The Psychological Autopsy and Investigation of The Mayor’s Homicide: Police Psychologist Role and Interaction

Elizabeth Hall

Law enforcement employees have one of the most stressful jobs in today’s society.  They are charged with keeping the peace, and investigating crimes of all natures.  They put their lives on the line everyday and bear witness to the most brutal elements of our society.  They also have a tough guy mentality and a culture that is all their own.  It is because of this, and the expectations that society has of them, that when a critical incident involving the homicide of one of their own, or other traumatic events such as finding themselves in grave danger, it is important for the police psychologist to offer some psychological support in the form of a critical incident debriefing.  When the particular death is of a former law enforcement officer and leader, that is now a public figure; the media attention makes it worse.

The Psychological Autopsy and Investigation of The Mayor’s
Homicide: Police Psychologist Role and Interactions
Law enforcement officers face more stressful situations on the job every day than most of us could face in a lifetime.  This level of stress doubles when a fellow officer, or former officer, is the victim of a homicide.  When the victim is also someone who is important in the community, it can make the situation worse according to Loya and Selkin, (1979).  This is because the added media attention causes the incident to be brought to public attention repeatedly in the weeks, and months to follow.  We will look at how this affects the agency when this happens.  Through the homicide of a Mayor, we will explore what issues the officers and their families experience, along with, the role of the psychologist, and what a psychological autopsy consists of, the importance of this procedure, the effect that it has once completed, and how the psychologist should handle the entire situation (Kurke and Scrivner, 1995).
The Investigation/Incident Report
Date Printed: 8/15/2011              North Park Police Department     Time Printed: 0930 Hours
                                                   Law Enforcement Incident Report   M.R.S Number: 1685011
                                                                             North Park P.D. Complaint Number: 9806851
Incident Type:                 Homicide                                      Case Status: Open Investigation
Address of Occurrence: 325 W. Main St. (Back Alley)
                                          Lexington, Kentucky    40508
Originally Received as:    Homicide                                                    Arrival Time: 1915 Hours
Received by:                     Radio                                                            Time of Call: 1911 Hours
Type of Premise:               Commercial                                                  GEO Code: 250.10
Copies To:                         Municipal Court                               Processed by:  Lieutenant Burge
Occurred From:  8/14/2011 approx 0530 Hour      Occurred To: 8/14/2011 approx 0630 Hours
Date Reported: 8/14/2011                                          Domestic: No
Victim Name: Louis Stevens                                      Occupation: Mayor, Lexington, Kentucky
Victim Home Address:      6750 Limestone StSex: Male
                                           Lexington, Kentucky   40517                                SSN: 401-25-9221
Phone:  (859)523-1841                                         
Place of Birth: Lexington, Kentucky                            Known Relatives: Wife- Nancy Stevens
                                                                                                                       Son- Phillip Stevens
Weapon: Yes, Taurus PT709 Slim Blued            Homicide Classification:  First Degree Murder
Incident Detail: Victim was found in the back alley behind Sawyer’s Downtown Bar and Grill; face up, one gunshot wound to head.  Victim was last seen with Marty Vincent, prominent local executive, and former U.K. Basketball All Star.  Victim was Chief of Homicide Department at North Park P.D. before obtaining Mayoral Position  
Issues that Officers and Family Members Experience
Kurke and Scrivner (1995) describe the effects on officers and families of police agencies as both immediate and possibly lasting for long periods even years or until death unless some form of relief is offered psychologically to both the officers and their families.  Officers tend to have to believe that they are impervious to the stresses of the job, because police culture does not allow officers to be anything less than stoic when it comes to the daily stresses of the job.  The problem with this is that it does not allow for the fact that they are just as human as the rest of us.  When traumatic events such as a fellow law enforcement member or even a former one is killed, it brings home the vulnerabilities they all really face on the job every day (Kurke and Scrivner, 1995). 
They begin to realize that they are not “ten feet tall and bulletproof”, and this causes psychological stress that if ignored leads to more problems.  These are often manifested in poor productivity and performance at work, alcohol and drug abuse as they attempt to self medicate, and irritability.  They also experience rage, sorrow, disgust, fear, loss of appetite, along with a sense of shame because they cannot “buck up and handle it” according to police mentality.   This in turn creates discord in relationships, spousal abuse, and possibly ideas of suicide.  A large number of them leave the force not long after the incident and can develop full-blown PTSD without help.  This stress also affects the families of the officers, as they attempt to cope with the changes in their loved one.    This is where the agency psychologist or mental health professional can provide some relief, by providing training before these incidents occur and after, to both the officers and their families on coping skills, what to expect to feel in these situations, in order to remind them that these are normal reactions to an abnormal situation (Kurke and Scrivner, 1995).
Roles of the Psychologist
Kurke and Scrivner (1995) report that police psychologists are needed when a critical incident occurs to help officers return to normalcy, as this type of event can easily lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if not treated properly.  In order for some incident to qualify as critical, they offer us some of the most used, as a dozen types.  These are, death or suicide, severe harm of a fellow officer, harming, or death of suspect, finding themselves in grave danger or actually wounded, observing multiple fatalities, and even, disturbing incidents involving harm to children.  The list also includes large amounts of press coverage with incident, situational circumstances where victims remind officer of personal feelings about their own families, failed rescue attempts including hostage incidents; officer caused unintentional fatalities, and horrific crime scenes such as traffic accidents or murder scenes.  This is when a critical incident debriefing is needed and the agency psychologist must step in, or the agency needs to refer their employees to an approved mental health consultant (Kurke an Scrivner, 1995).
Another role that the psychologist plays in a when a death of this kind occurs, notes Miller (1995), is to provide this treatment in a manner that does not go against the culture that police officers often belong to and the mentality that goes with it.  Officers are responsible for responding to incidents that would make most of us choose a different career path, and it is due to this that they often develop a tough guy mentality, and resolve.  It is this resolve that allows them to function on a daily basis without incident, but it is also this resolve that becomes harmful when these situations arise.  The psychologist should also provide department wide advice, including promoting reciprocated support among peers and management, using humor as a diffusive device, and any rituals that may provide comfort for the staff involved (Miller, 1995).
A very important role that the psychologist should play in these types of incidents, particularly involving the death of a prominent figure that draws major media attention is conducting the psychological autopsy (Loya and Selkin, 1979).  Some of the problems that arise in investigating a death of a public figure are that there can be motives that cause witnesses and interviewees to present false information.  This is because what the medical examiner concludes on the official death certificate can affect many things such as insurance payouts to family members, public perception, and reputation.  This also applies to media attention, because a death of someone with stature in the community automatically becomes front-page news until the entire matter is cleared up, so it is important that the determination is correct (Loya and Selkin, 1979). 
What is a Psychological Autopsy?
Knoll, (2008) notes that there are many definitions and interpretations for the term or process called psychological autopsy.  He goes on to say that, the whole purpose of the process is to enable the person investigating the death the ability to clarify the manner of death with the most certainty.  Also discussed is the methodology of the psychological autopsy along with the applications that it may be used in to aid investigations.  These applications performed by the police psychologist are, aiding the medical examiner or coroner with deaths that are “equivocal”, or rather the cause of death or events of the death are not clear.  They also can aid with research on suicide, insurance claims, and criminal investigations especially homicides, probate issues arising from estate or will contestations, malpractice, or worker’s compensation lawsuits.  In addition, they also aid in issues where products might have been liable for injury and even in grief help for family survivors (Knoll, 2008).
According to Kurke and Scrivner (1995), a psychological autopsy is defined as an investigative aid that involves clinical investigation used to aid in explaining the way a person died.  This is a process involving intricate details of the facts, coupled with the victim’s behavior and intent.  What this means is that investigators must use the victim’s own history to determine clearly whether the death is suicide, homicide, or accident.  This process is mostly used to determine cause of death in suicide cases, but has applications in homicide as well (Kurke and Scrivner, 1995).
Loya and Selkin (1979) maintain that the data that is needed in conducting a psychological autopsy includes an actual recreation of the complete lifestyle and personality of the dead, using information collected from a variety of sources.  These sources include, but are not limited to, interviewing family, friends, and associates, going over any public records of the deceased, and then going back and cross-referencing the two for accuracy.  All Death Certificates are required by law to contain both a physical cause of death, and whether this was due to natural, accidental, suicidal, or homicidal mode (Loya and Selkin, 1979).
Advantages of Psychological Autopsy
Knoll (2008), reports that psychological autopsies play a significant role in the aid of determining cause of the death by the medical examiner.  In a homicide case such as the death of the Mayor, any help the medical examiner has in undeniably determining any clues in what happened to the victim will expedite the process. Any case with large media attention focused on a death of a law enforcement official, or government official needs to be wrapped up quickly.  This is because, as we all know, the longer it takes to determine the cause, facilitate a suspect, or wrap up the investigation with a factual perpetrator, the more chance that it is likely that the media will begin to speculate. 
The longer that the speculation persists, the more likely it is that it will keep all of the law enforcement personnel involved with the investigation under elevated stress levels due to media attention, and constant reminders of the traumatic incident.  This leads to the likelihood that those officers who may not have developed PTSD, will develop delayed PTSD.  According to Knoll (2008), most regular homicide cases that fall into the psychological autopsy protocol are those that are unclear whether suicide or homicide is the manner of death.  It has also been used to prove whether abusive relationships caused the suicide, or whether the apparent suicide is in fact a homicide, since there has been more than one or two criminals attempt to fake a suicide scene (Knoll, 2008). 
Another advantage as held by Selkin (1994) is that during the psychological autopsy, as the people close to the victim are interviewed to supply information, the door to healing opens, as survivors get their feelings out.  Often when people die unexpectedly, the people left behind are left to deal with sudden lasting emotions of grief, which can be worse if they do not receive some form of counseling.  Although the psychological autopsy process is intended to gather information, some relief from the overwhelming feelings can be relieved just by having someone to talk to that actually understands what it is that they are feeling. 
How is a Psychological Autopsy Performed?
Adcock (2011) lays out the steps to conducting an equivocal death investigation as seven steps.  First, the investigator should obtain from witnesses, family, friends, employers, and acquaintances all information that they can get on the victim’s life, habits, behaviors, thoughts, ideologies, situations, financial status, medical records, etc.  When this is done, the physical evidence like medical records, financial records, and such should be collected.  Then, based on the information received from the interviews the investigator should think ahead and decide what questions you will be asked by others such as the medical examiner for example.
 Adcock (2011) goes on to state that he or she should then come up with a hypothesis of the events that lead up to and during the incident about what really happened.  The next step involves corroborating the witness accounts and evidence, checking for accuracy and gathering more evidence or conducting more interviews if the need arises.  While this process is going on, the investigator should be disproving any hypothesis that does not fit.  Finally, the investigator should be able to form an informed evaluation of what really happened, with a “reasonable degree of certainty (Adcock, 2011).
The Result of the Psychological Autopsy, the Written Report
Once the psychologist is through with the investigation, they must provide a written report for the medical examiner note Loya and Selkin (1979). This report would include the final determination that your investigation concluded along with the evidence of how you concluded this determination.  It is important to be accurate with this report, as the medical examiner will be consulting this to determine the mode of death that will be written on the Official Death Certificate.  Once this is official, it is hard to convince the legal system to reopen the investigation into manner and mode of the death.  If the death is written as a suicide, or if the manner of death or facts in the investigation are of a sensitive nature this can have profound effects on the survivors and families of the victim.  This is especially true when the victim is a famous or important person in the community because of the added pressure of the media (Loya and Selkin, 1979). 
The Effect of the Written Report
The written report can make a huge difference in many aspects of families and survivors lives according to Loya and Selkin (1979).  The report can signify that the death was a suicide, which would affect any insurance that the surviving family members receive.  In the case of a public official such as a Mayor, a suicide determination would cause a public scandal.  This would bring extra stress to the family.  It can also affect the law enforcement morale, as it reminds them of how human they really are. 
End Result: Treating the Needs of the Agency in Traumatic Situation
The goals that the psychologist needs to achieve in the agency with the critical incident debriefings are to effectively diffuse the psychological ramifications that can arise from traumatic incidences, avert the possibility of PTSD occurring within agency officers (Kurke and Scrivner, 1995).  They also must get the staff back to whatever psychological state they were in before the incident.  It is for this reason that the debriefing is best held within 24 hours of the incident occurrence.  During the debriefing there could be only one person, the mental health professional conducting this process, however the best team is constructed of four individuals, the psychologist who functions as the leader, a member of the clergy, and a couple of peer support staff, functioning as the co-leader and the doorkeeper (Kurke and Scrivner, 1995). 
Miller (1995) recommends that treatments are named in a manner that does not promote the standard “shrink” feeling in officers, such as stress management, critical incident stress debriefing when conducting these types of sessions.  This is important, otherwise the police officers will not respond correctly to the treatment.  Any thought that this is a mandatory session will go against the unwritten tough guy police culture.  If that is what they think then most likely they will resent the session and not be truthful with their responses and needs and may not gain any positive results from the process (Miller, 1995).
In exploring the myriad of issues faced by officers and their families, and the problems it can cause them and the agencies they work for, we can see that the need of intervention by the agency psychologist is very important when an incident occurs.  This is to prevent the officers from developing PTSD, becoming ineffective at their jobs, and to remind them that it is ok to be human.  The role of the police psychologist involves aiding the medical examiner in determining the mode of death by conducting a psychological autopsy.  It also includes properly preparing the officers ahead of time to cope with these types of incidents, and conducting critical incident debriefings after one happens.  By following these processes, police psychologists can reduce the negative effects of traumatic incidents, and help these officers get back to their normal lives. 


Adcock, J.M., Ph.D., (2011).  Captain Gordon Hess-Homicide or Suicide?  An Equivocal Death Analysis and Case Study.  Investigative Sciences Journal, Vol. 3, Number 1, March 2011.
A.L.E.I.R., (n.d.).  Automated Police Systems Inc. Sample Automated Law Enforcement Incident Report.  Retrieved From:  http://www.aleir.com/aleir12.html                                                                         This source was only used to design my incident report, and is not cited in paper.  Therefore, it is not relevant as to credibility.
Ebert, B. W., (1987).  Guide to Conducting a Psychological Autopsy.  Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.1987 Vol. 18.  No. 1.52-56.  Retrieved From: http://web.ebscohost.com.lib.kaplan.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=24f487dc-280d-45ff-b819-34badd45d0c8%40sessionmgr13&vid=2&hid=9
Kurke, M.I, & Scrivner, (1995).  Police Psychology into the 21st Century.  Psychology Press.  Taylor and Francis Group.  New York.
Knoll, J.L., (2008) Law and Psychiatry.  The Psychological Autopsy, Part I: Applications and Methods.  Journal of Psychiatric Practice Vol. 14, No. 6.  November 2008.  393
Loya, F. and Selkin, J., (1979).  Issues in the Psychological Autopsy of a Controversial Public Figure.  Professional Psychology.  February 1979, 87.  Retrieved From: http://content.ebscohost.com.lib.kaplan.edu/pdf19_22/pdf/ddd/pdh/pro/pro-10-1-87.pdf?T=P&P=AN&K=pro-10-1-87&S=L&D=pdh&EbscoContent=dGJyMNLe80Sep7Y4v%2BvlOLCmr0meqLBSr6a4TbKWxWXS&ContentCustomer=dGJyMOzprkm3prVQuePfgeyx44Dt6fIA
Miller, L., (1995).  Tough Guys: Psychotherapeutic Strategies with Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Personnel.  Psychotherapy, V. 32, winter 1995, Number 4.
Selkin, J. (1994).  Psychological Autopsy: Scientific Psychohistory or Clinical Intuition?  American Psychologist, January 1994.  Retrieved From:  http://web.ebscohost.com.lib.kaplan.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=0bf9fab6-2c70-4987-9c63-6fa7943186dc%40sessionmgr114&vid=2&hid=122

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