The following is adapted from Unthinkable.
I’ve been working in the personal injury law field for almost 30 years. Broadly speaking, the law enforcement officers I’ve encountered want to do a great job, just as anyone else who cares about their work does. And when an incident results in a death or catastrophic injury, law enforcement officers are usually among the first people summoned to assist.
But as with anyone else, their ability to do a great job is bounded by their training, their experience, and the nature of their responsibilities. The end result? Depending on the police alone to investigate a fatal or catastrophic incident involving your loved one amounts to playing the lottery.
I learned this firsthand when my mother was killed while out walking in her neighborhood. It was beyond devastating, and it quickly became apparent that we could not solely rely on the police to get to the bottom of what happened.
If your loved one is the victim of a catastrophic incident, don’t leave what happens next up to chance. Instead, take concrete steps—which I’ll share with you here—to regain some measure of control over the unthinkable. Do what you can to ensure that your loved one’s case is more than just another file number to the police.
When tragedy befalls a loved one, you are left reeling. When you don’t know exactly what happened, the shock and anguish you feel are made even worse. Learning as much information as soon as possible about the how and why can be very important to family members after a tragedy happens.
That is not the only reason time is of the essence, either, especially if the other party involved is a commercial entity. The evidence you will need to hold them accountable is fleeting, and you can’t always count on the police to gather it for you. What’s more, the commercial entity probably understands the fleeting nature of evidence too and can be quick to gather it in order to protect its own interests.
That’s why it’s so important to be proactive—it helps ensure that your loved one’s case is a priority. By being proactive, you put your family front and center by making it known that you’re present and actively monitoring the investigation. Not only that, you also personalize your loss, and you establish expectations for communication, timelines, and the role the police would like your family to play.
Learn the Police Department’s Hierarchy
So, how can you make sure your loved one’s case doesn’t fall through the cracks? The first step is to realize that, along with being authority figures, the police are also public servants. They work as employees within the structure of a town or city government, and we have access to them just as we do other public employees. That also means that, as the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
In the event of a catastrophic incident, your initial connection to the police is likely to be the business card of the officer or investigator who notified you of the accident. You’re also entitled to know the hierarchy of the department: the names and positions of the other people involved in the investigation and the roles they play.
Depending on the size of the department, you might find that behind the traffic officer who responded to the scene is a higher-level investigator of some kind, such as a fatality investigator or an accident reconstructionist. Above them, you might find the police chief.
It is completely appropriate for you to say that you’d like to speak to the highest-ranking officer involved, just to be sure you have a good understanding of how your particular case is going to unfold. In the case of my mom’s fatal accident, once I understood the hierarchy of her town’s police department, I called and asked them to schedule a meeting, so I could introduce myself to the chief.
The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease
The goal in all this is to make the police aware at the highest level that their investigation is extremely important to your family and that you’re monitoring their progress. Why? Because police departments get very busy.
It’s just a fact of human nature, whether you’re talking about a dry cleaner or a police investigator: the more the people you’re dealing with understand that you’re actively involved and that this matters deeply to you, the better the chances you’re going to get the highest quality of work in the most timely fashion.
When your family has suffered a traumatic loss, there may be no greater priority for you than getting to the bottom of what happened, why it happened, and making sure that the people involved are held accountable. It’s not just for your family’s sake—it’s also to make sure it doesn’t happen again to someone else.
So, bring a picture of your loved one or their children to your meeting with the police. Tell them about the importance to you of the person you’ve lost or who’s been injured, make clear you want to do anything you can to encourage and assist them, and tell them how thankful you are for the work they’re doing. In other words, be a squeaky wheel.
A Little Tact Goes a Long Way
Although it is unlikely, you might encounter a defensive reaction, so tact is involved—asking at the right time and in the right tone. You’re not out to step on anyone’s toes.
I’ve found that many law enforcement officers are thrilled to be encouraged in their work. Almost all of them want to help people; it’s why they got into the business. They appreciate putting a face with a name and being able to personalize the loss you’ve suffered.
If you do encounter resistance at a lower level, go to the top. There’s a police chief in every department, and no matter the department’s size, investigating a fatality or a catastrophic injury is a big deal.
It’s perfectly appropriate to call the chief’s secretary, introduce yourself, and say, as I did,”My mother was killed in your city on X date, and I’d like an opportunity to introduce myself to the chief and tell him or her a little bit about my family.”
If the Police Ask to Speak to You
Sometimes, the police take the initiative and ask to speak to you or your family as part of their criminal investigation. If that happens, it’s not because the family’s in trouble. Instead, it’s likely they may be seeking information about the mental status, stability, or habits of your family member.
It’s especially important for the family to feel empowered in those circumstances—to understand their rights. First, it’s voluntary. You don’t have to do it. And if you want to but don’t feel comfortable in the moment, or aren’t in the proper state of mind, you can ask to delay.
You can also influence the terms under which you’ll speak with them. It is completely appropriate for you to ask the police to explain their purpose and the subject matter to be discussed so that you can decide whether you want to participate. They may want to turn on a tape recorder; you can respond by saying that first you want to know what they intend to ask, so you can determine whether you want it recorded or not. You can also make your own recording of the conversation.
And of course, you can have your lawyer with you. Wanting to have a lawyer help you navigate the situation doesn’t suggest that you’ve done anything wrong, and the police absolutely understand that.
Choose to Be Empowered
As I’ve mentioned, I believe there’s value in talking with the police. It’s a two-way street. Of course, I recognize that we all come to the table with different experiences regarding the police.
In particular, I realize that many Blacks, among other American minorities, have come to fear the police as a hostile presence in their lives. But if you’ve suffered a catastrophic loss due to an accident, you have no choice but to count on the police. They are necessarily involved in what happens next, at least from a criminal law perspective.
You can choose to do nothing to engage with them. Or you can choose to be empowered, to do what you can to have the highest level of participation in and influence over what unfolds.
For more advice on how to work with the police if you or a loved one is the victim of a catastrophic incident, you can find Unthinkable on Amazon.
A founding partner of the law firm Bachus Schanker, Kyle Bachus limits his practice to representing individuals and families in catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases nationwide. For more information, visit KyleBachus.com.