In last month’s column (“Fearing the Worst”) we began looking at the fears the loved ones of LEOs often harbor, particularly those of the spouses and significant others. While it may be impossible or impractical to ever totally eliminate fear and worry--it IS a dangerous job, after all, and cops do get hurt and killed--they can be managed and conquered.
The fact is, although law enforcement can be very dangerous that danger is sometimes blown far out of proportion. To understand this, however, requires a greater familiarity with the realities of the job than most people--including even the significant others of most LEOs--will ever really have.
That doesn’t mean you--that is, the LEOs and LEO partners reading this--cannot take the steps to build that familiarity. Rise above the average and read on; here we present five basic principles for building understanding and overcoming fear.
Open the Lines of Communication Further
It may sound trite, but the admonishment to “open the lines of communication’ is vitally important to making the rest of these tactics work. The LEO half of the relationship really needs to commit to being open and honest about the job, letting their partner in to areas often kept hidden, and trusting their partners ability to handle what they see and learn. And, as questions arise, they need to be answered with both sensitivity and candor.
Many LEOs believe they are doing their partners a favor by hiding or minimizing certain realities of the job, in the (usually misguided) belief “they don’t want to know all this stuff,” “if she knew what I did all day it would only make her worry,” or “I’m doing him a favor by keeping who I am and what I do at work separate from our home life.” Actually, the spouses and partners (as well as family and close friends) of cops usually do want to “know all this stuff.” They’re fascinated by it, as are a lot of people, but even more so they want to know “their cop” and this includes knowing the nitty-gritty of the job.
Commit to opening the lines of communication even further than before.
Strive to Understand
Most people--civilian non-law enforcement types, for lack of a better phrase--have only the vaguest notion of what the patrol officer they see driving by in a marked squad does on an ordinary day. How many of you have politely endured an evening of “speeding ticket talk” (that’s what they think patrol cops do all day so, obviously, it must be a simply fascinating topic of conversation, right? Zzzzz …) at a party after telling someone what you or your significant other does for a living? Most people somehow believe “watching the detectives” on any of the Law & Order or CSI franchises somehow opens a window on the world of real-life dicks and ETs, never really knowing how painstaking – and often frustrating – the work really can be.
Or, they believe policing is all about car chases and heater cases, running and gunning it out with easily defined, one dimensional, “bad guys” from central casting. They little know that for every big case there are a hundred small ones, that a cops most potent weapon is her pen (or keyboard), or that most bad guys are really just regular guys in a really bad moment .
Unfortunately, too many significant others are stuck with the same perceptions.
Do what you can to really understand the realities of police work. Ask questions. Compare fiction to fact--LEOs, explain what fictionalized versions get right, and parts amount to generous application of artistic license--and use that as a starting point. Police dramas unrealistically compress time, cut corners, romanticize cops and characters, and give short shrift to real police procedure, but they do provide starting points for real conversations that can go beyond the shortcomings and foster real understanding.
Read. Find some good police procedurals--may I suggest Wambaugh over Connelly, and McBain over Patterson, or look for any other well-written fiction that stresses the drama in the streets over putting characters in the sheets--and read them together and then discuss.
And, if your partner’s department sponsors a Citizens Police Academy or similar, consider attending for an even closer view of what goes on behind the scenes.
And this leads to…
Get Up Close & Personal with “The Job”
Not all LEOs are keen to having anyone in the car with them, even if it’s family or friend, and not all departments allow them, but we recommend going on the occasional “ride along” with your LEO. Althea has been on several over the years, with the experience ranging from adrenaline-pumping to mind-numbingly dull--kind of like police work itself, if you think about it--and they have been invaluable in her ability to understand and appreciate the job in its fullness.
Being able to talk see police work firsthand, and maybe asking questions about what you’re seeing in real-time, helps dispel some of the mystery and aloofness that goes with the job. Hearing radio traffic and inquiring as to what it means is an education in itself, and helps you learn the pulse of the department your LEO works for.
If possible, try to ride on different shifts, too. What happens at midnight and what happens at noon, even in the very same jurisdiction, are different as night and… well, there really is a lot of difference. So, if you can’t ride both shifts with you LEO, ask her to set you up for a few hours with a buddy on a different shift to see the contrast and get varying perspectives. Riding with a cop is always eye opening.
A little warning: Be very, very careful of letting certain websites or facebook pages influence your feelings. In the universe of today’s internet, and particularly on social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc) the news cycle is measured in seconds. Although we follow sites and feeds such as the Officer Down Memorial Page and online police magazines, and recommend you do, too, do not let them feed fear and worry. Real-time updates of fallen officers (and even officers who win armed confrontations) appear daily and can breed paranoia and panic. Read them with perspective, see them as cautionary and to be heeded instead of an inevitability that will surely befall your cop, and never be afraid to voice your concerns over them. If you do follow these feeds, they should lead to…
When Feeling Uncertain, Ask Questions
If you’re the partner of a LEO there will be times you feel uncertain or afraid; that’s normal and should be expected. It IS a dangerous job; at some point or another (and probably several times over a career), your cop WILL come home scraped, scuffed, and bruised; there will be times something she’s seen or done haunts her, and sleep becomes elusive; and somewhere on his journey, he’ll question his very worth in this world. When you feel uncertain or afraid, ask questions. Strive to understand. Seek clarity. Extend empathy, and ask for it in return.
If you’re the LEO in the relationship, know there will be times your partner feels fear and uncertainly. Policing asks a lot of cops, and even more of the ones who let them walk out the door each day. It may one day ask them to sacrifice you wholly to the community you serve. Let them be scared for you, but never of you. When they have questions, answer them with truthfulness. When they have fear, offer empathy. And have faith in their strength and ability to handle your career. You owe them that.
Take Advantage of Free Time
We will always come back to this: Live your life fully engaged. Give as much to each other as you do to the job, and then give even more. Policing can be a hard career, for both the LEO and those who love him. Putting as much (or more) energy into play as work can make it a little easier… for everyone. Be deliberate with your time and how you spend it.
Time spent together opens up and facilitates better communication, enhances closeness and intimacy, and helps buffer against fear and uncertainly. It fosters the emotional safety to necessary to have sometimes difficult conversations, and the familiarity to be in tune with one another.