by Glen Williams
This article is the first step in community relations and explains that there are several communities that we each belong to. Today I will refer specifically to our closest community, our family. One issue that shows our failure in this familial community will be brought up. One part of the solution is open communication. Something I did not do in the past, contributing to my divorces. Something I do much better at now. In fact, some of the things in this article, I had not shared until I did with my current wife, while writing this article. This is merely a brief introduction, as the issues in this, our familial community, and the broader communities in which we serve deserve more time and discussion. The prospect of more time and discussion is brought up at the end of this article.
In today’s society, we hear and read a lot about the police and community relations. Some good things, some bad things, and some outright false things. What does all of this mean? What is a community? Are we a part of our community? How are our relations with our community working? Can we be a member of more than one community?
Webster’s Dictionary defines community as Com`mu´ni`ty n. 1. Common possession or enjoyment; participation; as, a community of goods. The original community of all things. - Locke. An unreserved community of thought and feeling. - W. Irving. 2. A body of people having common rights, privileges, or interests, or living in the same place under the same laws and regulations; as, a community of monks. Hence a number of animals living in a common home or with some apparent association of interests. Creatures that in communities exist. - Wordsworth. 3. Society at large; a commonwealth or state; a body politic; the public, orpeople in general. Burdens upon the poorer classes of the community. - Hallam. 4. Common character; likeness. The essential community of nature between organic growth and inorganic growth. - H. Spencer. 5. Commonness; frequency. Eyes . . . sick and blunted with community. - Shak.
By this definition, we each belong to several different types of communities. Our family, our profession, any club or group, our neighborhood, our religion, political parties, our city, state, and county, along with many other possibilities. For most, the basic and primary community we belong to is our family. How are we doing within this community? This is such an individual area that it can’t be completely quantified, however there are two basic statistics that indicate an overall failure in our relations with our families. These are the divorce rate and suicide rate of law enforcement professionals. Both are higher than the rates of the general public. Suicide; In 2008 there were 141 police suicides throughout the country. That is 17/100,000 vs 11/100,000 for the general public. 2009 saw 143 police suicides equaling 17/100,000 and 11/100,000 for the general public. 2012 brought about 126 police suicides totaling 14/100,000 and 13/100,000 for the public. 2015 showed improvement with 112 police suicides translating to 12/100,000 compared to 13/100,000 for the public. 2016 continued the good trend with 108 police suicides and again equating to 12/100,000 vs 13/100,000 for the public. 2017 unfortunately went back to the previous rates with 140 police suicides rating at 17/100,000 compared to 13/100,000 for the public. These show that historically police suicides are higher than the general publics. It is sad that these people have been failed by us as a professional community as well as leaving their familial community behind.
Divorce; In a 2014 study Police One suggests that 70%-80% of police officers get divorced. In 2016, KSL did a study and found that 60% get divorced and in 2017 that percentage was found to again be around 70% of officers get divorced. Family relations in law enforcement has been an issue for a long time. In fact, I remember having a 2 hour training block on spousal relations (our family community) in the Police Academy in 1991. We were asked to bring our spouses in and the instructors discussed the high divorce rate in law enforcement. We were offered some suggestions about how to prevent this from occurring. We were taught that developing interests/hobbies outside law enforcement and not making the job our life would greatly assist in maintaining our spousal /family relationships. This is partially true, but much more is required. These statistics indicate that this is still an ongoing problem in our primary community, our family, and that we in our professional community are failing at addressing these problems.
Communication is one key aspect of maintaining any relationship, no matter which community is being referred to. Before I became a police officer, I told my wife everything. I continued sharing in the beginning. As I gained experience, moved into detectives, dealt with political BS at work, saw some gruesome things. I told her less and less. I bought into the macho crap that was expected of me. Real men don’t talk about work, we hide how we feel, we don’ show emotions. I turned to working more and more until that was all I did. Work at the PD, and 2 or 3 part-time jobs in the guise of taking care of the financial needs of my family. My wife became depressed and I used work as an escape. Until we divorced.
What I know now, is communication is vital to a good relationship and I am fortunate to have the opportunity to use the things I have learned to create that relationship. I tell my current wife about everything, including how I feel. I know that when working in law enforcement, I cannot give the details of the guy who committed suicide with a shotgun, the person who stepped in front of a train, or of the 2 year old who escaped his parent’s apartment and drowned in a fountain pool. I won’t/can’t tell my spouse where the suicide occurred, or who it was. I am hesitant to tell her about the wound which removed most of his head. How we saw brain tissue and blood on the carpet, walls, on and behind books and bookshelves. How nasty it really was. I can share how these things made me feel. That the scene was really gross. How after the suicide the guys took me (the new guy) to dinner for lasagna and how I bottled up my feelings to prove to them I was tough enough. But inside I was feeling how selfish/cowardly that person was for doing this to his family. How traumatic it is as they would have to get Disaster Cleanup to clean the entire basement. How this hurt that family and that I would never want anything like that to occur in my life. I do know now that suicide is an illness and not necessarily selfish, but that is how I felt at the time.
After the train accident, I held everything together, worked to determine cause and come up with ways to prevent this from happening again. Spoke to friends and family of the victim and to those that witnessed the accident. I took evidentiary photos of the scene, including the body parts. I didn’t acknowledge that this happened to anyone. I looked at the scene, at the body parts, and bottled up my feelings, only saying there was a person who walked in front of a train today and was killed. Inside I was sad, sad for those friends that witnessed it or were the last to see this person alive, then all of a sudden dead. Sad for those who felt they could have prevented the accident and the guilt they expressed and will feel for a long time. Angry for the choice this person made to be on the tracks and not look to get out of the way (it was not a suicide) and frustrated because we will never really know why or how this happened. These are the things I would share now.
The two -year old that I searched for, for 30 to 45 minutes. I looked at the fountain but some teenagers had put soap in the fountain the night before and I couldn’t see the water, only bubbles. After searching the area, I was standing by the fountain when a small breeze came up, just enough to blow a small gap in the bubbles and allow me to see the young boy’s body floating in the water. I pulled him out and did CPR until fire arrived and took over. The boy did not make it. I kept everything together and took care of the boy’s family, protected the scene and did my job. Luckily, I had a good LT who saw the pain and allowed me to go somewhere and just be alone, take care of myself, before worrying about my report. I found an unoccupied church parking lot and went to the far back corner and cried. I am grateful for him. I never shared much about that experience but if I had here is what I would have shared. I recovered the body of a young boy and did CPR on him but he did not make it. I feel really sad for his parents. The boy was only two but was an escape artist. Mom and Dad had put extra security measures and locks on the door and he still got out. I am angry at the kids who put the soap into the fountain. I am sure the bubbles are what attracted the boy to the fountain and I know the bubbles made our search extremely difficult. I searched that fountain first and couldn’t see the boy. I am mad at myself for missing him and wonder if that 30 minutes could be the difference between his life and death. I am grateful for the wind that came up when it did, allowing me to see the boy and am grateful for the LT who recognized my emotional needs at that moment.
Again, these were feelings I never really shared, until writing this article and speaking to my current wife, years after the fact. Why didn’t I share these feelings back them? Because as a new officer the actions around me taught and conditioned me to not say anything about the job and to bottle things up. I was told we don’t talk about work with people outside the job. Other people don’t have the need to know. They don’t understand. That was the expectation of those I worked with. That was what I learned, and I took it to heart.
The moral to this story is, it is OK to communicate and talk with others, even outside of law enforcement. Including your spouse, family, and if needed, a counselor or therapist. We get to be wise in what we share. We don’t share details, but we can express how we feel about an incident. There are still other experiences that I get to share, when the time is right, but once again, how I felt and how it made me feel, not the details. This then brings some questions;
1) Does stress from one community (city, police, family) transfer to other communities (family, police, city) and if so, what do we do to reduce the damage done? And
2) If we are failing in our primary community, the community that means the most to us, how are we doing with the relations in our other communities?
3) How do we prevent these failures and preserve our communities and our relations with those communities?
These questions are addressed in my 8 hour work shop, Humanizing the Badge, An Inside Look at Community Relations. If there are any questions or comments I can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published All-Points Bulletin-Official Publication of the Utah Peace Officers Association
Note; Humanizing the Badge, An Inside Look at Community Relations is now presented as Bridging the Gap: An Inside Look at Communication and Relations.