In this specially written article marking the start of our Christmas Drink Drive Campaign, WMP Family Liaison Officer Mick Jennings gives an overview of a role that I believe is one of the hardest an officer can hold. Following a fatal road accident or similar, Family Liaison Officers are sent out to make contact with the families of the deceased. Tragically Christmas can be a busy time for them.
“Police said Family Liaison Officers had been appointed to support the families of those involved.”
You may have heard this, or similar, in relation to road deaths or murders, but what does it mean? Who are these Family Liaison Officers and what exactly do they do?
Well firstly, it’s a misnomer to say Family Liaison Officers (FLO) ‘support’ a family. FLOs, as they are commonly referred as, are not counsellors and it is not their role to provide emotional support to a grieving family.
The concept of family liaison has been in existence for many years, but it was events during the 90s that really galvanised the role into something that we can identify with today.
One of the main drivers for effective family liaison was the MacPherson Report into the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 which made several recommendations in relation to the training and deployment of Family Liaison Officers.
The primary role of any FLO is an investigator, tasked by the Senior Investigating Officer to develop a professional working relationship with the victim’s family. All enquiries and communication with the family will be made through the FLO, thereby minimising as much as possible the intrusion into the family at this traumatic time.
The FLO should aim to develop a relationship through trust and honesty but, especially in the early days of a deployment, their role will be very challenging, particularly where there maybe a mistrust of the police, or where police involvement may have been a factor in the death. Whatever the situation, one overriding principal is that the police will never close the door on contact with a victim’s family.
The role of FLO is voluntary and there is no expectation that any officer must become one. Those that do undertake the training can, at any time, decide that the role is not for them after all and even a trained FLO can turn down a deployment if they feel that they cannot give it the commitment that it deserves. This might be for a variety of reasons, for example, if the FLO was already heavily committed with another investigation or was due to go on leave in the next few days.
The Family Liaison Officer Training Course lasts for five days but is designed to draw upon the officers’ previously acquired skills in their area of business and it is not recommended that they volunteer too early in their career.
The content of the course is compatible with the national training programme and features a variety of topics to test the suitability of the officer for this role. Once an officer has completed the training, it is expected that they will be first deployed with an experienced FLO to act as mentor.
In any investigation the aim should be to deploy FLOs in pairs or as part of a team, dependant on the circumstances of the incident under investigation. That way should anything happen that necessitates a new FLO being deployed, the continuity with the family, and therefore the relationship, is maintained.
In addition, in the early days of an investigation the FLO maybe spending several hours at the family home and may need the support of a colleague, even if its just an extra pair of hands. Anyone in this family environment, even if just assisting the lead FLO, should be trained and know what to expect.
Before meeting a family, the Family Liaison Officer can expect to receive a full briefing about the incident under investigation as it is essential that they know exactly what has happened, where it happened, to whom and what is expected of them by the Senior Investigating Officer. Where possible, it is recommended that the FLO visit the crime or collision scene to familiarise themselves with it should family members wish to go there themselves.
When first meeting the family, it may not always be possible to answer all the questions they have, either because of operational reasons or purely because the FLO doesn’t know at that time. Other than for those reasons, the FLO will never intentionally keep the truth from the family, no matter how upsetting it may be. The art of effective family liaison is honesty, tactfully delivered.
Every investigation will have standard tasks for the FLO such as arranging a formal identification of the deceased and taking lifestyle statements, but he/she should not become complacent as every investigation is dealing with the untimely, and often unlawful, death of a loved one, and every deployment should be as professional as the last, treating families with respect and dignity.
Over time the demands on the FLO in the investigative sense may subside but he/she will remain in contact with the family for as long as the Senior Investigating Officer requires, updating and informing at key stages, even accompanying them to any subsequent court hearings.
Eventually, though, the time will come when the FLO deployment will come to an end. Known as an Exit Strategy, the FLO will have been preparing the family for this final visit, after which, as the investigation has ended, there will be no further contact. Some families may become very attached to what they see as ‘their FLO’ but, whatever the case, it is important that the family are allowed to move forward and the FLO will be deployed to another family who have lost a loved one in tragic circumstances.
Ever day, dozens of Family Liaison Officers are being deployed around England and Wales as part of investigations into unlawful killings, suspicious deaths and child abuse, to name but a few.
The officers are proud to perform the role, often without any additional remuneration, and are proud of the difference their professional behaviour can make to a family at such a dark hour. But above all a Family Liaison Officer is proud to be an investigator seeking the truth of what happened.
Mick Jennings has featured on this blog before and is a trained Family Liaison Officer in both Crime and Roads Policing. As well as teaching new to role FLOs in his own force, Mick has trained officers from across the country. In 2008 he assisted the National Policing Improvement Agency in devising the National FLO Development Programme and has spoken at several conferences in relation to Family Liaison. To follow the life of a traffic cops trainer, or to just ask a question, he can be found @PCJenningsWMP.