The sheer quantity of fatal collisions are a sobering thought: across the world, on average one person dies every 30 seconds as a result of a traffic collision. On the UK roads, five people die each day. That means five families daily have to deal with the sudden, unexpected and violent death of a close relative.
To help them through such a difficult time, the Family Liaison Officer (FLO) was introduced in 2000. The role was a development of the successful policy of allocating individual CID officers to the families of murder victims, as it was apparent that the support given to bereaved families following fatal collisions varied considerably across each policing area of the UK. Since its introduction, the family liaison role has developed throughout all police forces and is now accepted as best practice around the world.
Family Liaison Officers are experienced road policing officers who have received additional training to ensure that they conduct themselves in a caring, respectful and professional manner in all dealings with bereaved families. The officer is nominated for the role, based on his or her ability to deal with difficult situations to very high standards. Once appointed, a FLO will maintain contact with the next of kin throughout the police investigation and inquests, and where a prosecution is made, to the conclusion of the trial. The role is completely voluntary.
What happens when fatal collisions are reported to the police?
When a fatal collisions are reported to the police, a FLO is identified to attend at the collision scene. He or she must be immediately available and is responsible for the early identification of the casualty, carrying out basic checks, such as confirming registration numbers with the DVLA and examining personal papers in pockets, wallets and handbags.
The single most important task for the officer is to make urgent enquiries to trace next of kin. Often they will have already suspected that something is wrong because, for example, someone has not arrived home at their usual time or is not answering their mobile phone. In these circumstances, the next of kin may well know that something dreadful has happened the moment a police car parks outside the house.
Training to deliver the message to family
The Family Liaison Officer is trained to deliver the message in a direct and unambiguous manner. In order to help them achieve the professional and caring attitude required, training involves role play and meeting with bereaved relatives who can offer advice and guidance on how best to break such dreadful news. For example, one mother revealed that she had to change her front door after the death of her teenage son. She answered her door during the night and all she remembered was seeing the police yellow reflective tabard through the glass. She could not get that image out of her head and therefore decided to change the door to a solid one. Reflective tabards are now not normally worn when telling relatives that a loved one has died.
There is no right or standard reaction from a relative who has been informed of a death. Immediate reactions can range from collapsing, right through to attacking the liaison officer. Generally, the response is denial or belief that the officer must be mistaken. Therefore, the next task is to ensure that appropriate support is in place from friends or relatives to help the next of kin through the next few days and weeks. The FLO will remain in close contact throughout this period and the family will be able to contact them at any time of day or night.
Media attention on fatal collisions
Fatal collisions often attract considerable media attention and this is also something that a Family Liaison Officer will discuss with the deceased’s family. The FLO will ask for a photograph of the deceased to give to the press, ensuring that the family controls which photos are released for publication, rather than have the press trying to find one themselves.
All police contact with the family is made through the liaison officer, thereby ensuring that just one person is responsible for giving information to the family and that the information is accurate, relevant and timely. Often, the family will have lots of questions. Having attended the accident scene, the FLO will have first-hand knowledge of the circumstances of the accident, and this information will often be of great importance to loved ones, who may want to visit the accident scene to lay flowers. The FLO will arrange this and be on hand to accompany and support them through this difficult visit.
In addition, the investigating officer will need information concerning where the deceased had been before the collision; the Family Liaison Officer may be able to obtain this information from his or her dealings with the family, although they will generally play no direct part in the investigation.
Over the past 11 years, many links have been made with charities such as Brake, which supports victims of road crashes and Cruse, the bereavement care organisation. Professional support is available to bereaved families at all times and FLOs are able to supply detailed information tailored to the needs of each family.
Particularly important is liaison with NHS organ donation teams. Many families derive great comfort from the knowledge that their loved one helped others in their time of need. Generally, the FLO will raise this difficult subject at a very early stage of the investigation, because of the strict time limits demanded by transplant operations.
The role of family liaison officers can be extremely demanding and, at the same time, immensely rewarding because of the help and assistance they can give to bereaved families. The deployment of individual FLOs is closely monitored by police line managers and regular debriefing sessions are held to ensure both the health and continuing suitability of each officer.
For more information, contact our Fatal Road Traffic Accident team.