Burnsville police officers raced across town on the report of a child hit by a car on Interstate 35W. Officer Chris Biagini pulled up, stepped out of his cruiser and saw an image he says he'll never forget: a tiny winter boot on the freeway.
Then he found the 6-year-old girl, blue eyes open, long blonde hair on the asphalt. It was too late to help the child, but Biagini still faced his toughest task.
Other officers couldn't get through the shut-down, jammed freeway to do the death notification, so Biagini crossed the highway to talk to the girl's mother.
Nearby, Burnsville's lead police chaplain, John Campbell, was with the mother of an older boy who also was at the scene. Campbell talked with the officers later and helped bring in a critical incident stress-management team the same night to help officers work through their emotions.
Responses like this show how Burnsville Police Chief Bob Hawkins and Lakeville Police Chief Tom Vonhof are leading the way as small departments turn to chaplains like Campbell to not only help survivors, but to keep officers emotionally healthy and in the profession.
Dakota County Sheriff Dave Bellows also provides training for deputies to understand how difficult such notifications can be and how unpredictably survivors can react, he said.
"Each time we have to deliver a death notification, it takes a piece of us, too," the sheriff said.
On Oct. 10, 2004, a drunk driver talking on his cell phone crashed into a car carrying three teen-aged brothers near Farmington.
Two Dakota County deputies soon were knocking on a door in Hampton Township to inform Connie Backstrom that her two sons, Matthew and Justin, were killed at the scene. The deputies didn't know the name of a third teen with them, who was at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
"That would be Jacob," the mother said, and she called her husband, Nathan Backstrom, to come home. They didn't know yet that Jacob was brain dead.
"While we were waiting for Nathan, I started washing dishes even though the officers were sitting in my kitchen," she said. "I could see their reflections in my kitchen window and could tell the crash had affected them."
They showed genuine concern, she said, and she was grateful for their presence.
"I can't imagine the trauma of getting that kind of news over the telephone..." she said. "I don't remember who the two officers were, but if I did, I would give each of them each a big hug and my heartfelt thanks for their concern and their professionalism in such difficult circumstances."
A death notification, Sheriff Bellows said, is the toughest duty an officer faces.
"Our sons died extremely violent deaths," Connie Backstrom said, noting that she learned later that two of the rescue workers went on leave for post-traumatic stress.
"The average person has no idea how deeply the officers and rescue workers are affected by these crashes, especially if they know either the victims or the offenders," she said.
Local efforts lead the way
Dakota County police chiefs are drawing kudos from national experts for their progressive approach years ago to a need long overlooked across the nation.
Burnsville has eight volunteer chaplains for a force of 75, one of the largest chaplain corps in the state for a department of that size. Lakeville has two chaplains for 52 officers, with a focus on "officer wellness," said Mayor Mark Bellows, who runs the nonprofit Lakeville Chaplaincy Services.
"That's incredible," said Allen Kates, a nationally known trauma expert and author of the acclaimed book, "Copshock," which tells how internalized reactions to horror and critical incidents can contribute to PTSD.
"For a small department, that is amazing, because they often don't have the resources for that," Kates said. "There still is a lot of work to be done, especially in the smaller departments, which is almost half the departments in this country."
It's the volunteers, Hawkins said, who make his chaplain corps possible, though he sees them as a critical part of his emergency management plan. The chaplains cared for survivors' families after the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, and they tended to families displaced after a major apartment fire in Burnsville.
Death notices are among many duties that can produce "secondary" trauma in officers and even chaplains, said Dr. Joseph Boscarino, a researcher and social psychologist with an interest in PTSD.
"After a while it does affect you, even if you're only doing death notifications and not at an active crime scene," he said.
Mark Bellows (no relation to the sheriff) is a therapist and pastor who said he's delivered more than 500 death notices. He sees it as one way he can help Lakeville officers.
"The quality of the death notification is one of the most significant factors in the grieving process, the healing process," Mayor Bellows said of the next of kin.
He said research suggests that as many as one in three officers have some form of PTSD due to the nature of their work.
Delivering the worst of news
"There's no way around it. You are delivering the worst message you can deliver," said Chief Hawkins. "And how do you do that in a way that you get the message across in a caring, compassionate way, but then also stay there until you can get the family and resources there to help this person work through it?"
Hawkins said officers sometimes work one tragedy after another, as well as late shifts, then miss sleep to be in court. They miss holidays and family events as well.
"It's that whole package that we have to tune into, to make sure that we take good care of our folks," he said.
His lead chaplain, Campbell, is a former linebacker for the Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts. Campbell is also an associate pastor in Bloomington, where he's expanding that police chaplaincy, too.
Metro law enforcers also use the mobile Critical Incident Stress Management Team. It is comprised of 40 to 50 psychologists and other experts who help "defuse" officers feelings after tragedies, then follow up later.
That team came to the Burnsville Police Department on the night in March 2010 when Biagini and other officers found the girl on the freeway. Biagini took part in the talks, he said.
He's been named Burnsville's officer of the year, in part for his compassion and professionalism in that death notification along 35W.
Joy Powell • 952-882-9017