New qualitative research on front-line police work with the bereaved

EMPAC is pleased to report on a new qualitative study at the University of Nottingham in an under-researched topic – how police professionals interact with the bereaved.

Breaking bad news

Police officers deal with death on a daily basis as part of their everyday work. This includes the daunting task of breaking bad news to the bereaved. Despite the fact that this forms a central element of police work, there is both a lack of research into the ways in which officers break bad news to the bereaved, and on education and training for front-line officers. This is also further impacted by the current COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in disruption to practices and customs of bereavement and grieving.

In the UK we have little knowledge of how police interact with the bereaved when breaking bad news, of the role of officers in different policing contexts and functions (i.e. support, investigation and/or response), and how this impacts on interactions with the bereaved.

Equally, we do not know how the interactions between death teller (the officer) and the receiver (bereaved) are affected by the time, place and space in which the delivery of bad news takes place. For example, the breaking of bad news by officers usually takes place outside an ‘official’ institutional context and within a variety of different cultures. Because of this, the breaking of bad news takes place in contexts which are less well defined by normative expectations and which can thus become problematic (Clark and LaBeff 1982). The social, cultural and emotional elements of this police task need to be explored more in order to understand and improve interactions with the bereaved.

There are only a handful of studies globally on dealing with death in police work, for example, research on officers in the USA (Henry, 2004) and  research on the role of police in death investigations in Australia (Carpenter et al, 2016).

Studies of the ways in which medical personnel break bad news provide some insight into these interactions. However, as Henry (2004) cautions, we should be wary of applying general observations from other contexts to that of policing, as police deal with death in different ways and in different contexts.

Adding to our evidence base

There are no specific studies of police breaking bad news to the bereaved, so we need to explore the trauma and ‘emotional labour’ associated with the breaking of bad news in police work (Lumsden and Black 2018; Black and Lumsden 2020) to add to our knowledge base.

This new  project will also draw on literature on ‘police culture’ (Reiner 2010) in order to explore the social, cultural and emotional aspects of breaking bad news to the bereaved in everyday police work from the perspective of officers.

The social, cultural and emotional aspects of breaking bad news are  specific to the various requirements and tenets of ‘police culture’ which have been observed by scholars of policing (Reiner 2010). There is a trend towards a traditionally ‘reactive’ and ‘masculine’ culture, despite the range of tasks which officers will encounter, including ‘softer’ social and welfare tasks such as interacting with the bereaved. Although in some police forces trained family liaison officers will perform this role, often resource constraints, time of day, and geographical locations will mean that other officers working at the front-line in response and/or investigation will have to break bad news to the bereaved.

Be a part of the research 

This new study is funded via a Leverhulme Trust / British Academy Small Grant which runs from 2020-2021. It involves qualitative interviews with front-line police officers who have experience of breaking bad news to relatives of the deceased. The researchers are seeking to conduct 45 qualitative interviews (online via audio video conferencing or telephone) with front-line officers (such as those in roads policing, investigation, and family liaison officers), who have experience of working with the bereaved. Findings will be disseminated to police constabularies and the College of Policing in order to inform training and practices on breaking bad news.

If you would like to get involved and take part in an on-line / telephone interview, at a time to suit you, please get in touch with Dr Karen Lumsden at the the University of Nottingham at:- karen.lumsden@nottingham.ac.uk

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