Most of us have seen them in a movie or television episode, or news report. Some have seen them live. Sadly, quite a few have participated. There is a somber pageantry and elegance to the funeral of an officer who died in the line of duty. The casket is draped with a US flag. The honor guard and pall bearers wear white gloves, and their gear is polished to blinding brilliance. But what else goes on in and around a cop’s funeral?
Line of Duty Deaths (LODD) are usually well publicized, whether the officer died in a car crash during a snowstorm, or a shoot-out at a bank robbery. It’s a fact of life with a job in the public domain: everything you do gets watched and dissected by the public, including your death.
In the first few hours, the immediate family is notified and sequestered as much as possible. Many members of the media will respect the family in their grief, but there are still some out there who will do anything to get a story. The agency may go so far as to control access to the family’s neighborhood with a roadblock, only letting confirmed residents into the area.
The death is investigated just as any other; it’s just a lot more difficult. Officers and crime scene techs have to compartmentalize their feelings and do the job. Photos, crime scene diagrams, witness interviews. It still needs to be done. The autopsy, too.
After the family is notified, the agency is officially notified. As new shifts start, a uniform change is made. Most departments issue mourning bands for their officers to wear across their badges. This is typically a band of black elastic or tape, usually worn diagonally on the badge. Some departments will add a mourning band of tape to the insignias on their cruisers. The bands usually stay in place for a week after the officer’s death, or at least until the funeral.
The family makes funeral arrangements according to their wishes. The department will do as much or as little as the family wants. In this day of mobile families, there is no guarantee that the officer will be buried in their jurisdiction. Some families may opt to send the officer home to a family plot on the other side of the country. The department liaison can expedite that process, doing extra work behind the scenes to make it as uncomplicated as it can be from arranging airline tickets to setting up an honor guard to meet the officer on the other end.
The liaison officer is part therapist, part minister, part diplomat and part funeral director. Lots of cops are Catholic, and many parishes have a particular funeral home that traditionally handles deaths in that parish. That funeral home may not have much experience with law enforcement funerals though. The liaison officer can explain to the funeral director what resources are available or expected: an honor guard; a horse-drawn caisson or hearse at the cemetery; a rifle or shotgun squad; a bagpiper or bugler. These days with the focus of many funerals on celebrating the life rather than mourning the death, many people will want to speak at the service. If not kept in check, this can add hours to the funeral. The liaison officer has to be able to convey the family’s wishes tactfully but firmly in assembling the parts of the service.
An officer friend near Houston had this to say about their protocol for liaison officers:
Usually an officer is chosen from the deceased officer’s known circle of friends. The command staff asks the rank and file who it should be, and talks to the families once they get some names. We’re not a huge agency, about 180 commissioned officers, so we all know each other, and a lot of us know each
others families. It’s really not hard to figure out.
This officer’s assignment is to do nothing but be their liaison through the entire funeral and afterward for I think at least a couple weeks. He is to facilitate benefits, advise on counseling and anything else the family may need. His duty time is spent entirely with them, and he is in civilian attire or uniformed attire, as he thinks is appropriate for their needs.
This person is NEVER a supervisor or command staffer, UNLESS the deceased is a supervisor or command staffer. The command staff recognizes that they are not always popular among the rank and file, and their presence at the family residence will not always be well received.
While all of this is happening locally, officers from departments across the country are making travel plans. Some agencies send one official representative who is joined by a number of other officers on their own dime. It’s not uncommon for agencies to send their officers in a cruiser. At the funeral for Deputy Hopper, I saw a cruiser from the Chicago Police Department, among others. I asked my Texas friend about this aspect as well.
If the Department hierarchy decides the Department needs to be represented, the Honor Guard is their contingent. Usually this is accompanied by a member or two of the Command Staff. Air travel is paid in advance by the Department. Officers get hotels preapproved, pay on their own, and are reimbursed for the costs. Officers are reimbursed for meals up to $35 per day. Officers who wish to make the trip but are not part of the honor guard or approved contingency pay their own way.
If it’s driving distance, the officer usually pays for fuel and is reimbursed. A very few officers already have Department credit cards for fuel, and can use those. Our solo units are this way. Usually the cruiser is selected out of our newest cars in the fleet, to better represent the agency.
Once all the arrangements are made, it’s conducted much as any other funeral. Instead of a few dozen cars though, the count can be over 1,000. As a funeral escort, I worked one officer’s funeral where the procession was almost two miles long. The lead car was pulling in to the cemetery as the last car left the church, and this was an accidental illness-related death.
At the cemetery, the casket is taken to the gravesite, sometimes to the accompaniment of a bagpiper. “Amazing Grace” is a common selection, as is “Danny Boy.” Prayers are said, “Taps” is played, and a rifle or shotgun squad will fire three volleys, not a twenty-one gun salute, as it’s commonly called. A twenty-one gun salute in the United States is reserved for presidents. The flag is folded crisply by the Honor Guard, and presented to the officer’s next-of-kin. This is the spouse, if married, or the mother, if she survives her son. Some departments will give multiple flags to family members. At some point near the end of the graveside service, many agencies do a final radio call to the deceased officer, and pronounce them off-duty, 10-7, or Signal 37, or whatever the appropriate radio code might be.
They are solemn and somber occasions, and entirely too common these days.