Police in New England examine a murder scene. This may be par for the course in our profession, but it takes time to get used to being around dead bodies. As a trainer, you’re in a great position to introduce the concept of death as it pertains to police work to ensure that your officers take their jobs and their training as seriously as it deserves. PHOTOS by Mark C. Ide
Harold & Maude
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A young Marine looks out at the landing zone where a number of body bags await removal. Inside one is a close friend.
A parolee robs a fast food restaurant. As the police close in on him, he places a handgun against his head and sends a bullet into his brain.
A pair of officers drive frantically to the emergency room. While one steers the car, the other desperately gives CPR to a child fished from a swimming pool moments before.
At the end of a pursuit, a suspect raises his gun at police officers. He’s killed when they respond with lethal force.
A terminally ill man kisses his wife of many years as she sleeps and goes outside. There he puts a rifle in his mouth and presses the trigger.
A street cop finds the victim of a shooting screaming and bleeding profusely. Deep red blood is spurting from the carotid artery, washing across his uniform. All the way to the emergency room he’s using his fingers to try to plug the wounded artery. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, the victim dies moments after arriving.
Incidents such as these frame an officer’s outlook on the inevitability that we will all pass on. Some of the examples are forever seared into our minds. Other events—for example, those involving violent predatory criminals, murders and pedophiles—might be viewed as God’s own justice.
Few professions experience such a wide spectrum of lives ending. They accumulate in our lives and thoughts. As the years pass, each officer develops their own way of dealing with death’s reality. This approach may be healthy and mature or delusional and denial-driven. We see just how vulnerable we all are. Sometimes we’ll use gallows humor as a defense mechanism to manage what we witness. It’s reflected in our terminology: “whacked,” “dead right there,” “blown away” and “wasted” are among our many euphemisms for dead.
Meet Harold & Maude
A movie that’s stayed with me from my youth is Harold & Maude. I must admit, I didn’t fully understand it until later. (By then I had helped to carry two friends to their graves. One was a KIA Marine from Vietnam and the other was a police officer who died tragically.)
In this black comedy, Harold is a young man intrigued by death. However, he’s too immature to really understand the finality that comes with it. Harold routinely stages realistic—but fake—suicides. Often, these take place in front of his horrified mother and even prospective girlfriends.
Eventually, Harold meets Maude. This takes place during graveside services for someone they don’t know. Each came independently, just because there was a funeral. A chance conversation unearths a common bond. But while Harold is a picture of youth, Maude is at the other end of the spectrum, well into her 80s. She’s not from another decade, she’s from another century.
Maude guides Harold toward a more mature perspective on death: not a glorification of death, nor is it morbid. There’s just an acceptance that it will happen. Along with some great laughs, she helps him—and by extension you and me—face the fact that tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.
Looking back on it now, there was no Maude equivalent to help me understand as a cop what I’d see in the years to come. I had some exposure in the Marines, but at that time, the emphasis was on killing communists in Vietnam or—when death struck too close to home—holding it all in like a good John Wayne disciple. When I became a cop, this topic continued to go unspoken. There was no real preparation for this inevitability and neither the academy nor my FTO really addressed it.
Pull Up a Chair
Later on, I perpetuated this lack of acknowledgement as an FTO: I had a trainee who’d never really dealt with even a benign form of death. One morning, we were sent on a death call. The grandmother had just died of natural causes. According to the family, she’d lived the coveted full and rewarding life, but had been in failing health. It was just her time.
The trainee had a hard time dealing with this. By then, the family had withdrawn to the living room to make the necessary arrangements. In the kitchen with the old woman still at her last breakfast, he asked if he could go outside to write the report in our car. His first exposure to the passing of another human being had rattled him.
Instead of granting this request, I pulled out an empty chair and had him sit down at the table next to the departed. I told him to stay there until the report was done and we were relieved by the mortuary’s representatives. We then moved on to the next call.
I now know I missed a foundational training opportunity. I should have talked it through with him. It might have helped develop a street cop’s acceptance of our final fate. He eventually left police work, and I’ve sometimes wondered if this experience wasn’t contributory.
It Comes With the Job
Although it’s more convenient for trainers to avoid addressing this issue as I did that day, it’s a mistake. For several reasons, this topic should be discussed.
First, it gives the FTO a read on the new officer’s mindset. Some trainees may have a military background, which may or may not help them process what they’ll see and what they must do. Others may have religious beliefs that provide spiritual support. Occasionally, there will be those who’ve already reached their own level of acceptance. But if we don’t identify their perspective, we can’t train them effectively. FTOs should use a straight-forward approach. The fact is, we know our trainees are going to have to face it during their careers.
Another important aspect: New officers should accept and be prepared for the fact that they may have to press the trigger while aiming a firearm at another human being. You and I both know that there are some cops who don’t fully understand this and may even lack the resolve to do so. We don’t have time to discuss all of the causal factors behind why an officer hesitates or won’t use lethal force, but as law enforcement trainers, we should try to identify and correct it. FTOs and instructors must address this. A failure to train in this case could be tragic.
This month’s topic is definitely out of the norm. But I think it needs to be addressed. I wrote it with the intent of prompting thought and discussion among law enforcement trainers. To participate in this conversation, visit
Department policy and the law give us guidelines for lethal force situations. Within this, I like to teach two basic concepts. One is “IDOL”: Immediate Defense of Life. It’s basically a way of remembering that as police officers, we have the ability—and the duty—to use lethal force when a failure to do so could result in someone’s death or serious bodily injury. The suspect creates the circumstances leading to this confrontation. Police officers often have to end it. In this context, our trainees should be able to differentiate between an imminent threat and an immediate one. By using IDOL with actions that are reasonable and justified, we can make the decision making easier and save lives.
The second concept is called prioritization of human life. This is basically a hierarchy of who is most important during deadly confrontations. At the top are blameless folks, such as hostages and active shooter victims. Police have an obligation to stop an active shooter as soon as possible. Failure to do so may result in more deaths.
Next are innocent civilians who are not directly involved. These folks may be in danger, but not to the degree as cited above. Example: A SWAT team responds to a tactical problem. As soon as practical, a perimeter is established and residents nearby are evacuated.
(Note: Some department polices use the term citizens rather than civilians. I suggest using civilians. This wording reflects the truth that in a life threatening crisis: We make decisions without regard for one’s citizenship status.)
The third level belongs to law enforcement personnel. It’s a reality that good cops will go in harm’s way risking their safety for that of hostages and innocent civilians. Our lives, however, are to be valued more than the last group.
Last are the criminals we deal with. Although they rightly belong on the bottom, we must abide by department policy and the law when dealing with them. Officers can’t ignore this fact just because we’re facing those who have broken the law, even under extreme circumstances. Dirty Harry’s actions might work in the movies, but they have no place in modern law enforcement.
Applying Concepts to Reality
Applying this prioritization to situations encountered on the streets helps give a clearer picture of who is most important and helps determine reasonable courses of action through sound decision making.
Example: It’s a cold winter’s night. A deranged man holds his baby boy, who is dressed in a diaper. As the situation unfolds, he alternates between pointing a knife at his son and waving it at nearby police officers. There are a number of civilians watching from the sidelines. Using the above prioritization, the child is clearly the most important person involved. Although some cops focus on this critical factor, other officers establish a perimeter as a protective barrier between the suspect and the onlookers.
The fact that he has that child out in the winter cold presents an imminent danger due to severe exposure. It could develop into a more immediate threat. If the father places the child on the ground and moves the knife down to its chest, this is clearly an immediate threat. If we recognize this as an IDOL moment and act appropriately, the child’s life is saved. (I first learned these concepts from Ron McCarthy, LAPD SWAT, Ret., and remain grateful for this, as well as many other lessons he’s shared.)
Paper vs. flesh: For me, it’s challenging and fun to go to the range. But when I teach a weapons class, I normally emphasize that we’re in essence practicing taking another person’s life because they’re trying to kill someone. That’s a lot different than shooting at a piece of paper. I choose to use targets that depict people as lethal threats. There are commercial versions out there, but you can create a similar effect by just photocopying pictures or drawings of a face and a gun. Added to a silhouette target, the training becomes more realistic and legally defensible.
Common Sense Isn’t Always Common
We know that dead body calls are not popular in police work, but they should be handled properly. It doesn’t always work that way.
One night, I’d escaped from the watch commander’s desk to the streets. A suspicious circumstances call came out. Neighbors reported a bad smell coming from the apartment next door and could see flies on the windows. And I mean that the flies were on the inside of the glass. Get the picture?
By the time I got there, a number of units were already on scene. Walking into the residence, the odor made me want to light a big obnoxious cigar and start burning coffee grounds in a frying pan. The occupant had died unnoticed at least a week prior. I found more cops inside than should have been, including a junior sergeant and an FTO/trainee team. The FTO was basically there to make the trainee go through some sort of rite of passage. Strange as it sounds, it was a case of the cops wanting to see it just to see it.
I rarely get angry, but this was an exception. The cops on scene had completely lost sight of why they were there. It was a seriously inappropriate police response. First, someone had died. There’s a proper way to handle it, which doesn’t include a circus-like atmosphere. More importantly, because of the conditions, we couldn’t really tell for sure what had ended this man’s days. In my mind, that made it a crime scene.
I guess my words made a difference as the mood suddenly shifted to a more serious approach and a number of officers quickly tried to disappear. I had each one write a report. It also became a topic for briefing the next night. Finally, the sergeant was treated to a one way “discussion” on this topic.
By way of comparison, I remember another dead body call. As a supervisor, I wanted to check on the situation, but also monitor how the officers handled it.
In this case, the mother had found her teenage son dead when she came into his room to wake him for breakfast. It was a very tragic, but probably natural, passing. A good son, a member of the high school football team, well liked by the friends and relatives who gathered as the word spread, years of promise ahead of him but now none of it mattered. He was gone. Our officers did a good job of handling this difficult task. They acted professionally, including when out of view or earshot. They could have done a lot of damage by displaying callous behavior or making inappropriate comments but instead, they told the family how sorry they were for their loss—and meant it.
The officers helped orchestrate the removal of the son’s body to minimize the impact on those who loved him. I was proud of the way they handled the call. It’s how I’d want to be treated if that had been a member of my family.
As a cop, you’re going to have to deal with a wide spectrum of death, including our own mortality. You probably have experiences like those I’ve mentioned. You know there will be more. As a law enforcement trainer, I suggest it’s your responsibility to address it in a mature and realistic manner with your trainees—and yourself. Use cop humor as part of it, but don’t let common sense leave you. Like Harold and Maude, you can guide a fellow cop to a better understanding of this part of the job.
Train safe. God bless America.
• Death is something every cop will face.
• But not every new cop is ready for it.
• Even salty veterans have experiences they can’t forget.
• Our own demise is inevitable.
• With early training and constant professionalism, we can handle the concept & prolong our own lives—train to serve and survive.