The Death Notice

GUMSHOE-DANNY-PITOCCO[su_dropcap style=”flat”]W[/su_dropcap]ELCOME BACK dear readers to another Gumshoe chapter.

This time, I am not telling you folks a story. This time, it will be a compilation of similar events in my career that I shall relate to you through my feelings from my heart. Believe it or not, cops have feelings and emotions – but they learn to keep them hidden from the civilians. I learned to show them for my own emotional survival the hard way  – after I suffered a heart attack. I want to have you kind folks to really get behind badge from my own cop’s perspective. This time, I want to break your hearts just like my heart had been broken more than once – but not always in silence! (No heart attacks please!)

When I first went through the police academy back in 1971, the very structured curriculum covered what you would imagine – criminal law; search and seizure; patrol procedures, report writing along with a multitude of other very relevant and mandatory subjects inside as well as outside the classroom.

However, there was only one topic that was never taught or ever discussed, death notices. I soon learned that this was something a police officer learned by doing in person – up close and very personal. I learned that I had to remove my police persona in these instances and show sincere empathy. I had to do it right the first time and every time I was called to perform this sad task.  The family members and next of kin rightly deserved it!

I also quickly came to the realization as a rookie office and even later on as a well-seasoned veteran officer (and former US Marine) that it was never ever going to get easier and that it would never ever become routine. In my mind and heart, if it ever became easier or routine to tell someone that the person they loved was dead – it would be time to take off the badge! (pull the pin in police parlance)

I knew plenty of officers who would rather be dispatched to “shots fired” or even an “unknown trouble” calls than to be dispatched to a residence with the duty to make a death notification to a family member or members.

Sometimes, I had to make more than one death notification to the same family. It was heart wrenching and my macho cop imagine would just shatter! These calls came almost always during the night or early morning (before dawn) and for some reason these calls seem to increase during the formal holiday seasons.

candle-deathOnce I received the dispatched call, I would telephone the dispatcher or the watch commander to get all of the pertinent details and to make damn sure that I was going to the right location and to confirm I was going to contact the right person. I would then drive to the neighborhood and pull into the vicinity of the residence and I would just park and wait for several minutes. (A good cop never parks in front of a residence where they are dispatched for officer safety reasons.  There never is or will be a “routine” call). I would normally roll down my unit’s driver window (weather permitting) after turning off my police radio.

A police car always attracts attention – and in this case I did not want casual observers or nosey “looky-loos” approach and ask me what was going on.

I would then just carefully listen to the sounds of life (music, voices, television, a barking family dog perhaps) that were coming from the residence in question. If it was early evening I would often smell the aroma of a home cook meal being prepared.  The sound of laughter or sounds of young children playing.

I would then slowly get out of my black & white (I would not wear my hat) then I would normally see the signs of household family life – a evening newspaper on the lawn, a bicycle on its side or tricycle blocking the walkway, a Halloween pumpkin face staring at me from the front porch or sometimes a Christmas wreath attached to the front door.

If it was very late at night, there would only be silence from the family home with just my shadow to accompany as I walked to the front door and knocked gently without any great urgency until a series of interior lights were turned on. I would always take a deep breath and let it out slowly to maintain a calm demeanor in my voice and for a relaxed posture. I then would say to myself a quick and solemn prayer for God to give me the right words. I always asked God for His guidance so that I could express the death notice with compassion and empathy – I was an official stranger! (I would want to consider the way that I would want to receive this terrible news – NOT in the Sergeant Friday manner “Of just the facts” delivered in a monotone robotic officious sounding voice).

The recipients of the death notice were the waiting wife (sometimes pregnant), the anxious mother, the concerned husband, the worried father or some other adult family member. I would ask politely if I could be invited inside and if I could sit down.  The person would then sit down – you never tell a person to do anything in their home under these circumstances. (I would never stand over anyone and I would always make eye contact)

I never used the words dead, killed, murdered, suicide nor any of the other hackneyed euphemisms such as passed-away, now with the Lord, in a better place, not coming home, they did not feel any pain, it was instant. Never, ever did I disclose any graphic details even if I knew them. The dead always deserve dignity and the survivors should be always be spared needless pain!

I would pray with them if they asked me.  I admit that sometimes I would shed some unintentional tears with them especially on occasions when they would show me a family picture during a happy time.  Especially if the picture of the deceased loved one reminded me of one of my own beloved. I would never leave them alone until I could call a friend, a neighbor, a minister or priest, another family member that could be with them. I would make sure that their young children were not present.

I would never say that I knew how they felt.  All I could do was to be there to listen, to acknowledge their grief, to answer their questions, to accept a crying embrace and to make phone calls and to provide additional necessary contact information.

Sometimes they would push away with angry denials and disbelief. On one occasion a young wife pounded her clenched fists on my chest until she melted into my arms and collapse into mournful shrieks.

Sometimes my sad message was met with stone silence – shock!  Then erupt in fits of tears.

Sometimes a person would stand-up and run from the room with family members in pursuit.

No matter what – a piece of my heart broke for them.

I learned through these tragic experiences that the person or persons that I had to advise would always remember my words and my manner not my face or my name. It did not matter to me – it was only about them!

I was not a cop during these times of grief.  I was just another human being trying the best way I could to display “humanity” to another human being whose world had just been turned inside-out and up-side down in a heartbeat.

Whether it was early evening or late at night I always saw the surprise, the hidden alarm and the slight fear expression that appeared on the person’s face when they saw the police uniform (not my face) at their front doorstep. (Police never show up at your door for anything good when you don’t expect them.)

Little did the household members know that in a few moments their normal lives would be changed forever as I would speak to them the news they did not want to hear nor attempt to understand.  (How could they? I would ask myself). One moment everything was normal for them; the next moment – they were assaulted with waves of sheer and unexpected anguish and pain and sorrow – sometimes coupled with regret.

(Please refer to my past Article, “Things Left Un-Said” for more clarity on regret)

I had to minister to them.  It was just not my duty- it was what my belief God taught me to do! I often think about the word “minister”. It means  “to give service”.

Well dear readers, the next time you see a black & white police car, you can give pause to thought when you see the motto that is painted on its side doors “To Protect and SERVE”.  It really means “To Protect and Minister”.

Please never leave anything unsaid to your loved ones – you never know when or if you might get that unexpected nighttime “knock” at your front door.

Until next time, Gumshoe is logging off the air 10-7 (out of service) EOW (end of watch).


Danny Pitocco
Danny Pitocco
RETIRED (as a Detective with the Snohomish County Sherriff’s Department, Washington State), Danny has over forty years of law enforcement experience across city, county, state and federal levels of government, including service as a Special Agent for the DEA, US Department of Justice. He’s a decorated law enforcement veteran, and recipient of the "Detective of the Year" award for Snohomish County, Danny is a certified composite artist and has testified as an expert witness in the field of narcotics and modus operandi of particular crimes in state and federal courts in California, and has given testimony before federal grand juries. Danny served four years of active duty in the US Marine Corps and loves Jesus as his personal savior.

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  1. I’m with Ken. It isn’t just because my brothers were law enforcement – but because police officers and first responders deserve our respect and our support. I’m catching up on your publications – all of them inspiring, entertaining, and really make me think about what our society would be like without law enforcement officers doing what they do. I need to find “Things left unsaid”. I missed that one somehow.

  2. Danny, I read your posts, those of Lynn, and hear the stories of my daughter and then I see and read the media comments about our police. The media seems intent on planting the seeds of discontent in the minds of the public as to police intents and attitudes. There seems to be a total disconnect between media stories/slants on stories and the reality of those in uniform. Why is that? Maybe they just don’t know the realities of police work. Maybe they only hear one side of the matter and that from the discontented.

    Sure there is an occasional bad cop. One that uses his/her uniform to badger people, or to enrich self. But, there are also bad doctors that scam Medicare and Medicaid. Bad and greedy business men and women. There are unethical lawyers and elected officials that abuse their power and public trust. We can’t condemn an entire category of people because of a few bad ones.

    I suggest that someone needs to bring stories like yours to the attention of the media. Where are the unions, sworn to protect the interests of cops? Where is the leadership of the many police organizations?

    Maybe your stories, and those of others, should be brought to the media. They are great public interest stories and real life events that the media, particularly local media, need.

    • Greetings Ken and thank you for your very thoughtful and in depth comments. Yes, it would be of great service if the media was aware of the real stories like Lynn and myself write about our police experiences. In my humble opinion out society looks upon policing as s necessary evil and cops are a disposal resource. I thank God for folks like you and Jane who still appreciate the cops. I also thank God for selfless individuals who are drawn into this vocation. It is definitely not for the money, security or for any glory!