Peter Steward's Web Site
The Role of Police Family Liaison Officers
Part A: Introduction
During murder and other major investigations in the county of Norfolk police family liaison officers are appointed to give support to the family of those murdered or subjected to serious crime.
These are volunteer officers often thrust into the role with little or no training as my research will show.
My intention in this module of my MA programme is to carry out a study of the role of Family Liaison Officers. Initially my intention was to evaluate the effectiveness of the training of these officers, but I had to change direction when I found out that their training is minimal and most of the skills are picked up from either their experiences as police officers or from the type of person they are.
So the decision became one to look at their roles and to challenge my assumptions in order to help with my understanding of their work keeping in mind that on occasions I am asked to work alongside these officers.
Early in my research I became aware of many subtleties and nuances and found that I was dealing with a vast subject that warrants more time and space than I can give it in this module.
Part B: Methodology
I am fortunate in being a senior civilian manager working within Norfolk Constabulary. This means that I have access to all ranks within the Force.
In order to study the role I felt it important to interview the force's senior detective who has overall responsibility for Family Liaison Officers for major investigations. My aim in speaking to him was to establish how much credence is given to and how important the Force sees the role of Family Liaison officers. It would be totally wrong to take the simplistic view that they are valued simply because they are appointed.
I also decided to speak to two other senior officers who have appointed Family Liaison Officers for enquiries to establish the criteria of the role and the type of person they look for.
The main part of my study, however, revolves around interviews with officers fulfilling the role of Family Liaison. My interview with the head of Norfolk CID identified a small group of about eight officers who have acted as Family Liaison although no set register exists and they have been appointed as and when a serious crime occurs. This small number reflects the idea that the role is very much in its infancy.
I decided initially to contact all of the officers with Family Liaison experience by way of a questionnaire. At the end of the questionnaire I asked them if they would be prepared for follow-up interviews if necessary. I sent out seven questionnaires (appendix A) as the eighth officer was on maternity leave. The questionnaires were designed to find out the officers their general feelings about the role, to find out about the stress levels and problems existing and also to increase my understanding of the role.
I hoped that by this method the answers to my questions would prompt further lines of inquiry and indeed I found this to be true. I received almost instant questionnaire replies from six of the seven officers and the seventh responded within one month. All said they were happy for follow-up contact. This excellent and speedy 100% response suggested to me a great interest in the subject. Indeed one officer said.
Thank you for your interest in a subject in which my views are quite strong.
When discussing the trauma of murder many people overlook the stress that can be felt by those dealing directly with victims. I wanted to use literature to look into this as well as asking liaison officers how they felt about this stress.
Intertwined with the interviews are a number of extracts from books and official sources which helped me to look even deeper into the subject. I also found the Internet a valuable source of information on the subject of grief and loss and have quoted from articles from here and included copies in my appendix.
By looking closely at the answers of the family liaison officers to my questionnaires I hoped that this would give me a chance to analyse to what extent they felt happy about their roles, whether they volunteered or were "press ganged" into the role.
The decision to use questionnaires was prompted by a need to see if the views and answers showed uniformity. My initial assumptions were that Family Liaison Officers were highly trained volunteers who almost had a "calling" to do the job. I soon found this to be untrue. Many other assumptions were destroyed during the research as I shall also explain.
Each section of my research is divided into the following four areas
(i) My questions
(ii) My assumptions
(iii) My research
(iv) My analysis or the challenging of my assumptions.
To help with my understanding of the role I also felt it important to analyse my own understanding of the role based on a murder enquiry with which I was involved in my professional role as Press and Public Relations Officer for Norfolk Constabulary.
In the main I have used the description Family Liaison Officer in full although at times my interviewees referred to FLOs. In such cases I have shortened the title to these three initials. The term FLOs is accepted, understood and used within the police force.
Part C: Ethics
Along with the questionnaires I sent out a covering letter (appendix B) explaining the point of my research, the fact that I had the backing of the Norfolk Constabulary and assuring officers of confidentiality in their answers. I gave them the option to leave blank any questions they did not wish to answer and also asked if they would be prepared to answer further questions if necessary.
As well as agreeing anonymity I felt my approach would also make the small number of officers feel an integral part of my research.
Part D: My Own Experience
Over the past seven years there have been over 50 murders in Norfolk. I have been involved as a press officer in a large majority of these, often working alongside the Senior Investigating Officer.
Many of the murders have been what is termed "domestic" in nature. This means that the murderer is known to the victim either as an acquaintance or family member. Such cases are usually relatively straightforward and often detected immediately or certainly within a week or so.
"Non domestic cases" can take months or even years to detect and some remain undetected. In Norfolk at present we have three "outstanding" murders from the past seven years. The victims of all three were young people aged between 12 and 16 at the time they were murdered.
It is in long term cases such as these that the Family Liaison Officers provide their greatest support.
Over the years I have also given support in a small way to immediate family members following murder. This usually takes the form of helping them to deal with Media enquiries and appeals. On a number of occasions they have openly paid tribute to the work of the Family Liaison Officers. One family told me.
We have been overwhelmed by the support received from everyone and the messages of love and support. We have been impressed by the commitment and speed with which the police have worked from the start and particularly the personal support we have received from particular officers throughout our tragic loss.
Another victim spoke of the continuance of the police support:
The Police support has been brilliant. Although ----- died almost five years ago I am still receiving support from officers.
I was also present in the court building when another couple openly thanked the family liaison officers for their support. This was in a room in front of senior police officers, court staff and barristers.
They have helped us to get through a very difficult time and we cannot express our gratitude in words.
My interest in the role of Family Liaison Officers was heightened by the murder of a boy in a rural area of Norfolk in 1997. I was part of the murder team as Press and Public Relations Officer and for a time worked alongside the Family Liaison Officers advising and helping the parents of the murdered boy.
My first contact with the parents was the day after the news of their son's death had been broken to them. I spent a difficult two hours with them putting together a statement to be issued to the Press. The family liaison officers were already with the family and had been there most of the night.
The liaison officers were one of the family's first contacts with the outside world following the tragic news.
My role in setting up Press conferences with the family, organising and undertaking Media interviews on their behalf has no significant relevance to this module. There were, however, periods during my discussions with the family when there were long silences. I was able to observe the Family Liaison Officers lending support by consoling them, making tea, taking telephone calls and generally trying to assuage their grief. Below are just a few of the observations I made about their role.
I was shown into the living room of the home by a uniformed police officer whose function was to prevent unwelcome visitors to the property. Inside I was met by one of the family liaison officers who was fully aware of my role.
I was introduced by them to the parents. The couple sat in their lounge around the dining room table. The father had his head bowed and was extremely withdrawn, whilst the mother was more expressive and seemed to want to talk about her son. The pure embodiment of grief existed in that room.
I spent over an hour with the parents. During this time I was fully aware of the subtle supporting role of the Family Liaison Officers. They were not dressed in uniform and at that time I looked upon them as carers and counsellors rather than police officers.
This is a view which was later challenged by my questionnaire, however.
Throughout my time with the parents, the Family Liaison Officers were on hand to help and to guide, supporting where necessary and helping them at all times. When I left the home the Family Liaison Officers stayed on giving support deep into the night. These officers were somehow adapting themselves as human beings to deal with the unimaginable.
This long-term function of the Family Liaison Officers is typical of the care and effort they put in whenever the situation is in need of their particular brand of professionalism.
The family liaison officers are entering a world where there has been a death in very unreal circumstances.
This is summed up by Asaro (1997) :
When someone is murdered, the surviving family members may experience post traumatic stress reactions in addition to the wide range of grief reactions that may result if a loved one has died from natural causes. (Page 2)
The piece goes on to outline the feelings and post traumatic stress that family members may suffer including shock, disbelief, numbness, difficulty concentrating, confusion, anger, fear, anxiety, depression, isolation, helplessness, vulnerability, guilt, self blame and desire for revenge.
Costa (1997) refers to a loss of equilibrium by victims:
Traumatic events throw individuals so far out of their normal range of equilibrium that it is difficult to restore a sense of balance. (Page 1)
Into this cauldron come the Family Liaison Officers who are there to give support but could be accused by the families of being dispassionate and cold simply because they are police officers:
Riding Smyth (1992) states:
Professionals, sympathetic as they may be, unless bereaved themselves are just not experienced to deal with death and grieving. We feel them too detached, too aloof.
Robin Howard (1994), a serving officer with Lancashire Constabulary, has looked at this problem from the police officer's point of view.
The police officer today is expected to be competent in a wide variety of situations ranging from simple information giving, to taking a major role in a potentially life threatening situation. However, arguably the most harrowing aspect of his/her job is the need to deal with the actual death of a person .... Nothing had prepared me for the emotional reaction and the feeling of complete inadequacy that I experienced on each occasion. (Page 22)
Howard (1994) goes on to underline that police officer's needs are as important as those of the victims.
Whilst the needs of the bereaved are important so too are the needs of the police officers who deal with death. There is stress placed on a police officer in this situation. (Page 17)
I am aware that there could be a conflict between the workings of the Family Liaison Officers who try to be as open and supportive as possible with the victims they are supporting and the essential nature of the police force which Sholnick (1975) states.
The police are often held to be the most secluded part of the criminal justice system.(Page 14)
Manning (1972) goes a step further:
The police organisation erects barriers against prying outsiders and endeavours to preserve a favourable image of itself to the extent of mystifying and even falsifying accounts for public consumption (Page 74)
This latter comment can play little or no part in the role of Family Liaison Officers who must be as open with the victims as the police investigation allows.
Part E: The Research
During my research a number of key words, phrases and questions kept occurring. They seemed to be so powerful that I decided to investigate a number of areas encompassing these. The "prompt" words included the following: training, calling, support, effectiveness, carers.
I decided to look at a number of areas and try to answer the obvious question arising from each word. In addition to quoting the officers and trying to build up an overall picture I decided to analyse each section in order to enhance my understanding of the role.
I asked two questions in this section. Firstly I wanted to establish what the officers felt were the qualities needed and secondly what functions they had undertaken in their role.
My assumptions here were that the officers would see kindness, understanding, consideration to be the key areas and that the functions would be wide, not only of a caring nature but also of an investigative one.
The response to this section brought forward a whole host of qualities some of which surprised me. One FLO cited the following as the most important qualities:
Tact, diplomacy, sensitivity.
Another FLO highlighted an ability to communicate and the general attributes that makes a human being a good police officer. These were:
Those of a good bobby - communication/understanding/ability to fade into the background.
The same officer surprised me by suggesting that these softer elements had to be tempered by harsher ones.
Additionally they need to be honest, forthright, efficient and if necessary blunt when required.
Other words used included: sympathetic, professional, patience, discretion, positiveness, confidence and plain good sense and another thread that ran through was the basic need to be a good detective as this FLO stated.
A high stress level, jack of all trades and a good detective.
Many FLOs openly stated that their qualities had to be a mixture of the compassionate and professional approach to evidence gathering.
Ability to communicate in an understanding and sympathetic way, as well as being able to adopt a professional approach to obtaining evidence. (FLO)
There seemed to be an acceptance that the role encompassed a whole host of functions. The jack-of-all trades aspect was highlighted by the following comments from an FLO.
I have taken statements, investigated, liaised with the media and legal bodies, been a general fixer, arranged meetings, sorted out problems, acted as a minder at public events, acted as an advisor and been a general trouble-shooter.
This covers every imaginable function from the general duties of a police officer to the little personal touches needed to help ease the load. Another FLO included a similar catalogue of duties.
Evidence gathering, support, mediation, press liaison/containment, legal explanations, enquiry progress reports.
Yet another summed it up by referring to him/herself as:
A general gofer
For other FLO's the duties extended to other very personal functions including:
Support at court, at the funeral and assistance in social and money matters.
Another FLO took the family to view the body and one officer admitted that he had acted as a cook - giving further evidence to the humanitarian side of the role.
My Assumptions Challenged?
This was probably the most straightforward of my categories. My initial assumptions were reasonably correct. Most of the words used for the role were of a "caring" nature although I was surprised at the use of the word "bluntness" which seemed counter to the role, but it does give the work a slightly different dimension suggesting that firmness - almost an iron fist in a velvet glove - is needed as well as kindness.
APPOINTMENT and TRAINING
I wanted to establish how Family Liaison Officers are chosen and what training Norfolk officers receive for the role.
My initial assumptions were that there would be a stringent selection procedure and that the training would be intensive, possibly undertaken within but possibly outside the force.
Mason (1997) is very harsh on this point:
The Family Liaison Officer is a classic example of a specialist post without recognition. (Page 7)
Family Liaison officers are basically police officers who have volunteered or been asked to undertake the specialist function. It is a function of the police force that no officer is forced to undertake but a number feel that they cannot refuse after being asked to undertake the role by a senior officer..
There are two basic ways in which an officer can join the ranks of the select handful who fulfil the function. The first is by personally volunteering and the second is via a recommendation from a senior officer - possibly the senior investigating officer in the case. Whichever route is taken the officers will be assessed for their effectiveness by senior staff.
We look for people who are good communicators, sympathetic listeners and experienced police officers. We must always bear in mind the fact that they could be talking to suspects and so the police side must come in. (A senior officer).
The role of the Family Liaison Officers is absolutely vital for the families and for the investigation itself. They can facilitate interviews, keep the Press away from the families, brief the family on the investigation, act as counsellors, present the best face of the police force and provide a vital public relations role. They really are a credit to the force.
It appears from my research, however, that the essence of being a good family liaison officer is the nature and character of those involved rather than the training.
It is very much a gut feeling. On a case I was involved in I needed to appoint an FLO and I approached somebody I felt had the right inter-personal skills, who I thought would be willing to do it and somebody I felt would look at the position from a caring point of view rather than an investigating one. (Another senior officer)..
The Family Liaison Officers seem to suggest an arbitrariness to the appointments. I received the following comments from them:
I had no choice really. It was very much a time and place thing as I got the ball rolling from a missing person investigation.
On both occasions I was appointed by a senior officer as a suitable candidate. I seem to have fallen into the role.
Another was simply the first at the scene.
I was the first officers at the scene when the body was found and I met the family.
This sentiment was echoed by another FLO who said:
I made first contact with the family and was told to become FLO.
I have already discussed the need for FLOs to be good police officers, but one officer fulfilling the function believed that his experience of life was the number one priority.
I believe I was asked because of my age and life experience (not work experience). I had never been on a major inquiry.
In another case it seemed almost a matter of luck.
It came about due to circumstances when other officers initially allocated the role were unwilling or unable to fill it. I accepted the role mainly because I realised someone has to do it.... and it can be satisfying.
There is relatively little training given for the role. Norfolk Constabulary held a special weekend a year ago where police and Victim Support volunteers combined to talk about support. The Family Liaison Officers attended this and indeed I personally gave a presentation regarding the effect the Media has on Victims of Crime (a subject I am developing further for my MA dissertation). One Family Liaison Officer stated that they had been on a national training course in West Yorkshire.
I wasn't aware of the role of an FLO but decided to go as I felt it would be a challenge.
This decision was backed by a senior officer who told me:
We knew about the West Yorkshire training scheme and wanted somebody to evaluate its effectiveness.
Most of those chosen, however, learn the function as and when they are needed. They in effect learn from their experience. Mason (1997) agrees with this point:
Individuals develop methods of coping as each difficulty arises
To me this almost suggests a "sink or swim situation." Norfolk officers seem to accept this situation, but believe that in general they have good support as one pointed out:
I had very little training. I picked it up as I went along. I was lucky in that the Senior Investigating Officers were very supportive and willing to give clear policy decisions and back my actions with the family. (Family Liaison Officer).
As a senior officer explained, this seems to be effective:
The officers who undertake this work are a very close knit group. It's almost like a club in that they support each other.
This is helped by the fact that officers chosen are usually from the junior ranks.
We believe that officers of the rank of Detective Constable are better at this role than senior officers would be. They are more used to dealing with and talking to members of the public and there are more of them to deploy. There is no way you could extract a senior officer from a major investigation to fulfil the role. Often the family liaison officer will combine that role with the role of investigator. I know this is accepted by the families and their role is greatly appreciated. (Senior Officer).
The officers I spoke to didn't seem unduly worried about the lack of training. Comments included.
Each situation is different. There is a Home Office and family liaison package which is sufficient. (Family Liaison Officer).
And once again the theme of learning from experience which ran through much of my research.
Most of the training comes from experiencing the role. (Family Liaison Officer).
Another FLO was not surprised by the lack of training and accepted it because of the situation.
It is difficult to train someone for the role. Ultimately to learn it as you go along is not really satisfactory but cases vary so much. Every family and its members are different so criteria would be hard to set.
One Family Liaison Officer advocated the training of a small number of officers who could then pass their experience on:
I would advocate that specific officers be trained as FLO liaison officers. They could then support, advise and assist the FLOs.
This was echoed by the following comment from an FLO:
The most useful thing is to learn from other people. The best people to train new FLOs are experienced ones. If there is a formal training system set it must in the main be done by other FLOs.
Another FLO echoed these sentiments:
An improvement would obviously be to have some training. However I do not believe that it is realistic to just train a limited number of officers to be tasked when necessary. I believe it would be more beneficial to give some basic training to all officers and then carefully choose officers appropriate to the circumstances.
My Assumptions Challenged
This was the section of my research where my assumptions proved to be almost totally unfounded and wrong. It soon became evident that the selection process occurred after a major incident had happened and was very much a "spur of the moment" decision by a senior officer based more on personal character than experience.
There was also some suggestion amongst those chosen that they were faced with a fait accompli. "I had no choice," "I seem to have fallen into the role," "I was the first officer at the scene," "Officers initially allocated to the role were unwilling or unable to fill it," were just some of the comments here.
I believe this suggests that there should be room for the identification of officers who wish to undertake the role. I believe that nobody should carry out such a vital function simply because there is no alternative. Appointing the wrong kind of character to this position could be very harmful to the family. Having said that senior officers have told me that without exception Family Liaison Officers have been
Professional, caring and very effective.
The training of officers has certainly not been intensive. The role seems to be one that develops through experience rather than training. The officers universally seem to accept this fact. Senior officers are also happy with the situation and so the argument could be put forward as to what value any training would be. So training is broadly experiential. Indeed one family liaison officer answered my question about the amount of training with the terse reply "What training!"
A number of those interviewed suggested that training for the role would be difficult as each case is different. The general feeling was that individuals develop their own methods of coping with good support from senior officers. The strongest suggestion seemed to be to have one or two trained individuals who can then pass their training on to other officers.
Overall my findings on this section were spectacularly different to what I had anticipated.
Another shock came from the destruction of my assumption that officers fulfilling the Family Liaison Officer role saw it as a calling. My research told me that they saw it more as a duty and in certain cases just a job.
To establish comments in this section I asked two questions. The first surrounded whether they saw the role as being primarily that of a police officer who is a carer or as a carer who is a police officer.
The second question revolved around how the individual officers see the role and what satisfaction they have obtained from it.
I expected a mixture of answers on the first question with almost a conflict between the police officer/carer situation. Again I found my assumptions to be misguided.
For the second question I assumed that they would find the role very demanding, very stressful, but very satisfying.
The respondents had no problem sorting out the subtle differences between being a police officer and a carer. All without exception saw themselves primarily as police officers placed in a caring role. This would suggest the strength of their roles as police officers first and foremost. There seemed to be no dilemma for them in this part of their role. This is the essence of Mason (1997).
The basis of the Family Liaison Officer's function seems to be that of forming a relationship with the family, to facilitate the investigation of the family's loss. (Page 18).
One Family Liaison Officer saw the need for a balance between caring and gaining trust and obtaining evidence:
It's a question of balance, it being essential to obtain information and evidence as well as developing trust and support.
Most saw themselves as part of the police investigation team:
I never lose sight of the fact that I am part of a team investigating the serious crime of murder. You have to remember as an FLO you could be talking to the murderer within the family.
This was echoed by the following comment from an FLO.
The role is multi purpose but fundamentally you are a police officer and the main task is to establish the truth, identify the offender and gather the evidence to support a prosecution.
And the following comment:
You cannot lose sight that it is an investigative role and your first responsibility is to the enquiry. The family must always be supported and kept informed but not at the expense of the investigation.
On the question of job satisfaction, the responses from Family Liaison Officers were somewhat mixed.
Some accepted the vital importance of the role and received satisfaction from this as one explained.
I feel that the role is vitally important. The victim's family have a great need for information and advice concerning the crime.
Others gained satisfaction from different areas such as being accepted as a friend by the families. One went a step further and talked of being fortunate to have fulfilled the role:
The role of the FLO is the most intensive task I have ever performed. I count myself extremely fortunate.
Others saw the role in a very different light with satisfaction either difficult or impossible to achieve.
I don't think there is any satisfaction achievable from this role. Survival with the least amount of damage feasible to all parties involved is the best that can be expected. (Family Liaison Officer).
One FLO was more mechanical in his assessment with satisfaction not coming from the personal contact but from the catching of those responsible.
It's part of the job. Satisfaction comes from conviction at court (Family Liaison Officer)
My Assumptions Challenged
As explained above I was surprised to find that without exception and with only a few small differences, all the officers saw themselves primarily as police officers and agreed that the investigative aspect of the job was as important as the caring aspect.
The second question in this section strongly taught me "never to assume." I felt that, without exception, the officers would have talked about the satisfaction of the role. Many did, but others rather shocked me by talking about "survival with the least amount of damage" being the only achievable result. Another officer stated that it was "part of the job" - in other words just one of the many functions undertaken by a police officer.
In many ways this is a laudable sentiment. Police officers are
subjected daily to the most horrendous excesses of human violence and
nature. Somewhere they have to have a safety valve.
STRESS AND THE FAMILY LIAISON OFFICER
I was also keen to find out how stressful the role is.
Most police work is stressful in some way, but I assumed that the function of a Family Liaison Officer would be even more stressful as the officers would be dealing with the effects of grief over relatively long periods of time.
(Mason 1997) bears out my thoughts on stress:
Without support and their needs being met, officers are exposed to a working environment which is capable of having a damaging emotional impact upon them.
This was also borne out by my research in which one Family Liaison Officers referred to it as:
The most difficult and emotionally demanding task I have ever undertaken.
Another stated that he/she found it very demanding with pressure both from the family and the police force:
I found it very stressful. You work long hours and are with a family demanding answers to questions you can't always answer. The other side is the Senior Investigating Officer who is also demanding answers.
One respondent admitted that it had badly affected his/her home life:
I was a single parent with two daughters at home. I was working from 6 a.m to 1 a.m for many days and had to attempt to sort children out or find someone to do it. I also had difficulty getting to the bank to pay bills etc. These types of problem build on an already stressful situation.
My Assumptions Challenged?
My assumptions on the stress levels seem to be borne out with some of the comments suggesting that the role can be all consuming, taking over an entire life and creating personal problems of quite a high magnitude.
This is something I feel that Norfolk Constabulary and the police service in general must be aware of. It is no good having officers giving support to the bereaved if this creates problems for them because of the length of day they are expected to work and the personal difficulties it brings to them.
Finally I wanted to find out how receptive families have been to the officers and how long the officers themselves felt the personal support should go on.
Having spoken to families prior to my research I knew how valued the role of Family Liaison Officer is. I had no assumptions on the length of time officers felt personal support should go on - believing that this would vary according to the need of each individual family and also the amount of time the officers had for the role.
As I have already said the first part of the section was undertaken in the light of the positive comments made to me in the past by the families themselves. These comments have been spontaneous and not provoked by my own comments or questions.
The Family Liaison Officer were in agreement about how well they have been received whilst remaining wary that this could change at any time and the relationship between themselves and the family could be very fragile.
I have been received very well after initial difficulties (FLO).
Another FLO was very aware of the precarious balance which existed.
To date I have been very well received although I am aware that things could change as circumstances develop. There have been some difficult moments but we have managed to recover from them.
There were many shades to answers to this question with one FLO citing a general mistrust of the police as being a possible problem.
Some family members will always be dissatisfied (as they are with everything the police do). An intelligent family will always come up with more questions, many of which might be difficult to answer.