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I Love A Cop
What Police Families Need to Know
By Ellen Kirschman
The Guilford Press Copyright © 2007 Ellen Kirschman
All rights reserved.
THE WAY IT IS
Givens and Realities of Police Work
How can you be commanding, ordering, and directing by day—hiding your emotions, hiding that you are afraid ... and then open the door and say, "Hi, Honey. I'm home"?
—Beverly J. Anderson, PhD, Director, Metropolitan Police Employee Assistance Program
There are certain "givens" in police work: dimensions of the job that probably won't change much. The first is shift work. The second is the long hours. The third is that the work itself is crisis-driven and therefore unpredictable. The fourth is that officers and their families live in the limelight of public scrutiny. The fifth is the physical nature of patrol work and frequency of on-the-job injuries. I have added a sixth since I Love a Cop was first published in 1997: separations and long deployments necessitated by disasters, both natural and man-made.
The reactions of Danny's family show how tough it is when the givens mount up. Danny came home in the middle of his shift in the middle of the night, having been badly beaten by a gang of thugs. He was feeling humiliated for losing a "cop toss," as he called it. While he had no broken bones or serious injuries, he was cut, bruised, and frightened. He had nearly lost his weapon in the melee, which had lasted for the longest five minutes of his life. To add insult to injury, after he and his backup officer arrested the gang, they had laughed in his face and promised to sue him for brutality. Because Danny came home unexpectedly, he inadvertently awoke his family. His wife's first reaction was to yell at him for waking their baby, who was colicky and had only just fallen asleep. Danny worked midnights and had put in a lot of overtime that month. Terri was exhausted and irritable most of the time. She was tired of being cooped up at home with no relief and frustrated by trying to keep the baby quiet during the day. In the dark and in her sleepy state, she didn't notice his bruises or bandages. He needed comfort, and what he got was further humiliation.
Danny had to go to court and face his assailants and their families—large, unruly groups of people who followed him down the hall into the bathroom, making obscene gestures and whispered threats. It was all he could do to look at them and testify.
All of this made the news, and Terri couldn't go anywhere without someone asking her what happened. Danny and even Terri's own family hardly wanted to talk about anything else. No one seemed to care how she was managing with a colicky child and an injured husband.
Because no shots had been fired or bones broken, Danny's department virtually ignored his experience and his injuries. Typically for a cop, he felt too ashamed of losing the fight to ask for help. His physical injuries healed quickly, but his emotional injuries persisted until he developed ulcers and a highly reactive patrol style that finally got some attention from his superiors, who gave him a modified duty assignment and referred him for counseling.
Shift workers in general are set apart from mainstream American life. We all grow up with expectations based on our own families of origin and on cultural images of the ordinary family delivered by the media. It is sometimes a shock to realize how far from ordinary the life of a cop's family can be.
Shift work, especially the midnight shift, is difficult and disrupts normal sleep patterns. It's hard to stay up with the family on days off. Graveyard officers are vulnerable to overusing alcohol and sedatives to get to sleep and caffeine and over-the-counter stimulants to stay awake. In some communities the graveyard shift is exciting because many arrests are made at this time, but in low-crime communities staying awake between 2:00 and 6:00 A.M. can be an agonizing effort.
Working "dogwatch" is isolating. One cop told me that as he and his squad drove out of the police garage at night, he felt as though they were all little boats leaving the mother ship, heading out into a vast, dark, and empty ocean.
Swing watch can also be hard on family life. Earl worked swings, and his family was asleep when he got home at 1:00 A.M. He felt lonely coming into a dark, quiet house and needed something to do besides drink and watch old movies on television. He and his wife worked out a routine. When he arrives home now, all the lights are on, so the house looks welcoming. His wife leaves him a news-filled note on the computer. He looks in on his children, puts out the garbage, throws in a load of wash if needed, walks the dog, and makes his kids' school lunches. By the time he's finished, he's ready for sleep. Shifting gears and contributing to domestic tasks help him to feel more like a member of the family than a boarder who pays the bills.
Sleep deprivation takes its toll on work performance, even of the safety-conscious officer. It takes an additional toll on the family members who have the Herculean task of keeping the kids quiet so that mom or dad can sleep during the day. Couples without children find themselves spending more time with friends than they do with each other, and they may sleep alone more than they did when they were single. Single parents may have to resort to recruiting friends and family to help out. The biggest burden falls on those families who are trying to live with a brutal schedule of rotating shifts.
Of course, people differ in their sleep needs. Some people, like Annie, are "night owls" and love being on graveyard. Annie is an independent sort who wants to live in the country, where she can ski and fish. Working dogwatch means she misses the traffic and the "brass." She earns more money with night differential and has arranged her upside-down life to take advantage of the time she spends at home during the day. Night owls are lucky and probably always get their first choice of shift.
Shift work makes planning for weekends, holidays, and social and school events difficult. Non-shift-working friends and family may find it hard to deal with the cop's lack of availability, and friendships may begin to drift apart.
Shift work was the hardest adjustment Sara and Randy had to make when they were married—it required them to be more flexible, creative, and mindful of planning than they had been before. Over the years, they have discovered many hidden benefits. They know shift work has allowed Randy to spend a lot more time with his kids than do many of his friends who work from 9:00 to 5:00.
Randy now works midnights. He has been able to help out at his son's late afternoon soccer practice. He drives his kids to school in the morning. He goes to after-school parent-teacher meetings, even if he misses the school play. When one of the kids is sick, he can stay home with one kid while Sara takes the other one to the doctor. Or, he can stay home with the sick kid, so Sara doesn't have to miss work. He can go to the bank or food shopping, so Sara doesn't have to go on her lunch hour. Occasionally, they get to do things as a couple while the kids are in school.
Over the years, Randy and Sara have learned creative ways to observe holidays. While they both still long to celebrate New Year's Eve together, they settle for a special breakfast instead. They've found their children to be creative planners who love to make up new "traditions" that are unique to their family. The children enjoy exploring their family heritage for ideas about holiday rituals.
Sara and Randy also make good use of available communications technology. They both have Blackberries. (Blackberries are wireless handheld devices with phones.) At home they use Post-It notes to stay in touch. Public safety therapist Guy Shiller thinks cops love Post-It notes because they are used to communicating with each other over the air in a short, terse style. One woman told him that when she was feeling frustrated because shift work was interfering with her sex life, she would leave her mate a cryptic Post-It note that said, "Think sex"—a kind of intellectual foreplay!
Because shift work and other givens are part of the job, it is crucial to face them directly as soon as possible and to problem-solve, negotiate, and strategize around them. Veteran spouses all warn that fighting, nagging, crying, pleading, and blaming only make you and your cop feel depressed or guilty about something over which neither of you has much control. It is futile to try to change the unchangeable, and it will only alienate the person you most want to be close to. This does not mean you have to suffer in silence.
We Americans are an industrious people. The hours we commit to work exceed the hours we spend at home. We are driven by financial need—our dollar does not buy what it did for our parents, and most of us require two incomes to achieve the standard of living our parents earned with one.
We are also ambitious. Our culture rewards us for achievement and accumulation. Men especially are made to feel less than successful if they fail to climb the ladder of achievement, whereas woman are still regarded with skepticism if they appear more devoted to career than family. On the other hand, our workplaces, in general, are not family-friendly; they are designed to reward the employee who is free to devote countless hours to work.
Police work is a "greedy" profession, though certainly not the only one. It demands and rewards long hours. It is the rare police officer who works a 40-hour shift. Special assignments, training, preparing for promotion, court appearances, and overtime all extend the work week. An officer's willingness to work extra hours is subtly reinforced by the organization. Failure to volunteer for overtime assignments may be perceived as not pulling a fair share of the load. Going home rather than hanging out with the "guys" may make a cop seem distant, unfriendly, and perhaps unreliable to his or her coworkers. This puts pressure on officers who believe they won't get backed up on the street if they aren't well liked and "one of the gang."
The officer who asks for time off for family reasons may be unfairly seen as having domestic problems or difficulty keeping his or her home life at home. This is what happened to Sam when his wife, Becky, discovered a lump in her breast. Both she and Sam were terrified. It took days to get to see a doctor and then days more to get the results. Becky was extremely anxious—her aunt had died of breast cancer, and her mother had recently had a mastectomy. She needed Sam with her. Sam was torn. He was still in training and thought it made him look bad to miss work. He didn't want anyone to know what was going on because he didn't want anyone to feel sorry for him. He was so scared that he thought he would cry if anyone asked what was wrong. He never even shared the good news when the lump turned out to be benign.
For cops, dedication to the job, not the family, seems to be the important consideration, both for belonging and for promotion. This is a trap for cops who are convinced that advancement is the only way to better provide for their families and make them proud. It is also a paradox that officers who work long hours in order to get promoted may be so exhausted and limited in the amount of quality time spent at home that they are alienating the very people for whom they are working such long hours. Their families may not appreciate the pay or promotional opportunities associated with special assignments or think these benefits offset the long hours away from home or the increased risk associated with some specialties, such as undercover narcotics work.
It is not just the long hours away that can get to you. Police families everywhere complain that even when their cop is home, he or she is thinking about the job or is preoccupied with organizational politics or ongoing cases. This absorption in the job, which is usually most intense at the rookie phase, can be a real turn-off to family and friends. It seems as though your cop can't talk about anything else but police work. He or she monopolizes conversations, watches every cop show on television, and provides a running critique on the action to anyone who'll listen. Your interests, your problems, your accomplishments, or those of your friends and family, may pale in comparison.
I once heard someone describe police work as three hours of boredom, followed by two minutes of terror, concluding with six hours of report writing. Every shift is unpredictable because police work is driven by crises and emergency responses. This is alluring, even addicting, to many cops, who love the variety and spontaneity. It's a lot like gambling.
Unpredictability is hard on families because it leads to last-minute changes. Unplanned overtime, being called in for court on a day off (and then having the hearing canceled or postponed), arrests made late in the shift, cases requiring extraordinary paperwork, filling in for a sick officer, and so on all play havoc with a planned schedule and send a message to the family that the job takes priority over their needs.
Jack and Judy learned to problem-solve the management of frequent last-minute changes. They bought a second car and routinely made backup plans in case Judy got stuck at work. They worked out a system of "rain checks" and treated themselves to something special when their plans were canceled at the last minute. Just planning the rain checks took the edge off their mutual disappointment.
Handling these last-minute changes takes time and frank discussion. You may want your cop to telephone you as soon as possible if he or she will be late coming home so you can go on with your plans or change them. You have every right to expect this kind of common courtesy—which is not the same as "reporting" in. If your mate "forgets" to call, you need to let him or her know, in a calm way, that you are hurt and angry and that ignoring your needs is unacceptable and disrespectful of your time.
Scheduling is not the only unpredictable given you will face. It is also hard to predict what kind of mood your loved one will be in at the end of a shift. Will your spouse be coming home exhilarated after a good arrest or depressed because of a poor performance evaluation? Will he or she be bone tired after "shagging" calls without a break or irritable with boredom? While there is a little of the unexpected in many jobs, there is a lot in most emergency response professions.
Police officers are like doctors. The work they do is important, and every action they take may have unpredictable, serious consequences and risks. Officers are keenly aware that what they do can become the object of an internal investigation. Whether that investigation results from a serious infraction or a frivolous complaint, it takes a terrible toll on the officer and his or her family. It is so upsetting to be the object of one of these investigations that the first thought many officers have after a shooting is not "I'm glad to be alive" but "Will this cost me my job?" This apprehension rose appreciably following the Rodney King incident and is still strong today.
Your family's financial stability may be heavily, if not totally, dependent on the actions of your police mate, actions over which you have no control. It may be small consolation to remember that contractors, politicians, physicians, and almost all self-employed people run the same risks in that injuries, lawsuits, and catastrophes beyond their control are part of the price of doing business. There are no guarantees anywhere.
Police families live in the same limelight cops do. This puts pressure on police families who regard themselves as ordinary as anyone else. If it were not such an invasion of privacy, it would be almost comical to think how police officers are treated like public property. A real estate agent, showing me a house for sale, pointed out that one of the advantages of buying this house was that a police officer lived next door, almost as though he or she was a private security guard for the neighborhood. I wasn't surprised because I have heard countless stories of neighbors banging on an officer's front door during dinner time rather than calling 911.
As a family member or friend, you may feel like an unpaid representative of the police department. After all, it is you who most often attends non-police events and gets to bear the brunt of listening to negative opinions about cops or to parry questions about the latest police scandal. At times you may feel defensive and want to withdraw into a circle of police-only folks, or you might find yourself wishing your spouse did something else for a living.
Your children will also take the heat for being part of a police family. They may be held to a higher standard and told that, as police officers' children, they should be better behaved than other kids. Try not to make this same mistake yourself. I've heard officers complain when parents threaten to have their kids arrested if they don't behave. These kinds of threats set cops up to be bad guys and make kids afraid of them, rather than respect them. It will work the same with your own children.
Excerpted from I Love A Cop by Ellen Kirschman. Copyright © 2007 Ellen Kirschman. Excerpted by permission of The Guilford Press.
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