Police Families Sacrifice for the Profession

Police Families Sacrifice for the Profession

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

Holistic wellness for police officers is finally coming of age. With new understanding of brain science and the effects of stress and trauma, more law enforcement agencies and even state legislatures are making laws and policies to strengthen first responders mental, physical, and career health.

A critical component of overall wellness is the strength of relationships in a person’s life and policing is no exception. The most important relationships are not found at police headquarters, but in the homes to which police officers hope to return at the end of their shifts. How can individuals and their employers maintain those strong family ties in an era that may be the most challenging in our nation’s history for law enforcement?

First, there must be an awareness of the shared experience of loved ones in the police mission. For most officers, and certainly, through the earliest stages of their law enforcement careers, shift work, long hours, fatigue, and danger are hallmarks of the police experience. While many officers do what they can to shield their families and not take their work home with them, it isn’t entirely possible.

One of the questions that an officer must face is what to share with their family. Avoiding in-depth conversations about a particularly challenging day may or may not be the best strategy, but even if the officer doesn’t want to talk about the dead body, injured children, assaultive intoxicated arrestee, or being written up for a policy violation, the voice and body language will tell part of the story. The tension between what an officer holds back and what their loved ones want and need to know is a matter for negotiation and boundaries.

One strategy for reducing stress at home is exercising good personal management. Typical stressors of child-rearing, finances, and schedule conflicts occur in all families. Being intentional about managing these issues can reduce the overall stress level in the home and provide some space for work-related burdens.

Recovery time is a biological imperative for dealing with stress. Some downtime before engaging with the family can be helpful. As the chemistry related to stress has been at high levels during the day or the constant stress of alertness even when nothing major happens circulates in the body, it takes a minimum of twenty minutes for that protective brain chemistry to dissipate after being away from the source. A relaxing commute, a physical workout, or a quiet time of breathing and relaxing can help. This is a challenge for the officer who is greeted at the door by family members who are also anxious to share about their day, so some negotiation and patience about the officer’s homecoming routine is in order.

Positive physical touch, deep breathing, laughter, and social interactions are good stress reducers, so planning time for those things – and being open to spontaneity as well – is as important as eating well (which is another often neglected aspect of wellness for police officers). An officer should be open, complete with honest conversations at an appropriate time, to actively listen to the families’ concerns about the effect of the job.

The “police personality” is a real thing. A police officer may grow more cynical, and emotionally distant over time. Asking the people who know the officer the best how they think they are doing and how the work may be affecting the person and the relationship is a brave step toward navigating the law enforcement family. It might be best to unload on a therapist or peer, but never exclude sharing your feelings with the family. Honest with children will depend on their maturity level, but they almost always know more than you think.

When police officers and other first responders share about their shift they must recognize that their non-police family members have had good and bad experiences also. It may be tempting to disregard the spouse’s work trials and tribulations at the office since they can’t compare to the fiery crash, but the point of sharing is to be heard and valued, not to compete for who had it worse.

Police officers will not totally relax when off duty. They should brief their family on what to do in the case of an emergency, accept the possibility of an off-duty encounter, and be ready to evacuate or find a safe place if the officer is called into action to intervene. The officer must also be willing to be a good witness and use good judgment when deciding whether or not to get involved in an incident when off-duty.

Supporting America’s law enforcement officers means supporting their families as well.