Editor’s Note: Last names were omitted from this story at the request of the officers and spouses.
The clock ticking on the wall, the soft chiming as the hour passes yet again, the knock on the door coming just after you fall asleep. There they stand—his partner and lieutenant in formal dress uniforms bringing you the news you fear the most.
This is the worst nightmare of anyone married to a law enforcement officer or LEO. How do the spouses make it through those long days of not knowing and the terrible nights when they put themselves in the position of spouses who have lived it?
There are many uncertainties when you’re married to an LEO, and you’re greeted with those uncertainties daily. There are times when it can all be overwhelming, especially if you’re not prepared for what life holds in store.
″That is an easy one for me,″ says Sassy. ″I trust his skills and abilities, and I help to make sure he has all the best equipment on his duty belt and has the time and money to attend the best training open to him. Worry is a virus and after you give in to it you can lose sleep and overall quality of life. This is the work my DH is meant to do. He is a professional LEO, who loves every minute of his work. We have an EOW folder if the worst does happen, and we always kiss each other goodbye.″
Jared, an officer who’s also married to a LEO, said, ″We have a plan. Everything’s in its place in case one of us goes down or there’s an accident. Being in the field I know the risks, and I try not to think about her being out there risking her life as I do mine.″
A Close Call
In December 1995, while on a domestic violence call, my husband, Kelly, and two other officers encountered the suspect who had earlier in the day kidnapped his estranged wife and raped her. During the second call, my husband and his partners encountered the suspect, who waved a gun at them then sped away in his truck.
A short pursuit brought the truck and both patrol cars to a stop in a busy intersection. The man pointed his weapon out the window as the officers continued to try to get him to surrender. What none of them realized is that there was a jeep full of kids in front of the truck.
The suspect left the truck and walked slowly towards my husband’s partner, pulling the trigger on the gun. For some reason he didn’t realize that revolvers had to be cocked for them to fire. He left the officer no choice but to fire on him.
What the officer failed to see in his tunnel vision was a young man trying to stop the suspect from assaulting the officers. The officers’ shot hit the suspects’ legs. It also tore through the young man who was trying to stop the violence. Officers later learned the boy who died was the suspect’s son.
Because we lived in a small community, I always knew what side of town Kelly was patrolling. This day, it was his side of town where the shooting occurred. Knowing that my husband was involved with this shooting was frightening because no one knew if it was an officer or the suspect who had been shot. I remember the lump in my throat as I waited to hear anything. I finally called the department and spoke to one of his sergeants, who assured me Kelly was all right.
The number of police officers who died in the line of duty from 2001 to 2007 is 1,198, according to the Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Web site. That number includes the officers killed during 9/11. According to the National Cops Web site, each year 140 to 160 police officers die in the line of duty. And they leave behind spouses, significant others, children parents and siblings.
There’s support out there for the families of the fallen officers. The spouses of other officers, as well as support groups can help them get through the terrible loss and deal with the bureaucracy and red tape. We learn to deal with the uncertainty of the job. Most of the spouses acknowledge the risks of their job. Dwelling on the what if’s makes it more difficult to function.
″I have had to make myself switch off when he goes out the door,″ says Heather. ″I used to worry myself sick. When he arrived home at 5:30 a.m. one morning—and should have been home at midnight—he was greeted by me in floods of tears. He got cross with me and told me that I had to accept that this was his job and that I couldn’t let it affect me this way. It is not an easy way of life.″
″It is difficult for me to let her go to work at times, although she works in the same field as I do,″ says Jason, the spouse of a DO about his wife working in a prison setting. ″I know what goes on behind the walls of a prison and I know what can happen. I worry but I do not think about it constantly, or I would never get anything done.″
Preparation is key, according to the Wives Behind the Badge Web site. If you’re prepared for the event and put it out of your mind, then you don’t think about it so much. Some wives prepare a file with all the information that they need. In case something happens, they’re prepared to deal with what they need to do--whether it is the funeral home, military burial or insurance benefits.
Another Unforgettable Incident
One incident, which occurred in March of 1996, sticks out in my mind as being life-changing for my husband. I had spent the day running errands with our one-year-old, before getting Kelly up for work. He was working graveyard this particular night. He and his partner, Dennis, a county attorney by trade and a reserve officer, were on a domestic violence call when they heard a loud banging coming from the house next door.
Kelly and Dennis went to investigate. Kelly knocked on the door, standing directly under the outside light. A man came to the door and, in his hand, was a .357--pointed directly at Kelly’s chest. After identifying himself, he tried to get the man to put the weapon down. And Dennis called out from around the corner of the house for the man to drop the weapon, which distracted the man, turning his attention to Dennis long enough for Kelly to try to get out of the line of fire.
As Kelly was moving toward the shadows, the man turned back and pulled the trigger on him. By the grace of whatever deity you believe in, the primer was bad in the bullet and Kelly was safe. The man was arrested. However, Dennis, the county attorney, was now also a victim of this crime. In the end, the charges were dropped and the man got off, but the ramifications were far-reaching emotionally for both men and our families.
Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome
Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) happens to police officers at an alarming rate. When you combine the type of work they do with the emotional toll it takes in their lives, it can lead to serious emotional issues that arise not only at work but at home, as well. Kelly is a good man and has never in our entire marriage done anything to make me afraid of him, except once. Although he didn’t mean to, he hurt me and I knew it was PTSD at work. While my case is a mild one, many times the ″civilian public″ doesn’t realize that they’re suffering until someone points it out to them. They deal with the dregs of society and the effects of crime on good people every day. It’s important that there’s a support system there.
Some of the spouses when asked how they deal with the things their husbands share about the job. Some don’t want to hear about the things the men deal with on the job. Others, like me, listen because often there’s no one else for these guys to vent to, and no place to let out the day and find peace again.
When is sharing the information about what he does and sees too much? And how do you deal with it?
″Only one time has he been so upset that he wouldn’t talk to me,″ said Manda, one of the wives from the Wives behind the Badge Web site. ″He has seen many horrible things. But he has to talk about it. I will listen no matter how horrible it is. There are a lot of things I wish I didn’t have to hear, but I appreciate the fact that he trusts me and feels comfortable enough to share everything with me. I think it helps him a lot.″
According to Dr. Ellen Kirschman, author of I Love a Cop, PTSD affects five out of 10 police officers in this country. It’s become an important issue within departments across the country. Ensuring that their officers are mentally fit to continue the job after a trauma is important not just for the officers but also for their spouses, who know them far better than anyone else.
The summer of 1999, like other summers was eventful. But that summer while on duty, Kelly answered the call of a distressed wife. She and her husband, a patrol officer with the reservation police department, had split up and he was threatening to kill himself.
The officer held up in a local hotel, then left the area, leading the officers on a short pursuit and ending in an intersection where he drew his weapon and aimed it at the officers. They were forced to kill him.
For 780,000 police officers in the U.S. the sad fact is that suicide has been considered and is an occupational hazard. These staggering numbers, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, are the results of job stress, alcoholism, marital discord and the availability of firearms.
Police officers are commonly referred to as high-risk group for suicide. So far, no comprehensive review has been published about epidemiologic studies among police. According to the American Journal of Psychiatry they systematically explore the occurrence of suicide in police. However, there are no definitive statistics stating the rates of suicides of police officers.
None of the recent nationwide studies slows elevated suicide rates among police. Others studies show inconsistent results. Conclusively, it’s not documented that there’s an elevated suicide rate in police. A particular problem in previous research has been methodological shortcomings. There’s need for further systematic research, and this review points out some strategies of research that do not always work when it comes to diagnosing suicide in police officers.
It’s an important part of being the spouse of a police officer to be able to be there and give them that support system they need. Whether an officer is on duty or off, the public must remember that they are people first. This seems to be overlooked by the public in general, which doesn’t see them as people with families but as the machines that enforce the law and protect them from harm.
Being married to a police officer is a full-time job. The spouses of police officers are the ones to pick up the pieces when things go bad, and they’re the ones who keep it together when things go right. The police family is your family, and its closer than most because, we know that tomorrow it could be any one of us who has to walk that final walk and hear that last roll call.
Elizabeth Angel has been married to a police officer for 16 years. They currently live in the state of Arizona and have two children. Elizabeth is a full-time student, graduating from Ashford University this coming fall, and a writer.