Feeling stress — and support: Loved ones of law enforcement learn to cope
Long hours, dangerous encounters and sometimes little thanks make the job of law enforcement officers difficult. But as hard as the job is for them, it can be just as stressful for their families and loved ones.
Having a loved one in the law enforcement career, whether it’s police, highway patrol or corrections, means living around the job. Being a part of that kind of family isn’t easy for some — even things like missed holidays or events, can take a toll on families who are enjoying their time together while their loved one is working.
“Your best friend and protector isn’t there to protect you, so you have to adapt and basically be a single parent at times because they are protecting everyone else’s family which means your family has to sometimes suffer because of it,” said Lauren Tucker, the wife of a Carson City deputy.
Especially as a child, not having one parent around because of constant work obligations isn’t always easy to understand. For Anthony Francone, a Northern Nevada deputy, with his father serving as a Deputy Sheriff for 36 years in Ely, there were times during his childhood when his father wasn’t always around.
“I remember one night waking up and he wasn’t supposed to be going to work but he was getting dressed. I asked him where he was going and he said ‘We just had two officers shot at, I have to go in.’ Luckily they both survived but that is one of my most vivid memories,” Francone said. “(I remember that) my grandma basically had to raise us because my dad was working a lot and looking back I don’t think he worked as much as we do these days, but he was gone quite a bit.”
One of the biggest stressors for the families is the constant fear their loved one may not come home after a shift, especially with America’s current mentality regarding police.
“A lot of the things in the news are very upsetting, all the officer involved shootings, all the officers being shot at, being killed, being targeted… It does put you on edge, it makes you realize that a lot of people don’t respect officers trying to do their jobs,” said Tucker.
“Before (my husband) ever leaves it’s always a hug and kiss goodbye, we never separate on bad terms. I make sure that our daughter gets a kiss and hug and I make sure she gets that last little bit of goodbye because you honestly don’t know if it’s ever going to be the last goodbye.”
Francone said the job has gotten more stressful in recent years, with the mentality of police changing from a positive light to a negative light, and it has caused a change in the way officers operate and interact with suspects.
“The world has really changed, tactics have really changed,” Francone said. “Now I remember my training and my tactics and what they teach us … and even though I still try to be friendly and try to engage people in a positive way, in the back of my head I am watching their hands and their body language and thinking ‘Is this person going to be a threat?’ So it has changed, it has really changed.
“I just think that those consensual encounters aren’t as frequent as they were 19 years ago. They are seeing us as the enemy and that makes the job harder, but I don’t see us as the enemy and I don’t think that most of the public sees it that way either.”
The image of law enforcement has gotten so bad Francone said he doesn’t even like the idea of his children joining the profession, despite the fact it’s a family business.
“I am not real sure I want my kids to go into law enforcement with the way the world is,” Francone said. “They haven’t shown any indication that’s the way they want to go and if they did I would support them but I’m not sure I want them to go that way.
“I want them to be happy and do what they want to do but I think that I would be a lot more comfortable having a bit of a safer career; that they can go home to their families every night and know they are going to walk through the door at the end of the day. Right now we don’t have that and I don’t think we are going to get that back.”
Tucker said she shares these same stresses when her husband goes to work, but is able to cope with that fear by reassuring herself constantly things are going to be OK.
“While he’s at work it’s easy to think about he’s doing his job, he’s helping others, he’s doing his thing, it can be a little nerve wracking when they aren’t able to respond to texts or calls right away, but you have to build up that thick skin to reassure yourself that they are just busy,” Tucker said. “No news is good news, they are doing their job and they are helping people,”
For some, it isn’t always that easy.
Meghan Westin is the daughter of a University of Nevada, Reno police officer and growing up she remembers being in a constant state of fear for her father.
“It was scary,” Westin said. “I was always having bad dreams that something bad would happen to my dad… I couldn’t watch shows like Rescue 911 because it scared me to think that could happen to him.
“I don’t think I really did ever cope with the stress (of my dad’s job) until recently… about six years ago I started to have the bad dreams again and had to go to counseling but I found out that a lot of my fear and anxiety had stemmed from that fear of losing my dad.”
Unfortunately, Westin experienced the worst case scenario when her father, Sgt. George Sullivan, was killed in the line of duty in 1998.
Sullivan was filling out paperwork in a parking lot when a pedestrian approached his vehicle to ask him for directions and when Sullivan stepped out of his patrol vehicle to help, the man killed him with a hatchet.
Today, she has had to rehash some of those feelings, with her brother following in her father’s footsteps and joining the police force.
“It is scary especially with the hate crimes against police but it is something you can’t choose to dwell on or live an anxious lifestyle because of it,” Westin said. “I just have to trust in God to watch over my brother and protect him and I know if something happens to him God is taking care of him. But it is still scary because above and beyond that, it is a real possibility (of him dying).”
‘Not what I wanted to hear’
The Howell family also has had to learn the hard reality of what happens when their loved one doesn’t come home from a shift.
Carl Howell was a Carson City deputy who was killed in the line of duty last August after responding to a domestic violence call, where he was shot and killed by the suspect. Carl’s father Kevin said it was a night he wouldn’t forget.
“We were asleep and (Sheriff) Kenny (Furlong) was pounding on the door — he broke the doorbell because he was hitting it so hard. That is finally what woke me up,” Kevin said. “So I get out of bed, take my gun off the night stand and I go to the door and take the locks off really carefully, quietly. Then I pop the door open and my gun was right here in Kenny’s face.”
Kevin wasn’t able to describe what Furlong said to him that night, fighting back tears, he simply recalled “it was not what I wanted to hear.”
Before that night, Kevin said he never worried about his son working as an officer.
“I don’t think scared ever came into it,” Kevin said. “…This is Carson, nothing ever happens in Carson. Shootings, we have had them over the years, but they weren’t really anything to speak of and we had our share of crazies and all of that, but it wasn’t a big deal.”
Kevin himself had been active in public safety for many years, so he had felt more prepared having Carl in law enforcement.
“I was in too many (dangerous situations) and the thing was, that helped and it didn’t help because I knew the risks (of Carl being in law enforcement),” Kevin said. “I was always on him about watching his back, but when someone ambushes you, what are you going to do? It’s a rewarding field, whether it’s fire, police ambulance, whatever but there are some inherent dangers.”
For the Howell family, it has been a difficult year since Carl was killed in the line of duty. His father and stepmother joked about when Carl was working the graveyard shift and would visit at 2 a.m. because he was hungry.
“It is just, he used to walk up to the door (and wave) and I can still see him,” Alice Howell, Carl’s stepmother said. “…It’s hard to believe it has been a year.”
But for the Howell family, and many other Northern Nevada law enforcement families, they weren’t without support. While dealing with their loved ones’ profession can be stressful, all agree there’s a special bond within the law enforcement community.
Westin said even though it has been 18 years since her father was killed, they still receive flowers each year on the anniversary of his death, still go to baseball games with the chief of police at UNR and still are extremely active with law enforcement organizations, which all make her feel like they are still part of the family.
“I just still feel very protected by the community,” Westin said. “I can call anyone at the drop of a dime if I need anything, anywhere.”
When Francone was a child, he remembers having his law enforcement family looking out for him when he would become stressed about his father.
“I was scared all the time. I didn’t have a mom back then and one of the dispatchers with White Pine County Sheriff’s Office, her name was Mary, I would call her as a tiny kid and ask her where my dad was at and she would always tell me,” Francone said. “There were nights where my dad was working and he may be on something, but she would tell me to go to the window and Mary would send a patrol car by to make me feel better. It is a family like that, that is what it is.”
Kevin Howell said after Carl’s death, the law enforcement community came together to support the family, to make sure his memory wasn’t lost. It was things like the dispatchers purchasing a star in Carl’s name or Furlong providing just the last touch of his son.
“During the funeral, we were given that (American flag) and I was looking at it and I was like it is kind of beat up and its not folded exactly and Kenny told me, he goes, ‘There are some imperfections with it, but the reason (we are giving it to you), that is the last flag Carl folded.’ That was their practice flag,” Kevin said.
For many of these families, no matter where the badge is from, the law enforcement community is always there for each other.
“It is a family within the department, within this region, this area is very pro-law enforcement,” said Tucker. “The biggest thing to remember is that you aren’t the only one, there is a whole community of other wives and husbands and sisters and brothers and parents and families that are feeling and dealing with these exact same things as you.”
That’s why Tucker created the LEO families of Northern Nevada Facebook page, to try and bring loved ones together to support each other, promote positive police messages and share important police-related national and local content.
“I wanted to create a site where people could come together and understand that they aren’t alone in their concerns about their law enforcement officer,” Tucker said. “It is a place where we can communicate needs, concerns or good news with other people who understand where we are coming from.”
The support isn’t the only positive thing about being in a law enforcement family. For many, having an officer in the family is a symbol of pride and respect.
“Back then I looked at it like my dad was almost like a superhero,” Francone said. “He put on this uniform, he went to work, drove this cool car with these lights on and stuff and to me it was awesome.”
For Tucker’s 5 year old daughter Audrey, her law enforcement father is a role model for her.
“I am happy when daddy goes to work because he gets bad guys,” Audrey said. “I want to be a police officer when I grow up like daddy because it is fun. I want to be a police officer and I am going to take down bad guys and get to help many people.”
Like Francone, Audrey said she sees her dad like a superhero because of his job and their family is proud to have their father and husband serve the community.
“I have a lot of pride knowing what he does is an honorable profession and that even on people’s worst days, he does try to make things better so I am very proud of him,” Tucker said. I think we are lucky to live in a community where all these officers are doing what they are called to do; a very difficult, exhausting, sometimes thankless job that people don’t appreciate but they still get up and do this day in and day out. Only a select few can do this job and do it as well as many of the officers in this community can and I am proud of all of them.”