Officers and their spouses have to deal with all the issues facing most couples, regardless of occupation, and then some. One is the physical and emotional response to critical incidents.
A critical incident does not have to be dramatic, such as taking a life, but can also include smaller incidents. "You can have an officer who has a young child and has to respond to the scene of a car accident and pull out the child who is the same gender and age as his own. He will have a difficult time with that scene," says Teresa Tate, founder of Survivors of Law Enforcement Suicide (SOLES). "If you take another officer without children, he will probably not respond the same way." Every officer is different, but we have special insight into the types of incidents which might negatively affect our loved one.
Stress is a negative effect, inherent in police work. Overwhelming stress can occur from just one critical incident, or it can build up over time like bricks, threatening to overwhelm an officer's emotional and physical health. As a spouse, you need to be aware of the type of events he which might need help with.
One thing affecting officers negatively is compassion fatigue. "When someone comes to you every day with negative things, officers become overwhelmed with all of this negative in life," states Dr. Thomas Gillan, Director of the Central Florida Police Stress Unit (CFPSU). "Compassion fatigue is the cost of caring too much. If officers don't have a way of replenishing the water in their own wells and have someone help them process this it becomes very heavy, a burden."
Another situation is a call which deeply affects an officer for personal reasons. Many years ago, my LEO husband came home from the midnight shift, despondent. Coming into the bedroom, he tossed his uniform on the floor and plopped down on the bed beside me. He sat there with his head hung staring at his hands. After taking a deep breath, he shook me and asked if I was awake. Then, he recited the events of a call he had been on. His tone was monotonous and he sounded as if he was calling in the report to the Voice Writer as he told me about a four-year-old girl who had been run over by her father on his tractor. Fortunately, the ground was wet from rain and her head was just pressed into the mud. She was taken to the hospital where she survived. Our son was four at the time, and my husband blandly stated he just kept seeing him out there pressed into the dirt. As he told me this, I felt helpless. I didn't know what to say or how to ease my husband's pain. After sitting silently for a few more minutes, he got up and left the room. He never said another word about it, although he was moody and distant for several weeks afterwards.
The effect of critical incidents on officer's mechanisms has become a concern for the law enforcement community, including their families. Organizations such as the FBI, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), policefamiles.com and Tears of a Cop (TOAC) provide information about the effects of a critical incident and coping strategies. Another wonderful resource is the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation. A critical incident, especially one involving death or serious injury, can traumatize an officer. The trauma does not stay at work. Bringing it home, it affects his family. As a civilian, it is hard to picture what an officer goes through, and the event might be incomprehensible. Allen Kates, author of Cop Shock: Surviving Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, points out, "No matter what family members might think of the events, they should never minimize what the officer has experienced. Perception is everything. If officers feel traumatized, then they are."