Delivering bad news

Informing relatives of bad news is one of the most difficult duties police officers face.

The police department frequently deals with death and crisis events and is required to inform relatives and those close to victims with bad news. This is one of the hardest tasks asked of police officers. It is essential that police officers carry out this task in the proper way. The police academy carries out specialized training for communicating bad news.

In the following paragraphs we will summarize some guidelines from the police program for delivering bad news: “Delivering bad news – seminar for operative employees of the police”, from authors of the contribution and trainers, Dr. Simon Turk and Viktor Zupančič.

Who is delivering the news?

Bad news is usually delivered by criminalists, police officers from the traffic department, chiefs of police, and patrol chiefs. You never “get used to” delivering bad news, because different reactions from people make each time unique.

As a rule, police officers never disclose the cause of death because it is only possible to determine after a medical examination. In this way, delivering bad news regarding a suicide is no different than reporting bad news about a death due to a traffic accident.

Phases of delivering bad news

Delivering bad news should cover three phases: preparation for informing, informing and handling acute stress, and follow up measures.

1. Preparation for informing

It is necessary to gain information about the event, victim, and relatives to whom the news is being reported. For example, the individual may be a dangerous person that could endanger your own safety or the person might be in poor health and an immediate medical response may be needed. Appropriate behaviour of the police officers is also necessary – one must focus on a correct, professional, and empathic attitude.

The authors warn of negative consequences developing from police officers distancing themselves from the victim in the procedure or from police officers delivering bad news too routinely.

2. Informing and mastering acute stress

The news has to be passed on as soon as the information is gathered, even if it is in the middle of the night. It is important that the news is delivered to the appropriate person. For example, the news should not be delivered to children or in front of them (there are special guidelines to inform children about the death of their relatives, this is usually not carried out by police officers). For adults, it is advisable that the police officers find a friend of the relative to stay by them after the police officers leave. While delivering the bad news it is important to use an appropriate tone of voice, to be honest, patient and direct, and to follow the rule of progressing from general to specific.

3. Follow up measures

The relative, to whom the bad news was delivered, should not be left alone. They need to have support, possible medical help, and guidance regarding the upcoming procedures.

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