EDITORS NOTE: Law enforcement cannot function effectively without the support of the family members who stand behind our professionals, and our police families might be the best “early warning system” for when our officers are suffering in silence. This article was provided by guest contributor Dea Bridge who has been married to a Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) for over 25 years, worked in Corrections, served as a volunteer Reserve Police Officer.
Law Enforcement is truly a family affair!
Society is routinely exposed to the mass media’s version of law enforcement via movies, cop shows, or news reports. These Hollywood depictions are the only frames of reference the general public has for how individuals in this line of work should behave or how they think. It’s no wonder many civilians (non-LEOs) have a skewed perception of the challenges faced by LEOs and their families. While some have a more tailored glimpse of “cop life” based on personal relationships or past experiences, the majority has no realistic basis for their interpretations. For simplicity sake in this article, Law Enforcement Officers will be collectively referred to as LEOs and also include Corrections Officers. It should be noted that agency support staff, Dispatchers in particular, and other types of emergency service workers (Firefighters, EMTs, and Paramedics) face many of the same challenges as LEOs. This grouping is not meant to minimize the trials faced by any one category, but rather to highlight the commonalities among people who strive to make our communities a better place to live.
Resources aimed at helping LEOs cope with the unique rigors of their professions are more abundant now than at any other time in history. To a lesser degree, but increasing, is information specifically designed to aid family member’s with their own set of challenges. Organizational attitudes of… many enforcement departments are either undergoing, or have experienced a maturation process, recognizing that the well-being of both officers and their families contributes to the health of the agency as a whole. What appears to be piercingly silent, however, is the conversation that should be taking place before people hang their hats on working in these environments. Generally speaking, the satisfaction with the job in the first few years of a LEOs career will likely be the breaking point in their decision to stay or go. Some recruits decide to terminate their careers while still in the academy due to being unaware of the far-reaching impacts of the law enforcement lifestyle and unexpected strain. There is nothing wrong with realizing you made the wrong career decision, the danger comes when one plows ahead with no real idea of direction or purpose.
While LEOs with a military background believe they are prepared for a life of enforcement, for some, this vision may be shattered early on simply from daily existence. Those with no prior military or emergency services exposure may experience a chink in their armor which causes them to question why they embarked upon this quest they once viewed as noble and just. Scenarios such as, responding to your neighbor’s domestic violence situation, serving eviction papers to friends, realizing you’ve arrested your waitress, supporting your bullied children who are teased because their parent is a cop, coping with a lack of quality family time, struggling to differentiate between the work and home personas, severing friendships because of their choice to engage in criminal acts, rolling up on an accident only to learn the victim is someone you know, enduring long shifts and mandatory overtime, combined with inadequate sleep and court appearances, and feeling duped because you never-in-a-million-years thought “they” were capable of “that”, can test even the most seasoned decision-makers and personal ethics. Some people might say it’s a profession of “trial by fire”, and to some extent this is correct. It is unrealistic to think you can prepare for everything this job brings. One the other hand, don’t we owe it to the new wave of protectors to provide them with as much information and support as possible in order to contribute to their success?
Proper research before embarking on a career path is important for everyone. In law enforcement, it’s critical. LEOs and their families need to develop an awareness of how their world will be impacted. They need to understand that this decision is a lifestyle, not just a job. Education can mean the difference between a good officer staying with the department or turning in their badge because they didn’t feel they were prepared for the secondary effects of the environment. LEOs may not know how to ask for help. Their organization may not promote a culture that makes it acceptable to ask for help. All these things can mean the difference between a good officer continuing to serve the community or not. Choosing to leave can be influenced by many things; it may be a consequence of disillusionment with the job or the organization, a brush with death, or at the insistence of a spouse. This particular scenario frequently ends in regret on the part of the LEO, resulting in the officer becoming resentful towards the spouse.
While being successful in the academy is important, learning about the unique aspects of police work and then developing skills to promote resiliency, are equally vital to a successful career. Honestly discussing pros and cons before pinning on a badge, followed by an objective evaluation of the evidence is just good detective work. Furthermore, developing an awareness of the unavoidable cumulative baggage that comes with this vocation is paramount to recognizing and conquering potential future impacts. This research doesn’t end once a LEO is sworn in. Inquisitive behavior should be supported by an agency and continue throughout their careers. Good decision-making is based on great understanding.
Will all this exploration change the decision of that person who has dreamed their whole lives of being in law enforcement? Probably not. Many people who work in crisis-driven professions think they are immune to common stressors associated with these types of careers. A significant number of individuals will manage their stress and make lifestyle changes necessary to thrive. But for those that find themselves struggling, perhaps some preliminary conversations could be the lifeline that keeps them afloat in the future. Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” Why wouldn’t we want to help prepare our people in the best way possible?
From a business perspective, it was estimated in 2002 to cost nearly $60,000 to replace a police officer (Orrick). Recruitment and retention are hugely expensive, both in terms of direct dollars and agency morale. Personnel turnover drains the money bank as well as an organization’s well-being bank. An unintended consequence of a revolving agency door can also eroding the confidence of the community about the effectiveness of those in charge of their safety.
Preparing people for a career in law enforcement can take on many forms. Different pieces of information will be appropriate at different times, depending on where one is on their journey and what answers they are seeking. It could be as simple as conducting a presentation at the local police academy to cadets and family members from a veteran or a long-time law enforcement spouse. Maybe it’s a follow-up discussion after attending a career fair. Does your agency promote ride-a-longs for cadets and/or family members? For those that have made the leap, implement a mentoring program (for LEOs and families). Conduct classes on topics specific to this culture. Involve family members in gaining a bigger picture of what the job entails on a daily basis. Encourage a LEO to take their child to observe a court proceeding for a live look into the judicial system. Consider holding a spouse police academy. Promote appropriate communication within the families. Some spouses won’t want to hear all the details, but frequently these are the ones with the greatest fear of the job. The employee often doesn’t want to share aspects of their job because they think they are protecting their family. While this may work in some households, it can also encapsulate underlying fears, allowing them to fester. If not attended to, these issues will likely erupt at the most inopportune moment.
The first few years of a LEO’s career are pivotal in the decision-making process when it comes to staying in law enforcement. This is the time where they are trying this profession on for size, learning everything they can, having their ideals challenged, and madly trying to adjust to their new lifestyle. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a greater percentage of officers leave the job in the first five years than in any other longevity category. While the reasons for resignation are as varied as the LEOs themselves, one thing is certain – avoidance of, or negligence in, providing necessary tools for the mission is never good planning.
—-By Dea Bridge
Abe Lincoln’s Productivity Secret. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.persistenceunlimited.com/2006/01/abe-lincolns-productivity-secret/
Orrick, W. D. (2002). Calculating the Cost of Police Turnover. Retrieved from www.iacp.org
Dea Bridge has been married to a Law Enforcement Officer for over 25 years, worked in Corrections, served as a volunteer Reserve Police Officer and an Emergency Medical Technician. She is a certified Human Resources Professional and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Counseling with a desire to focus on helping members of law enforcement, military, and their families. She has conducted classes at the Western Colorado Peace Officers Academy for cadets and their family members on family dynamics in law enforcement and supports the military community as a member of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) and the Patriot Guard Riders (PGR). Her son is also a Police Officer and she, her husband, and son are all U.S. Army veterans.
For further reading on the importance of family support in law enforcement please consider our CopsAlive.com articles on:
Family Support Groups for Law Enforcement Agencies
“Law Enforcement Family Support Networks”
“Creating Peer and Family Support Groups for Police Agencies”
“The Importance of Developing Resilient Law Enforcement Officers”
You can download the CopsAlive.com PDF document: “Suggestions for the Implementation of a Family Support System within your Organization” by CLICKING HERE.
For more information on Law Enforcement Family Support Systems please visit these sites:
The Law Enforcement Family Support Network: http://www.lawenforcementfamilysupport.com
National Police Wives Association: http://www.nationalpolicewivesassociation.org/
Concerns of Police Survivors: http://www.nationalcops.org/
CopsAlive is written to prompt discussions within our profession about the issues of law enforcement career survival. We invite you to share your opinions, ask questions and suggest topics for us in the Comment Box that is at the bottom of this article.
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I’m John Marx, Founder of The Law Enforcement Survival Institute and the Editor of CopsAlive.com. Connect with me on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
CopsAlive.com was founded to provide information and strategies to help police officers successfully survive their careers. We help law enforcement officers and their agencies prepare for the risks that threaten their existence. Thank you for reading!