These are troubled times for cops and their families. There’s an almost constant stream of bad press about law enforcement, a rash of unthinkable acts of violence against police officers, repeated anti-police protests, horrific mass shootings, and the ever-present threat of terrorism that hangs over all our heads. Dash cams, body cameras and cell phone cameras have charged the atmosphere and changed the way officers work. In light of all that is happening, the job looks more dangerous and appears more brutal than ever. But just when things look like they will never get better, there’s a stream of good news: demonstrations of love and support from the public and heartwarming praise from unexpected sources on social media. The only thing that is predictable these days is change itself.
The following 10 ideas may help police families navigate these turbulent times.
1. Distinguish between what you can control and what you can’t. Consider the doughnut as a way to model the distinction between what you can and can’t control. (If the stereotype offends, visualize a bagel or a simple circle). In the donut hole are the only things over which you have control; your beliefs, your actions, your thoughts, your ethics, and your professionalism. The doughnut itself represents our sphere of influence. Influence is different from control. Our ability to influence others depends on how well we communicate and how skillfully we can negotiate relationships. Outside the donut is the great wide world of things and people that affect us deeply but over which, no matter how much we wish it was otherwise, we have little or no control. This is a tough one for cops to understand. Policing is all about control; control of people, situations and emotions. Cops have to believe that they can establish control or they couldn’t do the job society asks them to do. It’s a necessary belief, but sadly it’s not always realistic. Cops don’t control their chiefs, their politicians, the media, public opinion or criminal behavior. They can influence, but not control. Police families don’t control these people or these things either.
2. Respond, don’t react. Reactions tend to be emotional, immediate, intense and often fueled by fear or anger (anger being a secondary emotion. Dig around in your anger you’ll likely find fear or hurt.) Reactions create trouble for ourselves and the people around us because they are reflexive rather than well thought out. After the tragic murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, families and officers universally, and understandably, reacted with increased fears about safety. Quitting the job was on many minds. These fears are normal. It’s important to talk about them, discuss your concerns with each other, your children and other law enforcement spouses. Be vigilant, but not hyper-vigilant. Be patient with yourself and your loved ones. Listen, rather than react. Home is the one place no one should have to put on a brave face. Avoid making any decisions out of fear. Do what you can to support each other even when you see things differently. If there was ever a time to put family first, this is it.
4. Take the big view: Police routinely underestimate the support and respect they have in their communities. On the other hand, communities could do a much better job of showing their support. Once-a-year award banquets given by civic organizations are nice, but cops need community support on a daily basis. There is evidence that this is happening all over the country. Spontaneous memorials, post-it notes left on patrol cars, food, flowers, letters, free hugs and donations of money are in the news. Along with all the bad news, there are countless examples of how communities are stepping up. Look for these examples, share them with your kids, post them on social media. Start something yourself. The point is to stay positive andrealistic.
5. Get the facts. There is nothing like a crisis to force people to retreat into polarized groups looking for safety with like-minded people. What’s happening in our society is complex. All the more reason to think clearly and listen hard to all points of view. I like these words from former president George W. Bush’s address at the memorial service for the five murdered Dallas officers.
“At times it feels like the forces pulling us apart are stronger
than the forces binding us together. Too often we judge other
groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by
our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of
understanding and common purpose.”
(U.S. News & World Report, July 12, 2016)
Police officers frequently suffer from what psychologists call the “fallacy of uniqueness,” meaning they think the only people who will understand them are other cops. It is true to a large extent that if you’ve never been a cop, your understanding of what a cop goes through is limited. This is why peer support is so important—because cops are most open to talking to someone who has walked in their shoes. On the other hand, police work is not brainsurgery or intergalactic physics. You, as a family member, if given the chance, can understand a great deal. But remember that information is different from personal opinion. Exchanges of opinion, especially on social media (see below), are often little more than a shouting match. Beware of information based on nothing more than one person or one group’s bird’s-eye view. Seek the broadest, not the most narrow, perspective.
6. Use caution with social media and blogs. There is danger in the digital world, never-ending noise demanding to know if you are with us or against us, as if there is no middle way and a person can belong only in one camp. Add to that hackers and false news presented as objective fact. If you just can’t stay away, limit the amount of time you and your children spend on-line. Monitor what your children do on the Internet and help them think critically about what they read. Antipolice blogs and posts can be violent and threatening. Too much time on social media puts a heavy cognitive load on adults and children. Insist on device-free dinners. Check with CommonSense Media (commonsensemedia.org) for suggestions about limiting your children’s screen time. Set your Facebook accounts to the most private settings possible by clicking on the padlock symbol at the top right of the page. Make sure you have a strong password for each account. Be cautious about posting information or photos that let people know where you are, where you live, or where your kids go to school. Post vacation pictures after you return. Refrain from checking in at restaurants and airports. Turn off the GPS feature on your camera or cell phone, especially when taking pictures at home.
8. Stay connected and be prepared. Talk to your families and friends about how bad news makes you feel. But remember, people who are intimately involved in law enforcement see things differently from the general public. Some of your friends and family might not understand about deadly force or other police procedures. Be prepared for ignorant questions and try not to over react when they come. Most do so because they are uninformed, not malicious. On the other hand, it’s perfectly okay to end a conversation you don’t want to have. The trick is to do it without starting a fight. If you aren’t sure how to do this, read some books about assertiveness, communication skills and the like. Some cops do bad things. They represent a tiny fraction of the nearly 900,000 American law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, they cast shame over the whole profession, making every officer’s job harder. While people will and do jump to conclusions before the facts are in, it’s not your responsibility to defend, explain, or apologize for anyone’s behavior just because he or she is a cop. Do not let anyone assume that as a law enforcement family you don’t understand the broader issues that trouble our country or that you have written anyone off. Seek out other law enforcement families for support but try to put a cap on the shop talk that inevitably comes up. Don’t neglect hobbies. Do something different, learn something new. Be realistic, but stay positive. In troubled times, this is your biggest challenge.
9. Take a break. Hold things lightly. Police spouse Gina Bamberger offered this advice following the tragic deaths of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge: “In the wake of the sadness and heartache of these last few weeks, I want to remind my pals to look to the simple things in life to find peace. Watching a toddler wobble around like a drunken sailor, making eye contact and sharing a smile with someone, enjoying that breeze that caresses the back of your neck just when you need a little relief from the heat. Hugging a friend who loves you for exactly who you are, and watching a garden grow!” Have fun. Even when times are tough. It is not disloyal. If you need professional help, find a culturally competent therapist or chaplain who knows what cops do and why.
10. Helping your children. When things are bad and police officers are the target of negative public opinion or worse, kids need help to put things in perspective. Police psychologists Dr. Katherine McMann and Dr. Sara Garrido suggest helping children distinguish between possibility and probability. While it’s possible that Mom or Dad could get hurt on the job, it’s not likely to happen. Remind them that almost a million cops go to work and come home safely every day. Show them your protective gear and tell them about the training cops go through. If you haven’t already done so, take them to the police station, let them sit in a patrol car, introduce them to the 911 dispatchers who are every cops’ lifeline.
Young children are most concerned with issues of separation and safety. Older kids, especially adolescents are sensitive to being in the spotlight. Help them know what to say in response to taunts they might get at school. Identify adults they can turn to at school or when you’re not around.
Keep to a normal routine. Encourage talking (or writing or drawing) about their fears and problem solve as a family. Make sure your children’s understanding of events is accurate. Be honest and give them only as much age-appropriate information as they can tolerate without become frightened. Listen carefully. Don’t try to address your child’s concerns before you understand them. Accept that you won’t have all the answers. It is often enough to offer reassurance that, under the circumstances, their feelings are normal.
Dr. Marla Friedman, police psychologist, recommends increasing family time and one-on-one time with the law enforcement parent. She advocates using video communication technology like Face time or Skype during your work shift to reassure your children that you are safe.
Finally, try to stay on an even keel. Your children are likely to imitate the way you are coping and will react more to your emotional state than to whatever’s happening in the world around them.
Adapted from Kirschman, Ellen. (2018). I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know: Third Edition. New York, Guilford Press.
Thanks to my colleagues at the First Responder’s Support Network, to Dr Katherine McMann and Dr. Sara Garrido of Nicoletti-Flater Associates and to Dr. Marla Friedman for their ideas.