By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
The stress and challenges associated with the dangers of policing – negative media attention, civil unrest, and inadequate police pay – affects more than just the police officers themselves. Spouses must deal with law enforcement officers bringing home the stresses of their workday. Law enforcement families commonly carry an inherent fear for their family member who is on the front lines against crime.
Recently, we have gone through some troubling times as a society including violent clashes with law enforcement officials that have resulting in death, unimaginable ambushes against police officers, and mass shootings. These horrific acts cause undue stress for police families that can result in domestic violence.
“Though data on police domestic violence is not only notoriously difficult to gather but also skewed by a culture of silence and intimidation, it suggests that police officers in the United States perpetrate acts of domestic violence at roughly 15 times the rate of the general population,” reports Fatherly magazine, a digital medium.
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Regardless of whether this research is correct, it is undeniable that law enforcement families often struggle. Shift work, low pay, turmoil within the department, and conflicts between work and family roles all affect police families. The All Clear Foundation Supporting First Responders points out that the average life expectancy for law enforcement officers is 57 years old compared to 79 years old for civilians. This too is a factor that weighs on police families.
How a police officer’s agency responds following a traumatic event can help mitigate the challenges law enforcement families face. Many agencies around the United States have a peer support program that is implemented when an officer is involved in a highly stressful event.
Often, the peer support program involves assigning a fellow officer with a similar experience to the one involved in the traumatic event. It has been found that traumatized officers may be more willing to talk with their peer officers about the challenges they are experiencing because there is often already a level of trust and confidence in their having worked together.
Since it’s been found that peer support programs work well, another step law enforcement departments can take is to have a similar peer support program for spouses. Agencies can establish family support groups that pair spouses who have experienced similar stressors in their family.
For example, a shooting incident is a very stressful event for both officers and their families. It emphasizes the dangers that exist in law enforcement.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police provides a resource to help police agencies start a law enforcement family support group. Connecting spouses who have both experienced the damaging effects of a shooting incident can be effective because spouses who have successfully overcome the stress can share their experiences and what helped them get through it.
Some agencies send literature home to the spouse or family member that makes them aware of troubling signs they should watch, such as signs of PTSD. Helping family members understand the physiological and psychological influences of police stress is important. Offering family counseling and chaplain services can also help mitigate the impact of stress on police families.
The All Clear Foundation provides exceptional resources for the families of first responders. These resources include training and education, counseling referrals, links to a police wife conference, and financial assistance for first responder families in their time of need. On our podcast with the executive director of the All Clear Foundation, Rhonda Kelly, we discuss further resources available for the families of police officers and first responders.