify the parameters that would help officers maintain wellness despite exposure to death and loss.
In addition, organizations should assess officers who appear to be at higher risk of adverse outcomes from being exposed to death or loss in the line of duty and provide them with interventions tailored to their needs. For instance, officers with young children may respond to an incident where a child died or became severely wounded due to an accident or violent crime and, in turn, experience reactions that may need to be addressed.
- Despite its continued popularity in policing, evidence has proven that critical incident stress debriefings may do more harm than good.24 One study stated that no convincing evidence exists that psychological debriefing works and that studies of “individualized debriefing and comparative, nonrandomized studies of group debriefing have failed to confirm the method’s efficacy. Some evidence suggests that it may impede natural recovery. For scientific and ethical reasons, professionals should cease compulsory debriefing of trauma-exposed people.”25 The American Psychological Association agrees that psychological debriefing has no research support and is potentially harmful.26
“Due to the increased risk of prolonged grief reactions in policing, executives must recognize the problem and provide more than post-incident resources.”
Death and loss have a ubiquitous role in policing. Most officers enter the profession with the desire to help people, but their jobs regularly expose them to human tragedies that can leave some in a perpetual state of powerlessness. Due to the increased risk of prolonged grief reactions in policing, executives must recognize the problem and provide more than post-incident resources. Police officers can benefit from psychoeducation and preventative measures designed to boost resilience. Although exposure to death and loss are inevitable for police officers, there is much that can be done to prevent prolonged grief reactions.
Dr. Papazoglou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Dr. Collins at email@example.com, Dr. Blumberg at firstname.lastname@example.org, Dr. Schlosser at email@example.com and Dr. Bonanno at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 John Sugimoto and Kevin Oltjenbruns, “The Environment of Death and Its Influence on Police Officers in the United States,” Omega: Journal of Death and Dying 43, no. 2 (2001): 145-155, accessed September 11, 2020, https://doi.org/10.2190%2F5MXX-TY46-AYTQ-0X8W.
2 Konstantinos Papazoglou et al., “Inevitable Loss and Prolonged Grief in Police Work: An Unexplored Topic,” Frontiers in Psychology 11 (2020): 1178, accessed September 11, 2020, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01178.
5 Laurence Miller, “Line-of-Duty Death: Psychological Treatment of Traumatic Bereavement in Law Enforcement,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health 9, no. 1 (2007): 13-23, accessed September 11, 2020, https://ovc.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh226/files/media/document/imp_line_of_duty_death-508.pdf.
6 Jennifer C. Gibbs, James Ruiz, and Sarah A. Klapper-Lehman, “Police Officers Killed on Duty: Replicating and Extending a Unique Look at Officer Deaths,” International Journal of Police Science & Management 16, no. 4 (December 1, 2014): 277-287, accessed September 11, 2020, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1350/ijps.2014.16.4.346.
8 John M. Violanti et al., “Proximity to the 9/11 Terrorist Attack and Suicide Ideation in Police Officers,” Traumatology 12, no. 3 (2006): 248-254, accessed September 11, 2020, https://doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1177%2F1534765606296533.
9 Sumati Gupta and George A. Bonanno, “Complicated Grief and Deficits in Emotional Expressive Flexibility,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 120, no. 3 (2011): 635-643, accessed September 11, 2020, https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0023541.
10 Ashley B. Bullock and George A. Bonanno, “Attentional Bias and Complicated Grief: A Primed Dot-Probe Task with Emotional Faces,” Journal of Experimental Psychopathology 4, no. 2 (2013): 194-207, accessed September 11, 2020, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.5127/jep.020411.
11 Erica D. Diminich and George A. Bonanno, “Faces, Feelings, Words: Divergence Across Channels of Emotional Responding in Complicated Grief,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 123, no. 2 (2014): 350-361, accessed September 11, 2020, https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-22133-007.
12 Papazoglou et al.
13 Satomi Nakajima et al., “Complicated Grief in Those Bereaved by Violent Death: The Effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on Complicated Grief,” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 14, no. 2 (2012): 210-214, accessed September 11, 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3384450/pdf/DialoguesClinNeurosci-14-210.pdf.
14 Sandra E. Gibson, “Legal Caring: Preventing Retraumatization of Abused Children Through the Caring Nursing Interview Using Roach’s Six Cs,” International Journal for Human Caring 12, no. 4 (2008): 32-37, accessed September 11, 2020, https://connect.springerpub.com/content/sgrijhc/12/4/32; and Thomas Wenzel, “Forensic Evaluation of Sequels to Torture,” Current Opinion in Psychiatry 15, no. 6 (2002): 611-615, accessed September 11, 2020, https://journals.lww.com/co-psychiatry/Abstract/2002/11000/Forensic_evaluation_of_sequels_to_torture.9.aspx.
15 Anthony D. Mancini, Beyza Sinan, and George A. Bonanno, “Predictors of Prolonged Grief, Resilience, and Recovery Among Bereaved Spouses,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 71, no. 12 (December 2015): 1245-1258, accessed September 11, 2020, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jclp.22224.
16 Konstantinos Papazoglou, Peter I. Collins, and Brian Chopko, “Mindfulness and Officer Health, Job Performance, and Well-Being,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, January 17, 2018, accessed September 11, 2020, https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/mindfulness-and-officer-health-job-performance-and-well-being; and Brian Chopko, Konstantinos Papazoglou, and Robert Schwartz, “Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy Approaches for First Responders: From Research to Clinical Practice,” American Journal of Psychotherapy 71, no. 2 (October 2018): 55-64, accessed September 11, 2020, https://psychotherapy.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.20180015.
17 Christiane Manzella and Konstantinos Papazoglou, “Training Police Trainees About Ways to Manage Trauma and Loss,” International Journal of Mental Health Promotion 16, no. 2 (March 15, 2014): 103-116, accessed September 11, 2020, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14623730.2014.903609.
18 Judith P. Andersen et al., “Mental Preparedness as a Pathway to Police Resilience and Optimal Functioning in the Line of Duty,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience 17, no. 3 (2015): 624-627, accessed September 14, 2020, https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/mental-preparedness-as-a-pathway-to-police-resilience-and-optimal-functioning-in-the-line-of-duty-1522-4821-1000243.pdf; and Judith P. Andersen et al., “Applying Resilience Promotion Training Among Special Forces Police Officers,” SAGE Open 5, no. 2 (June 12, 2015), accessed September 14, 2020, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244015590446.
19 Steven M. Toepfer and Kathleen Walker, “Letters of Gratitude: Improving Well-Being Through Expressive Writing,” Journal of Writing Research 1, no. 3 (November 2009): 181-198, accessed September 14, 2020, https://www.jowr.org/articles/vol1_3/JoWR_2009_vol1_nr3_Toepfer_Walker.pdf.
20 Konstantinos Papazoglou and Judith P. Andersen, “Compassion Fatigue and Compassion Satisfaction Among Police Officers: An Understudied Topic,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience 17, no. 3 (2015): 661-663, accessed September 14, 2020, https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/73654/1/compassion_fatigue.pdf.
22 Manzella and Papazoglou.
23 George A. Bonanno, Maren Westphal, and Anthony D. Mancini, “Loss, Trauma, and Resilience in Adulthood,” Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics 32, no. 1 (2012): 189-210, accessed September 14, 2020, https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/springer/argg/2012/00000032/00000001/art00010;jsessionid=57rdsfau8qkct.x-ic-live-02.
24 Peter Collins, “Psychological Debriefing — Are We Doing More Harm than Good?” Blue Line, April 8, 2019, accessed September 14, 2020, https://www.blueline.ca/psychological-debriefing-are-we-doing-more-harm-than-good-6321/.
25 Richard J. McNally, Richard A. Bryant, and Anke Ehlers, “Does Early Psychological Intervention Promote Recovery from Posttraumatic Stress?” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 4, no. 2 (2003): 45-79, accessed September 14, 2020, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/1529-1006.01421.
26 “Psychological Debriefing for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Society of Clinical Psychology, American Psychological Association, accessed September 15, 2020, https://div12.org/treatment/psychological-debriefing-for-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/.