Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Morbid? I Think Not!

I have invited agencies to host my “Planning for the Unthinkable: the Police Funeral” seminars, only to have them decline the offer and tell me that they thought the topic was too morbid.

Yet, as I review the course evaluations, attendees respond to the seminars with comments like:

  • “… one of the best trainings I have had in my law enforcement career.”
  • “The in-depth insight and knowledge of the instructor and the knowledge of
    strategically planning for the unexpected.”
  • “Instructor was knowledgeable and compassionate about subject matter which
    made training a good experience.”

It's a difficult subject to talk about, but it's one that needs to be discussed. Yes, I talk about a variety of death notification issues and grief and bereavement issues that impact not only the surviving family but agency personnel and their families.

Why? Because it is important and it is an integral part of any funeral management plan. I don’t dwell on how officers died but how to be prepared to respond when a death occurs. I talk about how to provide support to the surviving family members and agency personnel and their families when an officer dies from any cause, be it illness, accident, suicide, or in the line of duty.These are real life scenarios and can’t be ignored. Agencies cannot just hope they will never happen!

Agencies provide in-service training on officer safety and survival where the tactics used in an actual line of duty deaths are closely scrutinized, evaluated and even criticized. We learn from our mistakes and our successes. It is important, from an officer safety perspective, to learn from our past and be prepared for the future. The same philosophy is true for planning for our funerals!

When planning a police funeral, things are seldom done wrong, but, even though done adequately, they are not necessarily done best. We need to talk about how to plan for and manage police funerals so that we can be prepared to do it best. Because we only get one chance at it!

Is it a morbid topic? No. A basic definition of “morbid” includes “unhealthy” and
“extreme.” Talking about how to plan a police funeral is neither unhealthy nor
extreme. What is unhealthy is ignoring or avoiding the topic!

In my funeral planning seminars I use words like respectful, dignified, somber,
supportive, people-oriented, caring, traditional, honor, courage, valor, and sacrifice.
There is nothing morbid or unhealthy about these terms.

So, if you don’t want to host a seminar, that’s your decision, but please don’t tell me
it’s because the topic is too morbid.

Maybe you should think about finding out what 
is required to host a seminar and learn
about the 35 plus topics discussed. It’s not really 
“Planning for the Unthinkable,” but
planning for the unexpected!

If not now, when?

Monday, March 4, 2013

What Is A Line Of Duty Death?

I've been in correspondence with Eric Johnson, who founded and he sent me a column he wrote on what constitutes a LODD. It is one of the best explanations of the topic I've seen, and Eric has generously allowed me to share it with my readers. It's clear, concise and should be required reading for everyone who may be involved in planning a public safety funeral.


LODD or Not LODD? That is the Question…

by Eric Johnson

One of the most misunderstood and misapplied terms regarding Line of Duty Death is the term itself. Many assume if a person dies while on‐duty or circumstances of an off‐duty death appear to be work-related, it is a “line of duty death.”

Along with this assumption comes a belief the family will receive state, federal, and other Line of Duty Death (LODD) related benefits. Unfortunately, such oversimplification often results in families being promised significant benefits they have little or no chance of receiving.

It is one thing for a claim to be denied after careful review pursuant to the benefit’s specific provisions and regulations. It is another for a family to learn after months of anticipation the circumstances do not even come close to qualifying and promises were made without foundation. While the former is upsetting, the latter can be devastating and even perceived as betrayal. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples of this occurring.

For this and many other reasons, it is important for public safety personnel at all levels to have realistic understanding of what “line of duty” really means as it relates to death. If the question is posed to the head of an agency as to whether LODD honors will be rendered following a member’s death, the decision is often made according to a very general interpretation of the term. As most agencies do not have formal guidelines defining Line of Duty Death, the determination is often made on the basis of wanting to “do something nice for the family” (i.e., rendering formal LODD honors) and is heavily influenced by emotion.

But if the question is whether the particular circumstances of a death qualify for specific LODD benefits, such as the federal government’s Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) or a state’s benefits, it is a much different matter. Each has clear guidelines as to what circumstances are covered and what are not. Therefore, the real question in this regard is not whether a death is “line of duty,” but: “Does it qualify for this benefit?”

It should be recognized that at the foundation of all LODD benefits is the issue of whether death
occurred as a result of duty, not that it simply occurred in the course of duty. There is a huge difference. It is a critical distinction that must be made, and it is the initial standard all should apply when making an assessment of LODD versus non‐LODD.

When death occurs in the course of duty, it is the result of a condition or circumstance that would have led to the individual’s death whether he/she was on‐duty or not. But when a death is truly “line of duty,” it means that individual’s life was cut short as a direct result of his/her service. THAT is sacrifice, and it is why LODD honors are what they are: ultimate honors for those who make the ultimate sacrifice. It is also why LODD benefits were established: to further honor those who make the ultimate sacrifice by caring for those they are no longer able to care for personally.

When an active or retired public safety officer dies, he/she deserves to be honored for his/her service. But when one dies as a direct result of duty, he/she deserves to be honored for both service AND sacrifice. Again, the difference is huge.

When a family is told they will receive “line of duty death benefits” in circumstances clearly not eligible, a terrible disservice is done. It would be difficult to overstate how hurtful this can be. In very simple terms, it adds substantial and devastating insult to already overwhelming and devastating injury.

Similarly, when LODD honors are rendered or a name is added to a LODD memorial when a death did not occur as a result of duty, it is also a disservice – but, in this instance, it is a disservice to many. Not only does it set the family up for possible embarrassment later, but it dilutes the significance of the honors and the memorial.

It is incumbent on ALL public safety personnel to protect surviving families from the hurt that inevitably follows such false promises. It is also incumbent on all to protect the integrity of Line of Duty Death honors and memorials.

The purpose of this column is to facilitate better understanding of what constitutes Line of Duty Death as well as provisions of the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Act and associated regulations. Our hope is leaders will use this information to develop or refine their agency’s guidelines regarding Line of Duty Death and all will become better prepared to assist, inform, and advise families in the wake of tragedy.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Training is essential, for not only doing it right, but doing it best

I recently presented my twenty-eighth seminar on “Planning for the Unthinkable – the Police Funeral.”  The hosting agency had not experienced an officer killed in the line-of-duty in almost a hundred years. It had been 15 years since they had experienced an officer killed in an on-duty traffic accident. However, it was the death of an active civilian employee from an illness that prompted a call to me through my website. There were questions about appropriate honors ceremonies. It was after this discussion that agency management realized their funeral protocol was inadequate and outdated. They asked for a seminar.  

A dozen agencies attended and most sent several representatives, representing various interests within their agency, i.e. honor guard, human resources, special events planning, and management. A few sent a single representative, mostly supervisors or command officers. However, one officer, who represented his agency, mentioned after the seminar that he thought the presentation was outstanding and he had a lot of information to take back to his department. However, he feared no one in management would listen or advocate any changes and he was neither in a position nor had the rank to have any impact.

The objective of my seminars is to provide agencies with an introduction to the myriad of topics concerning how to prepare for, respond to, and manage and coordinate a police funeral, especially a line-of-duty death funeral. My personal coordinator’s check-list has over 150 items. Many are task oriented, i.e. seating and parking, and many are interpersonal or people oriented, i.e. determining and meeting the needs of the agency members and their families. Many times an agency is so focused on the task- oriented issues that they overlook or minimize the interpersonal issues. We only get one chance to do it and we not only want to do it right, but best. One officer commented on the course evaluation, “ … the seminar exposed how much we need to do to prepare ….”  Another said, “ … an eye opener.”

This seminar was very enjoyable and I walked away exhausted yet satisfied, and that was because of the audience. There were representatives from Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) who shared their experiences. There were several agency chaplains who shared their perspective. There were agency command officers who contributed management viewpoints. There were honor guard members who shared their knowledge and experience. There were officers who had never been in involved with a line-of-duty funeral who asked questions that others needed answered. Many shared real life experiences that made topics real and personal. As a presenter I could not have asked for more from the participants.  

I always advocate that once the seminar is over and I leave, since many of the agencies attending, large and small, are neighbors, that they should be able to work together and develop a mutual-aid support plan. That they should be able to develop comprehensive agency specific funeral protocols. As one of the course evaluations commented, “Being able to talk with other agencies and combining the best of all and create a better protocol.” 

The topic of planning a police funeral is often one no one wants to talk about. Agencies have refused invitations to host a seminar because the topic was too morbid. Yet, evaluations include comments like, “ … one of the best training classes I have had in my law enforcement career.” And, “Instructor was knowledgeable and compassionate about subject matter …” And “Personal stories are always best to make a point. You (instructor) are the real McCoy, emotional and interested, ….”

These seminars are important to any agency, regardless of their size or funeral planning experience. It’s not a question of if, but when. Many agencies have no protocol or plan. Others have an operational plan that worked years ago and hopefully will work again. At one seminar an officer shared a story of how when his small agency experienced their first line-of-duty death in the early morning hours and all on duty officers responded, there was neither a plan nor the personnel to make the death notification. In fact, the notification didn’t occur for several hours and the spouse only lived a few miles away. Friends had been trying, and, thankfully, didn’t succeed, to contact the wife and offer their condolences and support before the agency even arrived to make the notification. This is unacceptable. My seminars provide the guidelines necessary to prevent these types of lapses in “Planning for the Unthinkable …” from happening. As one evaluation commented, “Things included in the presentation that are taken for granted.”

Agencies interested in learning more about how to bring a seminar to their agency or region, can contact me through the website, by phone or email, and learn the specifics for hosting a seminar.

John Cooley

Other comments from participants:

"Instructor very knowledgeable and compassionate about subject matter which made training a good experience."

"Various ideas had never crossed my mind before. John clearly has a heart for this topic and is also knowledgeable and experienced. He isn’t talking about theories, but is speaking from real life experience."

"The instructor was very knowledgeable and was able to give personal life stories to help get a better understanding. The entire program – good information."

"I appreciated the reminder to update personal and emergency content information with agency, preferably on an annual basis to insure the information is correct in the event there is a serious injury/death of an officer. Also the reminder to include on that information an officer who he/she would prefer to make a death notification to the next of kin."

"This seminar opened my eyes to what my agency is not prepared for."

"I learned that there is a lot more to learn about this than thinking you can pull it out of air and throw it together, even concerning a small department."

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Additional national flags, other flags & display boxes

The proper presentation of the casket flag and presenting additional National flags is an issue that often causes a substantial amount of discussion and argument during the planning process of a police funeral.

The presentation of an additional National flag to someone chosen by the family is a well-established practice and should be recognized as a legitimate part of the honors ceremony if the surviving family requests it. As all funeral coordinators know, what the surviving family wants is paramount. If the surviving family wants a specific person or persons to receive an additional National flag, then they will.

There is only one casket flag, the National flag. This is the flag that is folded and presented to the surviving family, usually the surviving spouse. Any additional National flags presented shall be pre-folded. They must be presented and received with dignity and respect. There is no requirement that they be presented by the agency executive, chief or sheriff. They may be presented by someone else if the presentation would be more meaningful to the recipient. If the surviving spouse agrees that the presentation of an additional flag by the deceased officer’s patrol partner to the deceased officer’s young son, whom the partner knows well, would have a special meaning, then it should be done.    

There have been times when members of a funeral planning team adamantly argued that no one except a family member should receive an additional National flag. There is no restriction as to who can receive an additional flag. It is done at the surviving family’s request. There is no limit as to how many flags can be presented. However, the requests must be reasonable.

At one funeral planning meeting the deceased officer’s parents had made a request that an additional flag be presented to their son’s fiancee. A planning team member argued the fact that the officer had not officially asked the woman to marry him, even though his parents had talked to him about it and it was common knowledge that he was going to officially ask her soon, she should not receive a flag.

At another funeral, the family wanted three flags given to relatives that were members of law enforcement agencies, one the same agency as the deceased, the other two in other local agencies. On another occasion, a wife asked that each of her two sons get a pre-folded flag. All of these people deserved to get a pre-folded flag because it is what the surviving family asked for. There should be no judgmental discussion about the worthiness of an individual or their official relationship to the deceased. If the family asks for additional flags, just do it.

Can a request be denied? Although I have never experienced a situation where I would deny someone an additional flag, I am sure there could be a situation where it might be inappropriate and therefore withheld. The presentation of a National flag to someone is more than fulfilling a surviving family’s request. It is a profound symbolic gesture. It is an honor. It needs to be presented and received with dignity and respect. It represents the patriotism and dedication and self sacrifice of the deceased officer and of every officer attending the funeral. In my opinion, if I had verified reasonable cause to believe that the intended recipient would not receive the flag in the manner that it was intended, with dignity and respect, then I would deny the request for it to be presented.

At many line-of-duty funeral honors ceremonies, other flags are presented to the family. These are usually a state flag and possibly a military flag or organizational flag. These flags should be presented by the appropriate entity representative after the casket flag and any other pre-folded National flags have been presented. They should be appropriately pre-folded.

The surviving family and all National flag recipients should either receive an appropriate display box for the flag or be informed of how and where to acquire one. These flags are presented as a memorial to the deceased and hopefully will be displayed. Agency funeral coordinators should ensure the family is able to acquire the display or shadow boxes and try to ensure they are appropriately displayed.

If a surviving family is uncertain what they will do with the casket flag after it is presented and do not intend to immediately display it, the agency executive may request the flag so that it can be appropriately displayed at the agency until the family is ready for its return.

John Cooley

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Casket Flag

I receive inquiries about casket flags for law enforcement funerals on a regular basis. They have included such questions as:

·        Can a casket flag be used for an officer who committed suicide?
·        Does an officer have to be a veteran to have a casket flag?
·        Can a casket flag be used for retirees?
·        Can there be more than one casket flag folded and presented?
·        Can a casket flag be used for a canine?

These questions were related to a variety of circumstances, including officers’ deaths from illness, accident or suicide and officers killed in the line-of-duty. I will share my responses to these inquiries in this blog and add some additional personal thoughts.

There have been times when an active or retired officer has been involved in criminal activity that contributed to their death. In one situation, an officer was involved in a felony hit and run and when the investigators came to his home to confront him, he committed suicide. Another off-duty officer was trying to flee a vice prostitution sting and died in a traffic collision. Another officer was working an unauthorized off-duty security job as a body guard and drew his weapon and committed an ADW against a citizen, not knowing that the citizen was an undercover officer, who drew his weapon and fired, killing the body guard. Yet another officer was on-duty and was being arrested by investigators when he resisted and drew his weapon, resulting in his being shot by an investigator.

Whenever an active or retired officer’s death results from them being investigated for criminal activity or is the result of their participation in criminal activity, the agency should not provide an honors ceremony at the funeral. This includes having a casket flag, the folding, and presentation.

I use this criminal activity introduction to describe casket flags for suicides. Officers who commit suicide, without any criminal activity involved, do not commit a crime. Therefore, there is neither a protocol to restrict the use of a casket flag nor is there any protocol recommending it. It is the chief’s decision.

Since the draping of the casket with the National flag is a military tradition that began during the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815) and is a common sight in our military funerals, many people think that it is only for veterans. I have received numerous calls about the appropriateness of having a casket flag for a non-veteran active duty or retired officer. I even had an inquiry because a funeral director advised that a casket flag was not appropriate for a line-of-duty death because the officer was not a veteran. A casket flag is appropriate for all active duty officers, especially those killed in the line-of-duty, and all honorably retired officers.

Can a casket flag be used for retirees? Yes! Again, it is at the chief’s discretion.

There is one casket flag per casket and therefore only one flag to be folded and presented to the surviving family. Additional National flags can be presented to various family members and these flags should be pre-folded. I attended a funeral where the family insisted on having the casket covered twice and two flags folded and presented to two different family members. The family’s wishes were honored, because it’s ultimately the chief’s decision.

The United States Flag Code is a guideline, not a law. There are few, if any, absolutes. Many of the sections say “Should …” rather than “Shall …” Funeral coordinators should try to adhere to the code but there may be times when a modification may be needed to accommodate the wishes of the family or agency. Dignity and respect are the key considerations.

The flag code says that flags should not be carried horizontally. I was managing a service with an honors ceremony inside the church and there was no casket, the officer was cremated. The honor guard, made up of his co-workers, wanted to carry the flag down the center aisle horizontally rather then vertically and then proceed to fold it and present it. The ceremony was done with dignity and respect and went very well.

A casket flag is a special flag. It is 5 x9 ½ feet, cotton, with embroidered stars. It is never silk screened.

A controversial flag issue I get inquiries about is the appropriateness of having a casket flag cover the casket of a canine, especially one killed in the line of duty. I am not aware of any protocol that recommends or discourages the use of a national flag as a canine casket flag. The U.S. Flag Code refers to U.S. citizens, veterans, highly regarded state and national figures but makes no mention of canines.

I know of line-of-duty memorial services for canines that had a casket and a casket flag, folding and presentation and some that didn’t. I know of memorials where the canine was cremated and there was no casket but there was still a National flag, folding and presentation. The decision to have a casket flag or a National flag folded and presented is always at the discretion of the chief or sheriff.

I believe that there should not be a casket flag or a National flag folding and presentation for a canine, because there should be a clear demarcation maintained between police dogs and the human beings they serve. I think that the National flag should be reserved for the officers who took an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States, accepted the responsibilities and risks associated with that oath, and who sacrificed their lives to fulfill it. I am aware of strong opinions on both sides of this issue. Once again, it is a chief’s decision.  

Another related casket flag issue is, “Can a casket flag be placed, folded and presented for a civilian?” The answer is absolutely yes! There is no flag code section restricting the use of a flag for civilian members of an agency. The Code permits a casket flag for any U.S. citizen. Again, it is the chief’s decision.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Nice to have you join us! This is the place where I will share my experiences and knowledge of planning and facilitating dignified, meaningful law enforcement/public safety funerals and memorials. After all, you only get one chance to say that final goodbye, so you must plan ahead to do right by the officer's memory, his/her surviving family, agency members and their families. And you must not forget the community members who wish to share in the public expression of collective grief, as well as demonstrate their support for both the surviving family and the agency experiencing the loss.

Get it right, and attendees will remember it forever. Screw it up, and they'll also remember it forever, though not for the intended reasons, and that can affect how agency members and the community view the agency far into the future.

Feel free to email me any questions you may have, and I'll answer them here so that others may learn, too (unless, of course, you request it be answered privately.)

Check back often, because I have years of experience (and stories) about the sometimes surprising issues and predicaments that can arise, even with the most well-planned intentions!

For further information, check out my book Planning for the Unthinkable: A Law Enforcement Funeral Planning Guide available through my website
It's the most comprehensive law
enforcement funeral planning
resource you'll find anywhere.

See you again, soon!