Law enforcement families: protecting your greatest resource

Written by: Cherie Castellano MA, LPC, AAETS

When one mentions the “law enforcement family,” the term conjures up several images. The predominant image throughout the history of law enforcement has been one of police officers serving each other, much as a family would. The mentality portrayed is “one for all and all for one”; loyalty to each other before “outsiders”; professional bonding/secrecy; and staying on the correct side of the “thin blue line.” Being a member of the “law enforcement family” also meant that cops would back each other up, at times without regard for ethics or integrity, if they found “one of their own” in harm’s way.

Arguably, police officers will often do anything to protect each other, and just as often the courts may disagree with their choices of action. Other officers are their “family”; therefore, no price is too great for coming to each other’s rescue. Thus, all bets are off when any one of these “family members” are at risk.

Unfortunately, the “real” law enforcement families are at risk. The risks are well known in law enforcement circles, and it is an accepted fact that law enforcement families may be in trouble. Often, the source of that trouble is the spouse who wears the badge. The badge is full of authority and power, but never big enough to hide behind or powerful enough to solve personal problems. It may be called a shield in some jurisdictions, but the size of this shield pales in comparison to the size of the shield they actually need: a shield that will protect them spiritually, emotionally and physically.

When one outside the law enforcement circle is called upon to define a law enforcement officer, we hear them described as authoritative, commanding, powerful, ruthless at times, opinionated, judgmental, self-assured often to the point of arrogance, secretive and paranoid. Well, guess what? There is a place in law enforcement for all of these characteristics and behaviors. What the average person who is not intimately knowledgeable regarding the job of enforcing the law neglects to note are the qualities of these officers who are givers, servants, protectors, dedicated to helping others, risking their life and limb for people they don’t even know. They leave their families to help other families. They are compassionate, charitable with their time and talents, and sadly, in many cases, victims of the very system of justice they are sworn to enforce.

Police officers can and often do become vicarious victims of stress, altered and in some cases destroyed by the crimes they investigate. The job of the officer pushes and pulls from many directions, causing the officer to play the “hard nut” in one situation, and then move smoothly into the role of sympathetic helper in the next. Often, he or she will choose to ignore or repress the emotional problems of role conflict, ambiguity and subsequent stress caused by shifting gears into the various roles. The stress of law enforcement can produce family problems, leading to the use of unsystematic and often counterproductive defense mechanisms (e.g., isolation of effect), and ultimately, burnout.

Cops leave their homes every day and battle evil, crime, injustice, the courts, their supervisors and the system in general. It seems to them that even when they win, they lose. The price they pay for winning is exhaustive and, often, not considered worth the efforts. They come home as walking wounded, looking for solace, peace of mind and a little respect and kindness. After their day ends and all the arguments with the public, their superiors, peers and the courts have ended; after the gunfire has subsided; after the arrests are made, the raids are conducted and the smoke has virtually settled on their day, they seek peace. These after all, they are peace officers; they are the peacemakers. But often they question, why they should not be able to experience some of the peace they strive for in society?

There are some guidelines for law enforcement families in crisis and activities can be utilized as a resource for your law enforcement family.

Prepare before the crisis. Identify what crisis may challenge your family and discuss how to combat stress.

Accentuate the positive. Identify and acknowledge that although as a law enforcement family, you may face a crisis, together this experience may allow you to gain positive intimacy and recognize your resilience.

“Walk a day in my shoes.” A husband and wife can discuss a change in roles and traditional tasks, so that the husband may gain a better understanding of what his wife does and vice versa.

Get out of the rut. Deliberately seek out new experiences. Create a new focus, a hobby, a volunteer activity or something to shift both of you away from your problems and into working together.

Remind yourselves of what you used to do and enjoy together. Surviving crisis can often reroute us from our passions and loves, our hobbies and things that define who we are. Perhaps you can try fishing together, or even doing yoga, going to the gym or something that allows you to play together, rather than just survive.

Encourage each other. With “strength bombardment” of actions, renew the love between husband and wife by complimenting each other’s strengths. We may think we are being loving, but somehow it can miss the mark. Even our children have expectations of how we should show our love, and often we miss those opportunities.

            These activities may have come naturally at different points in your law enforcement family life. Now, just like many elements in our lives, we must attempt to schedule our “caring days” into our busy lives. Find out what equals love to the members of your family and then pick a few things to do each day for a period of time that specifically reflect those values and say “I love you.” Your law enforcement family members sacrifice and support you every day of your life. They’re your greatest resource, and they deserve to be rescued and protected, too.