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Police Week 2012: Getting through the ultimate tragedy
Sergeant Scott Barthelmass of the Overland (Mo.) PD heads up a Law Enforcement Funeral Assistance Team for the state of Missouri, one of a handful of such organizations active in the U.S.
On the saddest of days — when everything needs to go just right — are you sure your department would know how to conduct a proper police funeral?
At agencies where line-of-duty deaths are a rarity and there’s no proven protocol in place for honoring a dead officer, the skill to do the right things may not match the will.
Sergeant Scott Barthelmass of the Overland (Mo.) PD can help.
A 17-year law enforcement veteran, Barthelmass heads up a Law Enforcement Funeral Assistance Team for the state of Missouri, one of a handful of such organizations active in the U.S. In the last four years, his group has helped plan and/or conduct 70 law enforcement funerals or memorials, ranging from those for retired officers who suffered fatal heart attacks to officers killed in car crashes or gunned down on-duty.
Even K-9 funerals qualify for the team’s assistance.
In a presentation for the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police and during an interview later with PoliceOne, he spoke about the special needs of these solemn occasions.
“The way a police funeral is handled is critical to helping an officer’s coworkers, surviving family, and community begin to heal,” he says. “Everyone needs to see how heroic the dead officer was by the way his or her death is commemorated. You want the family to think, ‘Wow! He did make a difference’,” Barthelmass explained.
“Yet many agencies, especially small or medium-size ones, are overwhelmed and unprepared when a death suddenly strikes. They’re well-intentioned, but they don’t have the manpower, the knowledge, or the resources necessary to organize and execute appropriate memorial procedures. Most times, there’s so much emotion going on and so many details that are important to cover it’s hard to figure out what to do on the fly.”
Across his career, Barthelmass himself has experienced the deaths of seven friends killed in action. “Among them, there was one really, really bad funeral,” he says. “The agency didn’t communicate at all with the officer’s family — just did what it wanted to do and ended up making some very unfortunate choices. There are still scars.”
In 2008, several LEOs were killed in one month in Missouri, and as their grieving agencies stumbled through the hectic aftermath, “it became obvious that many departments need help when these tragedies occur,” Barthelmass recalls.
A volunteer firefighter as well as a cop, he was aware that the fire community has a proficient, nationwide network of funeral assistance teams to assure that fallen members get awe-inspiring sendoffs. He decided to gather a group of fellow officers who would help him develop a team for the Show Me State that would mirror the fire paradigm for cops.
Today, that team, operating from the St. Louis area, consists of some 10 core members, with the capability of more than doubling its size as demand requires. All members are extensively trained in death notification, in dealing with trauma, and in funeral protocol. The group is chartered as a nonprofit organization, funded by donations. Its services are provided free of charge (a similar team has subsequently been organized in the Kansas City region).
“We only respond when requested by an agency,” Barthelmass explains. “Our job isn’t to take over in a high-profile manner. Our mission is to quietly assure that things run smoothly and that all bases are covered in a collaborative manner in a short time, like an unobtrusive, behind-the-scenes event-planner.
“We don’t want most people to even know we were there. We want people to think the department really did a good job of burying one of their own.”
Among areas where the team often makes a positive impact:
Family-agency Liaison — “It’s important that what the officer’s family wants and what the department has in mind mesh,” Barthelmass points out. He recalls one instance where an agency intended to post an honor guard holding rifles at the dead member’s casket. Considering that the officer had just been slain by someone with a gun, the family recoiled at this idea. “Too often, communication with the family gets lost in the shuffle and bitterness results,” Barthelmass notes.
Crowd Management — “More people often turn out for a police funeral than agencies anticipate,” Barthelmass says. “Officers are likely to show up from out of town and need accommodations or direction. Over 22,000 people turned out in Lakewood, Washington, when the four officers were killed there. That can swamp a small town without the right crowd control. Disruptive elements may appear too. Religious radicals who heckle military funerals sometimes target law enforcement funerals, as well. We can make sure the family is shielded from them without creating liability regarding free-speech rights.”
Body Escort — Usually the family and agency appreciate having the fallen officer’s body accompanied by a continual police presence from death through the burial. Barthelmass’s team can coach and equip honor guards to make that possible. In one exceptional case, an officer died in one state but was to be interred several states away. The funeral team arranged not only for a police escort for the long journey but had a squad car or fire engine visible from the highway at every overpass en route.
Street-coverage Logistics — Police services for the community need to be maintained during the funeral, but this can strain small agencies where members of the force, including dispatchers, want to attend or be involved in the memorial. “We can help recruit and coordinate substitutes to cover dispatch and patrol so there’s no disruption,” Barthelmass says.
Photographic Record — “We can provide a photographer to create a record of the event,” Barthelmass says. “The family often doesn’t remember what happened because of the stress and emotion they’re experiencing at the time. We can prepare a nice CD or DVD for them to view later and have as a keepsake.”
Memorable Touches — The variety of component pieces that Barthelmass’s team can provide seems limitless: Prayers and readings that are law enforcement-specific, flags from all military branches for veterans, albums in which people can write messages, help in tracking down a bag piper or a chaplain, guidance for helping survivors get the federal benefits they’re entitled to. “There can be a massive amount of planning that goes into a police funeral,” Barthelmass says. “We try to think of everything. We’ve never had a request we couldn’t fulfill.”
In Missouri and its surrounding states, the team can work with an agency in person. The team travels with a trailer stocked with an inventory to meet every contingency, from fuses for light bars to white gloves for pallbearers to toys for kids to arm bands and bunting to a sound system capable of broadcasting to huge crowds at a cemetery.
For departments beyond the team’s immediate geographic reach, Barthelmass can consult without charge by phone and email. “We’ve gotten so proficient at doing it, we can help anyone,” he says, “even if we’re not there in person.” And if you’d like to organize a funeral team in your area, he can send useful documents from a 150-page how-to manual he has compiled and guide you through the process.
“We can’t stop every line-of-duty death,” Barthelmass says. “We always hope another one won’t happen, but they do. It’s imperative that we lay fallen heroes to rest in the most honorable and dignified way possible.”