“Are you a good cop or a bad cop?” 8-year-old Neriah Stokes asked a police officer she saw him at a gas station. She knew her father, Ryan Stokes, was killed by police when she was just a baby.
It broke her grandmother Narene Stokes’ heart. She knew Neriah would now always associate police officers with a negative image. But after that day, seven years ago, when about 12 police officers came to Stokes’ door to inform her of her son’s death, she has not exactly trusted them either.
On July 28, 2013, in the Power and Light District, Ryan was shot five times in the back by Kansas City Police Officer William Thompson. The shooting followed a dispute about a stolen cellphone. Ryan was unarmed, but Thompson said Ryan had a gun, which led to him discharging his weapon.
Within hours, Stokes began seeing conversations on social media about his death, but she did not want to believe it. She wanted to receive information from the police, information she thought would be credible.
She waited, and waited. Finally, almost one day after Ryan was killed, Stokes received a call from KCPD asking if she could meet somewhere to talk about the welfare of her son. She said the officers could come to her home, but when they arrived to tell her the news, she was shocked. Not by the news of his death, but by how they began by portraying Ryan as a criminal before an investigation could be completed and by their total lack of compassion and sensitivity toward someone who had just lost a loved one.
Stokes was also surprised there was not a chaplain, minister or support person present, which she said could have helped the situation.
The officers told Stokes that Ryan was shot in the chest after he pointed a gun at the officers. Later, Stokes learned in the autopsy report that Ryan had been shot in the back, yet another reason she lost trust in the department.
“That badge, that’s supposed to protect and serve,” Stokes said. “But to be lied to and be told the way I was told? I don’t feel trust in them anymore. I don’t even want to call them.”
No Formal Death Notification, Training or Policy
The Stokes family is not alone. Other families have negative stories about being notified of a death by Kansas City Police officers. At a rally held July 24, that brought together mothers and sisters of men killed by KCPD, Stokes learned many other Kansas City families had been in her shoes.
Some families never received proper notification, others said officers lacked compassion and also portrayed their loved one negatively. It was one of the recurring complaints shared by family members at the rally.
According to police spokesperson Jacob Becchina, KCPD does not offer any specialized training for officers who conduct death notifications. New detectives learn how to make those notifications through the orientation process and on the job, from older, more experienced officers who have been through the drill a few times.
Officers do not bring chaplains on every notification, but, Becchina said, chaplains are available if the family wants them, when it seems to indicate the call’s purpose is no longer a notification of death, but for some other purpose. In addition, Stokes said she was never asked if she wanted a chaplain present.
EFFECTS OF ‘NEGATIVE’ DEATH NOTIFICATIONS
When done wrong, notifications leave families with the perception that police officers are callous, thoughtless and insensitive.
A “death notification is one of the toughest things to hand somebody in law enforcement, and a lot of officers are simply thrown into it,” says Rick Tobin, CEO of TAO Emergency Management Consultants in Spring Branch, Texas. “They can cause a lot of harm when they do or say the wrong things.”
According to grief specialists, the way law enforcement notifies a family about a death, can make or break the way an individual processes their grief, and can contribute to “complicated grief,” where a person’s emotions are so painful, long lasting and severe that the individual has trouble recovering from the loss and resuming their life.
On the other hand, “family members who feel they were treated fairly and sensitively by law enforcement during notification are more likely to be cooperative in any subsequent investigation or criminal proceedings,” says Laurence Miller, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Boca Raton, Florida.
DEATH NOTICES DONE RIGHT
How different these testimonials are from families who have received death notifications.
“Thank you so very much for what you’ve done for us in our most difficult time. Your genuine concern and compassion made such a big difference to all of us. We will never forget you.”
“Thank you for being there. Just knowing you were there made my experience a little lighter.”
“Thank God for people like you.”
“The volunteers were like angels who just showed up from heaven. Honestly, they were a huge part of decreasing the stress of an already stressful day.”
These were testimonials following death notification provided by members of the national non-profit Trauma Intervention Programs Inc. (TIP). Police and hospital emergency departments in several states have begun using volunteers from an organization to assist with notifications. TIP (www.tipnational.org) was founded in San Diego in 1985 by a Wayne Fortin, a mental health professional, to provide immediate support to citizens traumatized by personal tragedy. Twenty regional TIP chapters now exist, serving more than 250 communities. There are currently no TIP chapters in Missouri.
In these communities, TIP is dispatched on certain types of calls at the same time as fire and police. The volunteer meets the police officer, goes to the home with him or her, then the officer gives the notification and leaves. If it’s safe, the volunteer stays with the family for the next several hours to provide emotional and practical support, something police have little time for.
In some areas, TIP volunteers have begun making the notifications themselves since they receive 55 hours of training that most officers haven’t.
The demand for a resource like TIP is there. The Portland TIP chapter has almost 200 active volunteers who each commit 40 hours a month. In 2018, the Portland TIP alone supported more than 14,000 citizens and volunteers were requested by over 34 emergency agencies.
BENEFITS OF ‘POSITIVE’ DEATH NOTIFICATIONS
Family members who feel they were treated fairly and sensitively by law enforcement during notification are more likely to be cooperative in any subsequent investigation or criminal proceedings,” says Laurence Miller, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Boca Raton, Florida.
For Police Chief Magazine, Carl J. McDonald, National Law Enforcement Initiatives Manager wrote that compassionate notifications are a vital service to build trust between law enforcement and the community they serve. However compassion and care are difficult to consistently achieve in a department like Kansas City’s that lacks even the most basic policy, procedures and training for delivering death notices.
For a city approaching 200 homicides this year, plus additional deaths from traffic and other accidents, a formal process for death notifications should probably be less of an afterthought and more of a developed, documented and well thought out process that is implemented consistently, no matter who the deceased might be.
However, KCPD isn’t alone; many police departments do not have a specific policy for notifying next of kin. The Columbia, Missouri, Police Department is an exception. They have a formal written policy for how law enforcement should handle a death notification.
Their policy says, “It is the officer’s duty to deliver this personal news in a concise, straightforward and compassionate way. The officer should approach the notification knowing it is his/her role to spend whatever time is necessary to calm and comfort the survivor(s) or next-of-kin and to assist in gaining access to any other support persons or services they may need.”
Beyond a written policy, real change only happens when there is a change of culture and when a department makes delivering death notices with compassion and respect a priority. Whether it’s TIP program, trained chaplains, or a policy that’s documented and consistently applied, citizens of Kansas City deserve better.
Jazzlyn Johnson is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community.