When I joined the Kansas Highway Patrol, I knew that the challenges ahead would test me emotionally and physically. As I gained more experience and progressed through my law enforcement career, I was eventually asked to share my knowledge and experience by becoming a field training officer for a new recruit trooper. I was excited to teach a new trooper how to perform his duties in a real-world environment. Working together in a larger metropolitan area, I knew we were going to be busy.
I spent the next several weeks instructing and observing this new trooper as we both applied our investigative skills to everything from DUI investigations, car crashes, and narcotic investigations. Late one evening, we had just finished up making an arrest when I was told to call the Kansas Highway Patrol Dispatch Center. We were just assigned a death notification.
In a candid moment, any trooper will tell you that a death notification is one of the worst aspects of the job. Showing up on someone’s doorstep late at night, with your hat in your hand, and news that will change lives forever is impossible to prepare for. A death notification comes with an emotional toll.
I had already covered death notifications at length as part of the recruit trooper’s field training. I had shared some of my experiences, to include things that I had done well, and things I wish I had done better. Tonight we were going to make a death notification on behalf of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. I told the recruit that I would handle the actual notification, but I had him collect all of the necessary information from Missouri. When names and addresses were confirmed, we set off to make the notification. We were going to notify a young woman that her mother and father had been killed in a crash near Branson, MO.
It was well past sunset when we stepped up to the door. I knocked on the door and was greeted by a gentleman. Eventually we were invited into the residence, where all three of us stood in the living room. A woman turned the corner into the living room carrying a small child. At that moment my heart and stomach hit the floor. I knew the family we were making this death notification for. The woman who just lost both of her parents in a car crash worked with my wife at a local business. Having a connection with her made a difficult job even harder. Her smile quickly faded when she detected the somber mood coming from the three of us in the living room.
We made sure that the family had all of the information they needed and helped them to decide what immediate arrangements would need to be made. When we finished, the recruit trooper and I walked out into the street and discussed the notification process in detail. We also discussed how knowing the family involved made things even harder. The recruit asked how often we have to make death notifications. My response was, too often, and it is never easy.
It is sad to say that this story is not unique, especially for those who live and work in smaller communities. The death notification process is repeated far too often. Any habits or efforts that can be made to Put the Brakes on Fatalities are worth the time and effort.
Steve La Row is a Technical Trooper for the Kansas Highway Patrol