Succeeding as a Police Officer and a Father

A police officer and his family
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A popular television show, tells the story of a family where the grandfather, father, two sons and a daughter are affiliated with the New York City Police Department. A former police commissioner, a former commissioner, an assistant district attorney, a veteran detective and a rookie officer all come from the same family. The entire Blue Bloods concept gives a new perspective on how law enforcement families can and should work. 

As many children of police officers will suggest, it can be tough being a great dad and law enforcement professional. In some ways, the skills and attitudes needed to be a competent and professional law enforcement officer can be at odds with the skills and attitudes needed to be a successful and supportive father. 

Law enforcement families often suffer when fathers (and mothers) who are officers have a hard time making the transition between work and home. “Leaving work in your locker before you head home after a shift is the best advice I can offer,” suggested one senior police officer with whom I spoke. But that is certainly easier said than done.

Stress Factors on Law Enforcement Families

Research suggests that law enforcement is one of the most stressful careers. Career Trends identifies being a police patrol officer as the 3rd most stressful job, which would not come as a surprise to most readers. 

Some factors contribute to that level of occupational stress. 

  • Shift Work and Sleep Deprivation: Shift work is an occupational hazard in the law enforcement world, and it can take its toll on family relationships. Officers can feel frustrated as dads when they are asleep or at work when their kids are home and awake, and that lack of time and attention to devote to families can drive wedges between fathers and families. Changing work shifts can also disrupt sleep patterns which can add stress to interactions at home and work.
  • Lack of Predictability: Life as a law enforcement officer can be inconsistent and erratic. Overtime work is often required, and frequently with little warning. An officer may need to testify in a criminal court hearing at times when he would otherwise be with family and may sit for hours waiting for his role as a witness. Emergencies can come up which require planned family activities to be disrupted. When normal family life is interrupted by work demands, stress can result.
  • The Brotherhood: As a paramilitary organization, police agencies have structures and cultures that tend to unite the officers in a common cause. In some ways, the co-workers take on many characteristics of a family and can come to seem even more like family than an officer’s real family. Loyalties can become divided, and when stresses happen at home, officers can find a place to retreat at work.
  • Authoritarian Roles: In law enforcement, the officer is trained over and over to take control of situations at work. When he is called to the scene of a crime or an accident, he becomes the immediate authority figure. That positional authority is an absolute need in stressful situations at work. But when an officer tries to use positional authority with his wife or children, he will often encounter rebellion, hurt feelings or withdrawal. An officer/father needs to be able to set aside the badge and its authority when he comes home and gets himself into a collegial family situation where the power is dispersed, and respect has to be earned.
  • Personal Risks: Unlike many professions, law enforcement officers put their lives and personal safety at risk on every shift. They are taught to be careful and suspicious and to preserve their safety and the safety of those whom they serve and with whom they work. The possibility of not returning home after a shift is always in the back (or the front) of an officer’s mind. That level of stress can also be a factor in his family as his wife and children worry about him almost constantly.
  • Becoming Overprotective: Officers tend to see the worst of humanity in their jobs. They see families and individuals victimized regularly, and that can result in their becoming overprotective for their families. This concern for family safety can be blown out of proportion easily and can result in discipline that is over-harsh, paranoia about a spouse who goes away from home alone, or other unhealthy levels of control in family relationships.

Ways for Officer Fathers to Succeed at Home

As indicated earlier, the skills and attitudes that make an officer successful in his career can backfire if he brings those skills and attitudes into his family relationships. Officers have to change personas and be a father rather than a police officer at home.

  • Leave It In the Locker: The senior officer to whom I referred earlier suggested developing a ritual for leaving work and coming home. For him, when he closed his locker with his uniform and supplies inside, he also mentally took off his role as an officer and put back on his role as a husband and father. It's important for every father, but even more so for a police officer.
  • Communicate Regularly and Effectively: Making time and space for family communication is critical for law enforcement families. Many LEO families have a weekly family time where the entire family is together, even if only for one meal or a few hours. Use that time to do some scheduling, to talk about the details of family life and to share fun memories. Understanding and planning ahead to communicate can go a long way to better family relationships.
  • Schedule Family Vacations: One good aspect of working for a law enforcement agency is that almost all provide some period of paid vacation every year. Taking advantage of the vacation time to spend time as a family and to build good memories is important. Getting out of the mode of work, sleep and family time to just commit to time with wife and children is one of the best things to generate positive feelings at home.
  • Make and Keep Promises: The best way to build relationships of trust is to make and keep promises. Dr. Stephen Covey calls this the emotional bank account. Make promises whenever you can keep them and don’t make promises that you can’t keep. 
  • Focus on the Quality of Your Marriage: Kids need dads - that is for sure. But focusing time and affection on is a critical element of maintaining good family relationships all around. Have some friends who are not law enforcement officers and bring them into the equation for balance. Take your wife on dates regularly - trading babysitting if you need to spend quality time together. Investments in strengthening your marriage will pay big dividends in your personal life and your family relationships.
  • Get Help When You Need It: If an officer finds his family life being dysfunctional or just difficult, he should not be afraid or intimidated to seek help. Most police agencies have a chaplain who can be a good source of help, information, resources, and perspective. Additionally, crisis counselors are available to most departments to assist with family issues and difficulties. Officers may see the idea of getting help as a sign of weakness, but being strong enough to know when it is time for help is a sign of a mature man.