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Back to Archives | Back to December 2011 Contents 

"Just a Volunteer”: Supporting An Agency’s Volunteer Program through Difficult Times

By Marjorie Trachtman, Certified Volunteer Administrator, Volunteer Coordinator, Bellevue, Washington, Police Department

In December 2007, at 80 years old, Kay was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She had no family; over her eight years of volunteer service, the people of the Bellevue, Washington, Police Department had become her family. Department members visited her at the hospice many times during the three months she was there. The volunteer coordinator asked the hospice staff to call her when it was clear that Kay was near death. They did, and the volunteer coordinator was at Kay’s bedside as she passed.

After about nine years of volunteering as the department quartermaster, Gene learned that he had debilitating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and esophageal cancer. He had been ill off and on throughout the previous year but even after the terminal diagnosis, he continued coming to work every morning until he simply could not do so anymore. When he was hospitalized near the end, the officers he worked with decided to hold their somewhat raucous monthly staff meeting at his hospital bedside to show him that he was still part of the group and to keep his spirits up. He died about a week later. His wife subsequently told the volunteer coordinator just how much that simple act meant to Gene and the family. “Gene talked about that meeting until the very end. Our family couldn’t believe you would do something so thoughtful for someone who was just a volunteer,” she said. At Gene’s memorial service, his volunteer work with the department was prominently featured.

Pauline, age 85, had been a volunteer for 15 years and was a favorite among all who knew her. She didn’t show up for her shift one day, and the officer who worked with her became concerned. He went out to her home and found her unconscious on the bathroom floor, having suffered a massive stroke. He summoned medics who transported her to the hospital, then contacted family members and the volunteer coordinator who arrived at the hospital shortly after the medics. Later that afternoon, Pauline was taken off life support at the family’s request, and, with the family, the department’s volunteer coordinator, and the officer surrounding her bedside, she died. At her memorial service, the department’s honor guard escorted the family into and out of the chapel and the officer with whom Pauline had worked all those years delivered a eulogy. There were many uniformed, civilian, and volunteer staff in attendance.

y now, the benefits of citizen law enforcement volunteer programs are well established. However, the stories above illustrate one aspect of these programs that rarely, if ever, gets discussed: the inevitable illness and death among an agency’s volunteer staff. Most civilian volunteer programs rely heavily on retired folks who begin their involvement in their 50s, 60s, or 70s, and it is not uncommon for volunteers to remain with an agency for 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, or more. Some agencies have programs that partner with the American Association of Retired Persons and other senior organizations, and some programs are designed exclusively to accept seniors for volunteer service. During their course of service, it is inevitable that serious or terminal health issues will arise and with far more frequency than among paid staff because of the age demographics. Sometimes, these volunteers have no family living close by or have no family at all, which makes their association with the agency even more important as they move through this life phase. Over the years of working together, staff members and volunteers frequently develop real friendships that are impacted by life events. In particular, the nature of volunteer program coordinators’ jobs means that they most likely have established close relationships with each and every volunteer, whereas individual staff members may be close to only the volunteer with whom they work. In either case, the cumulative emotional toll among staff of watching their volunteer coworkers age, become ill, and pass away can be devastating. This is not a topic people like to discuss, but how an agency reacts to and handles volunteer losses has a very real effect on everyone involved. It says a lot about how much an agency values its volunteer program.

When asked, most departments proudly say that their volunteers are vital to their daily operations and are considered to be part of their police family. However, although agencies always have written policies that address serious illness and death among uniformed and noncommissioned staff, it is rare that they do the same for their civilian volunteers. Why that is, is open for speculation; in some cases, it is just not something anyone ever thinks about, or, sometimes, agency leaders may not feel that it is their place to become involved. Whatever the reason, the value of formalized policies cannot be overstated. They convey a message of concern, compassion, and community that extends beyond the volunteers themselves to their families, their friends, and their neighbors. Formalized policies also provide a measure of support and strength to staff members who are most susceptible to the emotional exhaustion that comes from dealing so often with illness and death in people they care about.

Bellevue’s Volunteer Death Policy Development

The Bellevue Police Department’s volunteer program was formally established in 1994, but it was not until several years later that it found itself faced with this issue. In the first few years of operation, when a volunteer became seriously ill or died, a discussion ensued about what the department should do in that particular case. What actions ultimately were taken came down to how popular the volunteer was, how many people worked with the volunteer, and how strongly a staff person advocated for action. Decisions for each individual case required approvals up the chain of command, which was cumbersome and time-consuming. This inconsistency created confusion and, occasionally, hard feelings among staff and volunteers. Also, even though the program had, as it does today, a designated volunteer coordinator, it was unclear who was responsible for what actions. Often, more than one staff person contacted the family to offer help in ways that conflicted with what another staff person had previously said. This caused added stress to the family and to the staff. It was obvious that some sort of formal guideline was needed to ensure consistency and clarity in dealing with volunteer illness or death.

The department started by looking at its policies for dealing with the same issue among noncommissioned staff. After much discussion among senior managers and the volunteer coordinator, guidelines were developed to address deaths of the department’s volunteers and their immediate family members. Decisions were made about who would coordinate the department’s response, what services and resources would be made available under what circumstances, and who would be authorized to attend funerals and memorials. While there is some flexibility to allow for special circumstances, in general, the volunteer coordinator (as opposed to the volunteer’s task supervisor) is the primary point person for whatever actions may follow. In addition to informing the rest of the department and volunteer staff when a current volunteer dies, the volunteer coordinator also is responsible for

  • requesting that flowers or a charitable contribution as designated by the family be sent by the department’s benevolent association;
  • notifying the department’s chaplain;
  • contacting the family to offer assistance with funeral or memorial service arrangements;
  • coordinating participation of the department’s honor guard if the family so wishes; and
  • ensuring that the final funeral or memorial service arrangements are known to staff who wish to attend.

In all cases, the coordinator attends every service, along with at least one member of the command staff whenever possible and any uniformed staff who have been given supervisory permission to attend on duty. Civilian staffers also attend on duty by permission, and, of course others may attend on their own time as they wish. Following the service, the volunteer coordinator maintains contact with family members of the deceased to help them address any special needs that may arise and, when the time is appropriate, to recover any department property that the volunteer may have had at home.

Also, if the department becomes aware of the death of a former volunteer, the volunteer coordinator informs the staff, sends a condolence note to the family and may attend any subsequent service.

Serious Illness. In the case of serious illness, again it is the volunteer coordinator who is responsible for ensuring that everyone is informed, that the benevolent association sends an acknowledgement, and that anyone who wishes to contact the volunteer is given the necessary information to do so. The coordinator maintains regular contact with the volunteer and any family members to stay informed about the situation and to update everyone else. This usually involves periodic phone calls or visits, but in each case it is critical to know how much contact the volunteer or the family wants, so intrusion is avoided at such a sensitive time. In the Bellevue Police Department’s experience, the volunteers and their family members have always been grateful for the department’s concern and have welcomed visits and calls. It means a lot to families that their loved ones’ contributions to the department and the relationships that developed are not forgotten once they are no longer able to volunteer.

Death of a Family Member. Along the same lines, at the death of a volunteer’s spouse or child, the volunteer coordinator always attends the service. The coordinator is frequently joined by the staff members who work most closely with the affected volunteer. The benevolent association is asked to send flowers to the volunteer’s home, and contact information is provided to any staff members who wish to call or send personal notes of condolence.

Suicide. Sometimes events transpire in ways no one considered. When a longtime volunteer committed suicide, one member of the department’s honor guard had strong personal moral beliefs about suicide and felt that the unit should not be made available for the service. After much discussion, the policy was amended to allow for an individual member of the Honor Guard to be excused from service if circumstances conflicted with his or her personal religious beliefs, provided there are enough other members available to serve. The issue has not arisen since that time.

Peer Support for the Volunteer Coordinator

The importance of having procedures in place to deal with volunteer deaths became especially clear during one 10-month period between 2005 and 2006. During that time, three longtime volunteers died and two others left the program because of serious health issues. So many losses in such a short time took an emotional toll on everyone, especially the volunteer coordinator who was close to each of these individuals and was responsible for overseeing the department’s response to each event. Having policies in place to address each event provided a consistent, clear path of action that served as a real source of comfort and support to everyone involved—the volunteers, their families, and the department staff (both paid and volunteer)—throughout that time. Many officers and staff sent personal notes of support to the volunteer coordinator during that time to acknowledge the strain all these events must have caused. Those expressions of concern from colleagues were immensely helpful to the coordinator as she coped with one loss after another. They were a clear indication that colleagues recognized the value of the overall program and the unique challenges of her position—something that can easily get lost in the business of daily life-or-death law enforcement activities.

The way a department chooses to deal with the issue of volunteer loss also has implications well beyond the program itself. The volunteers are keenly aware of how the department reacts to and treats each loss. They view it as a reflection of their value to the agency, and, consequently, it affects their commitment and dedication to their volunteer work. They discuss it among themselves and among their friends and family, and those discussions in turn have an impact on how the department is perceived by the larger community. Just the presence of uniformed department staff at a volunteer’s funeral or memorial service—let alone participation by the honor guard—makes an indelible impression on everyone who attends. In the Bellevue Police Department’s experience, people visiting a sick friend or attending the memorial service have frequently commented on how unexpected it is to see officers and staff in attendance for someone who was “just a volunteer.” There have been some cases in which surviving family members have designated the Bellevue Police Foundation as the recipient of donations in the volunteer’s name out of appreciation for the support given during that difficult time.

In summary, a citizen volunteer program represents a tremendous asset to any law enforcement agency. At the very least, the citizens who give so generously of their time and talents deserve to be treated with the same respect, compassion, and caring as any paid employee. One of the best things a law enforcement administrator can do to encourage such an environment is to acknowledge the reality that many of these people will suffer serious illness or die during the course of their service. Those responsible for managing the program need to develop clear, consistent polices to address these events. This also is one of the best ways to support the program’s coordinator, other volunteers, and department staff who are affected by the losses. ■

Please cite as:

Marjorie Trachtman, "“Just a Volunteer”: Supporting An Agency’s Volunteer Program through Difficult Times," The Police Chief 78 (December 2011): 76–79.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 12, December 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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