University of Konstanz

Death-Notification Delivery Training for Police Cadets

Konstanz (GER), March 2019 - The blended learning course "Death Notification with Responsibility" supports police officers with one of their most challenging tasks. The course is the result of a scientific transfer project conducted by a research team led by Kirsten Mahlke, professor of cultural theory and cultural studies methods in the Cluster of Excellence "Cultural Foundations of Social Integration" at the University of Konstanz.

It was developed in collaboration with police institutions in Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia. Blended learning courses combine the advantages of eLearning with group discussions and practical classroom training. The University of Konstanz categorises its transfer activities into the three domains of activity: communication, advice, and application.

"There’s nothing worse than having to tell someone that a relative has died of unnatural causes," says Kirsten Mahlke when describing the situation that every private citizen and every police officer might be confronted with one day. However, hardly anybody feels adequately prepared for the task of delivering such bad news. During police officer training in Baden-Württemberg, for example, only a few sessions brief the future officers on how to interact with the relatives of people who have lost their lives due to an accident or a violent crime. More than 30,000 individuals in Germany die every year from such a cause. 

"Our teaching modules aim to sensitize police officers to the needs of relatives and prepare them as well as possible for such situations." According to the researcher, mistakes can have serious traumatic consequences for the relatives. 

Not isolated incidents
A study conducted by the police's victim protection unit in the city of Kleve, as well as complaints by relatives after large-scale tragedies, have shown that such unfortunate missteps are not isolated incidents. That such communication issues have not yet been resolved has to do with outdated work structures, long-established habits, and unchecked preconceptions at police stations.

"Since internal quality assessments are not usually carried out, police departments often assume that their officers deliver death notifications well, as long as the relatives don't file complaints. However, traumatized individuals often do not complain, as they feel powerless when facing the authorities", the cultural scientist points out. 

When talking to police officers, she frequently comes across the opinion that delivering death notifications was a more psychosocial task that particularly empathetic officers should carry out. Mahlke objects to this view: "This is actually a genuine police task that is a traditional part of police work, which includes emergency response, victim protection, and investigation. The good news is that you can learn a responsible way to communicate with the bereaved".

Not only when delivering the notification, but also in the days that follow, the police officers should inform the relatives about important facts of the death, name contact persons for any questions that might arise, and inform the relatives about their rights. Another important role the police might play is to make arrangements with the prosecution or with the forensics lab, for example, so that relatives can see the deceased person one more time and thus acknowledge her or his death in person. 

Invited by the Berlin police force
The eLearning module was developed in collaboration with the police's victim protection unit in the city of Kleve; the FHöV police academy in Duisburg; the police department in Stuttgart; as well as the technology, service, and logistics unit of the police department in Freiburg. Classroom course units are combined with electronically available information and checklists.

Access to the required knowledge is easy, and the content can be learned in a reasonable period of time. "We are very happy that the course will be introduced in Baden-Württemberg. Now we will adapt it to fit the needs of other German states", explains Kirsten Mahlke. "The Berlin police force has already invited us to present the blended learning course to them".