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Group aids fallen officers' families in time of need

Hillsboro Police Sergeant helps train others on what to do after a line-of-duty death.

COURTESY DARCI VANDENHOEK - Officers and sheriffs deputies fold an American flag at thefuneral of Oregon City reserve police officer Robert Libke in 2014. Hillsboro Police are working with the Oregon Fallen Badge Foundation about how to handle line-of-duty officer deaths.

Correction appended

Whether it’s a fatal traffic crash or homicide investigations, cops are often given the unenviable duty of delivering bad news.

When family members are told their loved one has died, it’s often a police officer or a chaplain with the police department who makes those difficult house calls, but when a police officer is killed in the line of duty, who is sent to let the officer’s family know?

It turns out, not every department has a straight answer — which is something the Oregon Fallen Badge Foundation is trying to change.

On Thursday, Sept. 15, Sgt. Eric Bunday of the Hillsboro Police Department led officers and chiefs from St. Helens, Scappoose, Columbia City and the Columbia and Clackamas county sheriffs’ offices for a training program with the Fallen Badge Foundation, learning how to respond after an officer has died in the line of duty.

Formed in 2011 by several Oregon police Honor Guard commanders and coordinators, with help from Oregon police survivors, the nonprofit Foundation acts as a Line of Duty Death Response Team, assisting the families, friends, and colleagues of fallen officers when the unthinkable occurs.

“There’s no real preparation for a line of duty death,” said Bunday, the foundation's vice-president. “But at the end of the day, it’s the family’s wishes that are paramount.”

The Foundation’s primary mission is to offer financial support, ensuring the officer is buried with honors, Bunday said, but the group also trains Oregon police personnel on how to effectively respond to line of duty deaths and assists affected police departments by coordinating notifications and performing the required tasks that follow an officer’s death — such as designating a family liaison, planning the service, and handling the media.

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Sgt. Eric Bunday with the Hillsboro Police Department speaks to fellow officers last Thursday at a training in St. Helens on how to respond when officers die in the line of duty.

Over 35 years, 42 deaths

Since 1981, there have been 42 line of duty deaths in Oregon, according to national line of duty death response organization, Concerns of Police Survivors, or C.O.P.S.

Few of those deaths have occurred in Washington County. Sheriff’s deputy Robert Talburt was the last local officer killed in action. He died in a car accident in 1984.

More recently, the Foundation assisted Seaside Police after Sgt. Jason Goodding was shot and killed in February. Goodding grew up in Sherwood and coached in the Beaverton School District.

Some departments are more prepared for officer deaths than others, Bunday said. Some agencies require their officers to fill out information so that their families and fellow officers will know their final wishes in the event they’re killed.

Hillsboro police officers aren’t required to fill out that information, but the Fallen Badge Foundation strongly encourages it, Bunday said.

“What it comes down to is preparedness, and no one likes to face their own mortality,” he said. “These are the tough conversations we as police officers need to have with our families.”

Officer deaths often draw a lot of media and community attention, Bunday said, and can make it difficult for agencies to performing normal police duties.

Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Shane Strangfield, the Foundation’s president, said that the Foundation does as much or as little as the affected police department needs.

“We provide valuable information that hopefully no one has to use,” he said. “But if you do, we’ll be there for you.”

As a member of the Clackamas County Honor Guard, Strangfield is no stranger to line of duty deaths.

In 2000, after Clackamas County Sheriff’s deputy Douglas Bowman was killed during a SWAT training exercise, Strangfield, who was Bowman’s friend, escorted Bowman’s family to the memorial service.

“I saw at a young, early career point how these situations affect an agency,” he said. “We as police officers were not taking care of each other as well as we should.”

Bunday, too, lost a friend in the line of duty.

Rainier Police Chief Ralph Painter was killed while responding to a car theft in 2011. Painter, a 22-year police service veteran, was 55.

Bunday assisted Painter’s family afterward and escorted them to the memorial service. But because he didn’t seek or receive any immediate assistance for himself, he said, it cost him dearly.

“I didn’t want to talk about it,” he said. “If I did, that shows weakness and I didn’t want to appear weak.”

Eventually, however, Bunday did seek counseling. And he now uses that experience as part of the training he provides through the foundation.

“Getting therapy was the best thing I could have done,” he said. “Every moment for the rest of our lives is how you can weigh the true cost of a line of duty death.”

Hard words

At last week’s training, officers heard from the families of fallen officers, who talked about how to properly tell families that their loved one has died.

Barb and Bill Lyons were returning from a late-summer walk 19 years ago when they saw police lights flashing near their Bend home in 1997.

“I told Barb, ‘This is not good,’” said Bill, a senior trooper with the Oregon State Police for 26 years and an instructor at the Oregon State Police training academy. “I knew right then and there what was going to happen — how things were going to turn out.”

Wearily, Bill thought of his son, trooper Scott Lyons.

Scott had followed in his father’s footsteps. After completing his basic officer training in 1995, Scott was assigned to Gilchrist, a small town about an hour south of Bend.

Scott was in his patrol car with Sgt. Jim Rector the night of Sept. 2, 1997 — the night Barb and Bill came home to police lights.

After spotting an accident along Highway 97, Rector attempted a U-turn, but mid-turn, was struck by a semitrailer hauling wood chips, killing both men.

Troopers flocked to the Lyons’ home to grieve with them, Bill said, but when the family was notified, things did not go smoothly.

The officers first told Barb that Scott was “gone,” she said. “I challenged them: ‘Well, where did he go? And they looked at me like, ‘Now what do we say?’”

“Don’t come and tell me he’s gone, or he’s in a better place,” she explained. “Use those real hard words. If they had said: ‘Barb, Scott has been killed. Scott is dead’ — that’s really hard to hear, but it would have helped me a lot.”

By attempting to soften the news, the officers inadvertently made accepting Scott’s death more difficult for both his parents.

So many officers went to their home, Bill Lyons said, it made the situation more chaotic than it needed to be, despite their good intentions.

After their experience following Scott’s death, Barb and Bill began advocating for the families of fallen officers, taking a front and center role in assisting and advising grieving parents, spouses and children.

They now work with the foundation and C.O.P.S. as guidance counselors, helping families navigate the complicated process of applying for fallen officer relief funds and getting the mental health assistance they may need.

“Barb and Bill are an integral part of (the foundation),” Bunday said. “I can sleep a little easier knowing that if something ever happened to me, God forbid, they’d be there for my family.”

Editor's Note: This story originally said that the Oregon Fallen Badge Foundation is associated with the Oregon chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors. The foundation is an independent organization. Hillsboro Police Sgt. Eric Bunday did not escort the family of fallen Rainier Police Chief Ralph Painter to a memorial service at the Chiles Center in Portland in 2011, but rather to an event honoring officers killed in the line of duty in Washington, D.C., in 2012.