TAKING THE JOB HOME
Richard N. Southworth
Virginia Office of the Attorney General
One day, while riding in the car, my 16-year-old daughter
and I began to talk seriously about our relationship. I told
Michelle that at times, it appeared as though she was angry with
me and that nothing seemed to ease this rage. Almost instantly
you weren't there for me. When I wanted to cuddle up on your
lap and talk, you were unapproachable. Now you want to be part
of my life, and I resent the hell out of it. You're damn right
I spent 16 years with the Virginia State Police before
leaving to pursue other interests. But I also left because I
t was somehow related to being a police officer.
No one can deny being a police officer is tough. There is
tremendous stress associated with the profession. Most of us
officers. We know the strain it places on marriages and
families, the divorces and family break-ups it causes. We also
are intuitively aware that much of this discord is a result of a
family member being a police officer.
My daughter also is clearly aware of the connection.
During our conversation, she admitted that she knew when to keep
tell when I responded to a bad automobile wreck or had been
nvolved in a high-speed chase. Recently, when I considered
friend, "No, I don't want my daddy doing that again!"
When looking for causes of family turmoil, we often focus
on the negative aspects of the job--the shift work, being on
call, the constant exposure to pain and suffering. Compounding
the situation are the frustrations caused by the court system or
the department's administration that seems to offer rigid
The negative aspects, however, are only part of the
nstitutionalized marital and family turmoil in our profession.
To understand what I mean, it is first necessary to
understand the patterned responses police officers develop to
events. Without dispositions, we would have to evaluate every
event, decide on the best course of action, or think about how
to perform each action.
But, dispositions are more than habits; they include
thoughts, emotions, and actions. For example, as a trooper,
might feel keyed up and even somewhat apprehensive and
aggressive as I prepared to stop the vehicle. Then, I would
check the traffic, place my vehicle in the proper position, and
These thoughts, emotions, and actions make up a disposition
a patterned response to a repeated event. Training, peer
modeling, and repeated similar experiences developed my
Occasionally, dispositions developed for a professional life
transfer to personal situations in such a way that they are
the job home."
When my daughter, who is learning to drive, makes a reckless
maneuver, I think, "That's dangerous, she has to be
corrected!" Feeling keyed up, apprehensive, and aggressive, I
a trooper. The disposition is still active. It may have been
appropriate as a trooper on patrol, but with my daughter, it is
nappropriate and destructive to our relationship. Besides, such
a response does not help her to learn how to drive.
Transferring professional dispositions is a serious problem
for police officers, especially since most officers are unaware
that it occurs. To make matters worse, police officers usually
assume these dispositions are appropriate. We cannot understand
my daughter, I respond bluntly, "She's got to learn to drive
to discipline children. Not teach, mind you, but discipline.
And so, the cycle goes on.
LAW ENFORCEMENT DISPOSITIONS
To Be Professional
In recent years, talk has centered on the professional
As a trooper, I dressed neatly, spoke politely, and carried
out my duties with authority. This seemed to capture the
many situations, and there is no doubt that my professional image
t makes us feel good about ourselves.
Yet, this same disposition can have a destructive effect on
family relationships. For example, when I came home after being
on patrol for 8 hours, I walked into the house still carrying
myself erect with the hat pulled down over my eyes. My kids
arms. In fact, they kept their distance. This professional
mage is at least part of what my daughter referred to as
"unapproachable." The professional dispositions, which worked
n a law enforcement context, were inappropriate at home. I
family relationships that I sought in my job.
Another detrimental effect of this disposition is that my
family knows the image is a facade. At home, I dress like a
to do. In short, they have seen me when I was anything but
either respond to me as being pompous or refuse to take me
All of this sets into motion a destructive spiral. As my
family pulls away, I accuse them of not caring. When I perceive
that they do not respect me, I fight for that respect in other
As a trooper, the professional disposition built respect and
However, in my relationship with my family, it built a wall
between us, and at times, left me feeling alienated and alone.
To Take Control
A police officer is expected to be in control, no matter
control--every time we respond to a radio call or observe a
violation. Once we decide on a course of action, there is the
badge, gun, and backup to enforce it. And, although our actions
may be questioned later, in the heat of the moment we are in
control. Taking control is at the heart of what it means to be
a police officer.
But, what happens when we take this disposition home? In
varying degrees, we become dominating spouses and authoritarian
our son to wash the dishes. They were locked in a battle of
being bossy, talked to my son about responsibility, and told
everyone else to leave the room so that the job could get done.
In less than 5 minutes, I issued a warning, dispersed the
these people. I could not get into my patrol car and drive away.
mother, my son sulked, and I justified my actions like a good
trooper. Everyone was upset, all because I took control.
My actions were totally inappropriate in the context of the
family relationship. I embarrassed my wife in front of the family
and undermined her authority. In the end, I alienated myself from
everyone. This was not a situation that called for me to take
control. Probably, it did not require any response from me at
all. If it called for a response, it should have been a
To Remain Detached
Police officers encounter a substantial amount of pain and
early. From the first day at the academy, we are told repeatedly
never to become emotionally involved. This desensitization keeps
us from being devastated by the human tragedy we encounter daily.
Emotional uninvolvement is part of the job.
One day, while riding with another police officer as part of
a training program, we responded to a suicide. We found two old
the wall with his fists. His brother had hung himself in the
next room. The officer's only response to all of this was to
threaten to arrest the women and the brother if they did not keep
The training was clear. The only way to deal with this type
of situation was to remain detached, and he expected the victim's
It's not hard to see what happens when we take this
mother died, I wanted very much to comfort her, but all I felt
could not empathize with her pain, and I knew she could feel my
mpatience and detachment.
To remain detached in emotionally charged situations serves
us as police officers in emergencies. Without it we probably
could not function. But when we take this disposition home, it
s destructive. For me it was a major component of what Michelle
To Question Everything
Police officers are trained specifically to be suspicious
of everything. In the legitimate interest of safety, we
approach every vehicle and every person as a potential threat.
We frequently sit with our backs to restaurant walls and often
follow regulation by carrying a weapon everywhere we go.
An investigator questions the truthfulness of every
nvestigators with well-developed investigative dispositions
keep asking themselves what they missed. Even as I write this
article, I recognize that I am predisposed to ferret out the
negative aspects of my police experience rather than the
There are good and valid reasons for questioning everything.
Quite honestly, it keeps police officers alive and solves cases.
Questioning everything permeates police training. Once I
could get hurt or deceived. During the simulations, the trainees
However, when applied to family situations, questioning
everything quite simply makes spouses and children suspects in
every family encounter. When I discovered that my hairbrush was
not on the dresser where I always keep it, I caught myself going
from family member to family member, basically conducting a
criminal investigation. I questioned each person critically, and
The second time around the questions were even more pointed.
They sounded frightfully like interrogations, complete with
accusation and trick questions designed to trip them up. When my
It was not wrong to ask family members what happened to my
brush. The problem was in the approach and the underlying
attitude of distrust. When they denied knowing where the brush
The important point to be made here is that this was not a
thought-out response. I did not want to act this way. It was a
the same type of situation at work, the response would have been
appropriate. With my family, it served to create conflict and
This disposition has been the most destructive in the way I
nvolved with drugs. But, there are good reasons why I trust my
kids when it comes to drugs. Yet, let one of them come home
late, looking even a little tired, and the disposition to
question is triggered. Recently, when Michelle came home really
tired and stressed out, I knew there were good reasons for her
appearance. But, I immediately started looking into her eyes and
asking questions that could only indicate that I thought she
might have been using drugs. I really didn't think so, but I
Michelle's usual response to such questioning is
accompanied by anger. This time it was different. She simply
looked at me and said, "You really believe I've been using
tiredness. Of course, I denied it and tried to explain. But,
the damage was done. After discussing the matter, I think she
understood. But, the subconscious effects of that encounter on
our relationship, and others like it, will never be fully known
to either of us.
Transferring professional dispositions to one's personal
life can have a destructive effect. With a little reflection,
every law enforcement officer can find instances of this
occurring either in family relationships or in other personal
This transference also poses a very serious problem, one
that is not recognized or dealt with in police training
that the rest of the world is out of step. However,
be distinctively human.
The facade of professionalism keeps family members and
friends at a distance. Recognizing this, where do we go from
makes a good police officer doesn't make a good human being!" I
But, some aspects of the profession change us and cause us
officers are to live full and rewarding lives, and especially if
families, and friends, we must face these and other problems of
We need to work hard to deactivate those destructive
become vulnerable, to show respect and concern. Most
mportantly, we have to find a way to trust our loved ones.
The problem is not inherent in the profession; it is not
caused totally by society or the system. Yet, neither the
the end, we are the only ones with the necessary motivation or
nsight to find a better way.
(1) Adrian Van Kaam, Formative Spirituality Human Formation,
vol. 2 (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1985), chap. 1.