by John Cooley
As a chaplain, do you know if your agency is ready to deal with the suicide of an officer?
If any singular event can cause crisis and chaos throughout an agency, it is the suicide of one of it's officers. Often the agency chaplain is then charged with planning the funeral and they can experience the indecision and contradictions coming from management.
Because suicide is such an unthinkable occurrence that no one wants to deal with it much less plan for it. A suicide also brings out so many different emotions in people that little can be taken for granted. The decision to have a traditional police funeral for an officer who commits suicide is at the discretion of the chief or sheriff. Some will be in favor of a traditional funeral and honors ceremony and some will not. The decision will have to be made, and quickly.
When an active sworn member of a law enforcement agency dies, not a line-of-duty death, just a natural death, the family, co-workers and agency expect a traditional police funeral. The opportunity to show a final tribute to a loving spouse, fellow officer and law enforcement professional. This is a special recognition reserved for sworn police officers nation wide.
The traditional police funeral typically consists of uniformed personnel attending the funeral services, the eulogy given by the chief, a motorcade followed by interment ceremonies that include the traditional honors ceremonies of rifle salute, taps, flag fold and presentation.
At the conclusion of the funeral, everyone should feel good about these unique services and ceremonies. Respect, dignity and honor are sentiments being shown and spoken. This is a tribute to one of their own who served with honor and excellence. No officer should expect less from his peers.
Many agencies have never experienced the suicide death of an active sworn member. The assumption is that if a death occurs, the agency would do the right thing. There would seem to be no need for agency leaders to meet and discuss this potential occurrence or to design and develop a funeral protocol or policy for a suicide. Who would complain about a traditional police funeral being provided for an active sworn member of any agency?
Envision now, that a death occurs and the cause is not ordinary. It is a suicide.
Will there be a traditional police funeral for a sworn member? This question has been asked by many agencies and will be asked by many more. Suicide often has a stigma attached to it. Moral and religious beliefs often influence how a suicide death is perceived. Older officers and younger rookies may view suicide from different perspectives. People often speak in hushed tones and make comments about weakness, character flaws and eternal damnation. Some disapprove because the act has embarrassed the agency and tarnished the badge. There are others who perceive suicide as a human act and that the purpose of the funeral is to honor how someone lived and served. Not to judge how they died!
The time to decide on an agencies response to a suicide is before it happens. The response from an agency's members, management team and department chaplains may be varied and in opposition to each other. Some will support a full traditional police funeral with honors and some may not. Some may argue that funeral services and ceremonies are always at the request of the surviving family. What if the family asks for a traditional police funeral? How will your agency respond? How will a decision not to have a traditional police funeral for a suicide be explained to the family?
The decisions on agency response to the suicide of a sworn member must be determined before it happens. One it happens, time restraints and other demands placed on the agency can be overwhelming. The expectations, for or against a traditional police funeral, can create substantial pressure on agency managers. Will there or will there not be a traditional police funeral? The answer is not universal or unanimous. Agency leaders need to plan, discuss, prepare and put proper decisions into writing now before an event of this nature occurs.
I have managed funerals for 18 Los Angeles Police Department officers who committed suicide. Each of these funerals had its own special circumstances and characteristics. They were difficult enough to manage without having to discuss the propriety of a police funeral and honors ceremonies. I have assisted other agencies that have experienced suicides and had no protocol or had done no planning for a suicide's funeral. These agency's planning processes were encumbered with lengthy discussions about whether or not they should have a traditional police funeral rather than how to manage one. Suicide is a serious problem in our society. It is even more serious within law enforcement. Every agency needs to be prepared.
You, as a chaplain, are in a position to make inquiries and to determine the attitudes of agency managers. Chaplains can help develop a protocol for funerals associated with a suicide now before there is a crisis when issues can be discussed without time constraints and emotions being on edge. Chaplains need to be in the vanguard of resolving these unthinkable issues before they happen.
This bulletin is presented as part of a collaborative training program between the ICPC and Police USA. Any questions about the program or publication of this bulletin should be directed to the Chair, ICPC Educational Committee.
If additional information about this topic is required, the author, John Cooley, can be contacted through his website at www.Policefunerals.com or by e-mail at Policefuneral@earthlink.net or phone (805) 522-4861. John has given presentations on police funeral issues at several ICPC regional conferences and at the 2005 ATS. For information about him speaking at a local or regional ICPC function, please contact him directly.