Calling All Cops: Do You Know Who Has Your Back?

Wisdom from a pioneer cop about connecting to your family during hard times.

Posted Sep 17, 2020

legacy, used with permission
Captain Al Benner, PhD
Source: legacy, used with permission

Dr. Al Benner was a retired police captain, a pioneer in police psychology, co-founder of the West Coast Trauma Retreat for first responders with traumatic stress, and a mentor to many “cop docs” who followed him into psychology. He was also my friend.

Al died of cancer in 2009. He wrote the following words a long time ago. I repeat them here, in this time of turmoil and social unrest, because they are as true today as they ever were.  

“To function effectively in our job, you must annihilate, smother, and suppress normal emotions like fear, anger, revulsion, and even compassion. To do otherwise is to invite overwhelming doubt or hesitancy when decisive action is required. The penalty for your achieved competence is a mindset that might as well be a foreign language to your social contemporaries. We are...victims of our own success. When these same normal and appropriate emotions...surface in personal relationship, we automatically shut down and wonder why, over time, the people we care about the most complain that we are aloof, cold, and uncommunicative.”

The key to riding out the current wave of bitterness and division is to stay connected to your friends and families. To do this, many of you have to stop doing what you have previously done (or been taught to do) to manage strong emotions; suck it up, withdraw, isolate, and push away the very people who can help you. Many of you are angry. Many of you feel betrayed and helpless. Your family feels these things too, but not in the same way you do, unless they’re also cops. Take the time to listen. Don’t dismiss them, discount their feelings, or offer false reassurances. 

Families are scared. Their heads are full of what-ifs. What if someone runs up to your patrol car and fires a gun through the window? What if wearing a police uniform means you have a target painted on your back? What if the community you have earnestly served turns its back on you and you lose your job? What if all this turns you into a bitter stranger who won’t talk to anyone but another cop? What if you begin to judge the entire world based on the actions of a few, in the same way that you’ve been judged? 

Families are tough. And resilient. You don’t have to protect your family from the truth. You don’t have to solve their problems unless they ask you to. And you don’t have to pretend to be stronger, better, tougher, or happier than you actually are. You do need to be honest. (If they live with you they know you put your pants on one leg at a time, throw your dirty laundry on the floor and put orange juice on your cereal). 

Because every family and every relationship is different, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for communicating. What can you do to strengthen your connection? Here are four suggestions.

  • Your family is reading you the minute you walk in the door. Don’t make them guess at your mood or what you need from them.
  • Don’t fool yourself into thinking the job doesn’t follow you home. It does. It is impossible to build a firewall between yourself and the pressure of the job. Especially now.
  • Talk about talking with your mate. When, where, how, and what works for you both. (This is a mutual negotiation between two adults, not the right nor the responsibility of the first responder only). 
  • Figure out how to open a difficult conversation and how to ask for what you need from your mate. He or she will need to do the same. Sometimes all that’s needed is to listen attentively with kindness and understanding.

Al Benner taught me a lot. He knew the damage that police work can do to cops and their families. He knew, firsthand, how the strengths you have as a professional, the things you learned in the academy, in field training, and on the street, can be overlearned, overused, and wrongly applied at home. He knew how important it is to care for your real family because the work-family who once promised to have your back can be fickle.

Consider Al’s words as both a warning of what to avoid and a guide for what you can do to navigate these troubled times. I only wish he were still around to offer them in person. 

References

Kirschman, E. (2018) I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know - third edition. New York, Guilford Press.