Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stress Endured by Law Enforcement Families

This semester I took a class called "Issues and Trends in Family Sciences." Our major project for the Fall was to write a research paper on the topic of our choice. It just needed to be an issue that affects families. I immediately knew I wanted to talk about law enforcement families. I gave my presentation the other day and I've only received positive feed back. People said it was really "eye-opening" and they really "had no idea" the kinds of stress a LEO spouse and children endure, and of course, the law enforcement officer as well. Here is my paper... I'm including pics I used from my PowerPoint presentation- that Isabel helped me with!! I think that is what really hit them- because a lot of the pics were from my family. My hope is that this paper can help make at least one more person aware of what LEO families sacrifice for the safety of our communities.

**Please be aware that a few of the pics have profanity on them.

** If you use any of this info for research please site me. And please DO NOT STEAL MY PICS.


Police officers in the United States are faced with a rising crime rate, delinquents armed with illegal, superior weaponry, a seemingly ineffective criminal justice system, and behavioral monitoring, thus helping to create a work-related stress that impacts their personal lives (Witkin, 1990). Law enforcement families tend to experience a broad range of stressors that other families may not. These stresses are a direct result of the high hazard occupation held by one or both of the spouses in a relationship. Irregular sleep schedules caused by shift work resulting in time loss with family, dangerous assignments, as well as “the unknown”, and negative stereotyping of police officers are all causes of stress among law enforcement families (Miller, 2007). Unless one is living in a law enforcement family the stresses endured are often misunderstood and many are not even aware of the fear and frustration suffered by law enforcement officers, their spouse, and their children.

Many occupations require shift work. However, in police work the hours can change weekly depending on the department’s policies. Some work every other weekend, others are stuck on weekend night shifts for years until they move up the ladder of superiority. A shift rarely ends on time for a police officer. Because of late calls near the end of a shift and paperwork following call, a 12-hour shift may end after 16 hours (Miller, 2007). This leaves little time for much else other than sleep before the next shift begins. Court dates during the day, often following a night shift, encourage the constant “jet lagged” feeling police officers suffer through. This affects the family negatively because “family time” is severely limited. “Recreating normal” becomes a special, although required, talent of many cop’s wives. Holidays are rescheduled, dinners are re-warmed, and date “nights” are at random times in the afternoon.  Private time with a spouse is done creatively, at best. Children’s sporting events are missed, while family dinners are few and far between when an officer works night duty (Newman, 2011). For the spouse of an officer who works night shifts, days are often spent “shh-shhing” children so the officer can get the sleep he or she needs. Bedrooms are kept dark, alienating the non-LEO spouse, and often the other spouse suffers from “single parent syndrome.” This can cause frustration and friction between the spouses, as they both desire “normalcy” other families enjoy (Haines, 2003). When available, many officers put in significant overtime, either for the extra money, or because it is expected with the department’s manly expectations. Additionally, police officers who are a part of special units, such as undercover, hostage negotiation and SWAT teams are potentially on call at a moment’s notice. These factors can and do interfere with a family’s routine. Most police spouses are familiar with and appreciate that their officer is a steadfast police officer and a hard worker. However, the police “law” and attitudes can interfere with family time and relationships. Compulsive over-commitment, as the officer seems to grab every overtime opening can lead to the spouse complaining that her officer “bleeds blue” or is “never off duty.”  The cop typically justifies his over-zealousness by listing the sacrifices he makes for his family and the safety of society, while ignoring the pleas of his family (Miller, 2007). Balance of family life and work often seems an unattainable goal.

 Law enforcement often entails accepting dangerous assignments while in the field. Spouses and children can have a difficult time understanding such assignments, especially when their loved one volunteers for it. Job issues also tend to take top priority over family when in the moment. Traumatic scenes involving death, violence, and abuse the police officer comes in contact with and witnesses on the job cannot be imagined realistically by those not actually been a witness to such scenes on a regular basis. Secondary trauma to the police officer is common, but often unresolved due to compartmentalized and suppressed feelings (Miller, 2007). Not knowing if “their” law enforcement officer will return safely at the end of their shift can become a real stressor for the LEO spouse and family. Because death of the officer is a real threat, yet is rarely openly discussed at home- especially in front of children- the fear can remain unaddressed (US Dept of Justice, 1994). Police officers as the target is a rising trend and is a threat to the law enforcement family.  According to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 72 officers were killed by perpetrators in 2011, a 25 percent increase from the previous year and a 75 percent increase from 2008 (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2012). Very few occupations require an “End of Watch” packet to be filled out upon hiring, other than law enforcement and military. This is a folder with forms for the officer to complete and sign regarding who to contact in the event of injury or death, family information, life insurance information, financial material, and last will and testament (Littles, 2011).

Even the stress cops feel is different in general. Officers have a different kind of stress in their jobs, called "burst stress.”  This means there is not always a fixed, consistent stressor. At times the stress is an immediate "burst" from low anxiety to a high anxiety state. In other words, officers go from complete calm, to high activity and pressure in one "burst” (Aumiller, 1993).  The standard stress situation in most careers builds up over time and can eventually get out of control. That is very different from law enforcement stress. "Out of control" can happen in a matter of mere seconds. Because policing is reactive, not proactive officers cannot typically regulate what type of situations they face. There are no warnings that other professionals may receive, such as due date changes or a boss in a bad mood. Peace officers have to respond to, not prevent problems. (Aumiller, 1993).

And when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath of cops, dyin’ in L.A.” is one of the final lines in the song F**k the Police by N.W.A. (, 2012).  This is just one example of negative media regarding police officers. They are portrayed poorly on television and through news outlets. There are webpages, video channels, and Facebook pages dedicated to hating police and calling for the death of “Pigs.” Police officers are hated for enforcing the laws, when that is exactly what they are hired to do. Many speak lowly of the police until they need them for help. Police brutality is featured in the news like it is an everyday occurrence, but rarely is the heroism displayed by officers on a daily basis highlighted in the same way. Police officer deaths are looked upon as a one of the hazards of the job, as if that makes it acceptable (Dowler, 2003). According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, on average, one law enforcement officer is killed in the line of duty somewhere in the United States every 53 hours. Over 19,000 police officers have died in the line of duty since the first recorded death in 1792, yet one rarely hears of them in the national news (National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund, 2012). Police are often ridiculed, complained against, and treated with little respect, yet they are expected to remain professional and respond when help is needed.

Parents of children can also add to the negative stereotype without even realizing it. Silly threats, such as, “See that policeman over there? If you don’t behave he’s going to take you to jail.”  This is, of course, absurd, but happens on a regular basis to police officers. Children need to be taught that police are the “good guys.”  They are the people a child can approach when frightened or in danger because they want to provide assistance. Filling a child’s head with non-realistic threats of the person behind the badge is dangerous and teaches disrespect towards a position where respect has been earned (Dowler, 2003). Law enforcement officers are seen as authority figures and society places high expectations on them. People deal with them differently and treat them differently, even when they are not working. When a problem occurs, everyone looks to the officer to "take charge," to "solve the problem." Some say the cop is never off duty even when they are not wearing a vest, gun, or badge. This can lead to police officers feeling isolated. The segregation can lead to many psychological effects which research shows can create negative personality traits (Aumiller, 1993).

People not living in a law enforcement family cannot realistically comprehend the stress endured by these families. Law enforcement families are truly of a different breed. Awareness is key in helping ones understand the need for respect, patience, and common courtesy. Jokes such as, “Don’t let the bad guys getcha!” are not funny to an officer of the law or their family. Although perhaps said in innocence, words like this make light of the very real dangers a police officer faces every day. Humans can pass away at any time, but the fact that a loved one straps on a gun and a Kevlar vest before going to work so he or she can protect and serve, ups the stake a bit. Police spouses and families have online support groups, as well as within the departments. They are able to discuss the need for awareness so others in the “outside world” can understand the sacrifices husbands, wives, and children of law enforcement officers make on a daily basis so that relief can be at the push of the buttons 9-1-1 on a telephone. Marriage is hard for everyone. It can be even harder for law enforcement. Raising children is hard. It can be even harder when raised in a law enforcement family (Newman, 2011). Respect and understanding from society could be a small step towards lower in the stress felt within the law enforcement community. Awareness of the need for changes in laws to protect peace officers is important, as well as awareness of the struggles that are exclusively experienced in a life in law enforcement.

References (2012, November 14). Retrieved from

Aumiller, G. (1993). Cops are different: The heavy badge. Aumiller/Goldfarh Psychological Services, 1.

Dowler, K. (2003). Media consumption and public attitudes toward crime and justice: The relationship between fear or crime, punitive attitudes, and perceived police effectiveness. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 10(2), 109-126.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2012, May 14). FBI blog. Retrieved 2012, from FBI:

Haines, C. (2003). Police stress and the effects on the family. E.M.U. School of Police Staff and Command, 1-18.

Kirschman, E. (2006). I love a cop: What police families need to know. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Littles, M. (2011). Bullets in the washing machine. Oklahoma City, OK: The Police Wife Life.

Miller, L. (2007). Police families: Stresses, syndromes, and solutions. American Journal of Family Therapy, 35(1), 21-40.

National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund. (2012, October ). National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund. Retrieved     from National Law Enforcement Officer Memorial Fund:

Newman, V. (2011). A CHiP on my shoulder: How to love your cop with attitude. Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing.

US Dept of Justice. (1994). Law enfocement families: Issues and answers. Rockville, MD: NCJRS Photocopy Services.

Witkin, G. (1990, December 3). Cops under fire. U.S. News and World Report, 109(22), 32-44.

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