Sunday, May 16, 2010

The "Police Family" Myth

Police work is more than a job, it’s a way of life. When you become a cop you join a family. Right? That’s what we’re told. Young recruits gobble this up. Who doesn’t want to be part this brotherhood in blue? At the risk of killing the buzz, I’m here to tell you we really aren’t a family at all. If this is a family, it’s not one I want to be a member of.

I don’t want to split hairs here, but it would be more accurate to say the police culture has family-like characteristics. While active in our career we share the trenches with our co-workers. Any time you share an intense emotional experience (think fights, foot chases and crowd management here) with another person, a bond is created. So we have a bond with those we work with and extend it to all cops.

Yet, the extent to which you embrace the idea that you’re part of a family, is the extent to which you’ll be burnt when the bubble pops. And it always pops. Just ask a retiree. In my own department of roughly 180 cops, we had three veterans retire on one day last week. Each of them had twenty plus years of experience. Part of the reason retirement is such a huge step for cops, more than other professions, is that they know they’re leaving “the family.”

Wait a minute. Families don’t abandon their kids when they leave for college. The police “family” sure does. In about a month the churning police department machine will have moved on. Three other officers will take the retirees beats and on we go.

If you get injured on the job, if you retire, if you are the subject of a serious internal affairs investigation (legit or not) you WILL be abandoned. You’ll be dropped, your family members will distance themselves from you. If my brother in Kansas told me he got fired I may be disappointed in him for what he did to be terminated, but he’d still be my brother and I’d still be there for him. Our law enforcement family can hardly say the same.

At the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat in northern California, I’ve sat as a volunteer clinician with groups of traumatized first responders. Folks that have been involved in critical incidents and - shocker here - became psychologically injured. I’ve sat quietly listening to their stories. When recalling the incident they usually become tense, sometimes they appear dissociated, like they’re telling the story of another person. But then, almost predictably, they turn to how they were treated after the incident by the police agency and their fellow officers. That’s when the real emotion comes out. We call it “administrative betrayal.” Their family turns on them. Their old buddy, Sgt. Schmo, not only isn’t available to toss a few beers back after work, he’s suddenly creating a dossier.

All cops are aware of the huge liability we take on every time we go 10-8. With one single action, a thrown round, one extra lick on a bad guy captured on someone’s cell phone, one mistake and your family will evaporate. Believe it.

I have another co-worker who is currently out on an injury. He’s a buddy who’s been out about a month now. I’ve called him once. That’s not being a good friend let alone “brother.”

It would be instructive if you could have an honest conversation with an officer who has been retired for awhile. If you’re fortunate enough to have such people in your life, ask them about the police family. Chances are there will be some residual pain about how difficult it was to transition from a world in which they felt part of a family, to a world in which they felt kicked to the curb.

What’s the lesson in all this? Don’t confuse partnership with family. As officers, we’re partners engaged in a frequently intense occupation. We support each other and get each other’s back. We go through a lot together but we’re not blood. Don’t assume you’re in a real family, ‘cause if you do you’re going to get burnt.

Keep you’re old friends, make new ones on the job. Reserve a good, solid piece of your identity completely outside police work. That way when you retire you won’t be hit with the two by four of reality that so many retirees get hit with.


  1. Wise words. If police work is a "family," it's certainly the ultimate in a dysfuntional one!

  2. Dear Jeff,
    As an interested outsider, I also have wondered about the strength of the culture. So much of police work seems an ever-present 'now', and it does not seem to privilege continuity by its very nature.

    Then the unions "brotherhoods" have seemed to abandon many of the most critical issues for officers in the field. Yet in the end, it's one of the more familial--as long as the pension plan is still working.

    Thank you for a thoughtful post.
    Ann T. Hathaway

    P.S. I found you on Cops Who Blog site.

  3. This is so true. How many times has a brother/sister officer retired early due to some work-related injury? We pass around an envelope, take up a collection, then forget about them. Some family, eh?