When a cop dies in the line of duty, the Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) steps up to the plate and is there for the family to provide support, guidance, and transition the families as they endure the grief and engage in the coping process. Despite the fact that police officers generally do not perceive themselves as “victims,” in reality, they, too, become victims when they or their co-workers die in the line of duty.
“Whether police admit it or not, they are impacted,” said Paul Armitage, a retired Middleton, (Mass.) police chief and current Trustee of the Northeast Region of C.O.P.S. that includes Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.
Despite the fact that officers are keenly aware of the dangerous nature of their jobs and realize they could die in the line of duty, most are optimistic that they will return home safely and can handle themselves with the knowledge, skills, and expert training they have received. However, when they do lose a colleague in the line of duty, they generally feel better when they are able to talk to others. The discussion enables them to recognize they are impacted with similar concerns and feelings.
“The real heroes are the ones that realize they need help,” Mr. Armitage said.
Sgt. Vicky Malone of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department in Tennessee knows what it feels like to lose a colleague in the line of duty. She has lost two male colleagues, and she has experienced the enduring impact of those deaths. Deputy Sheriff George Monroe Selby was killed on December 4, 2002 when serving a warrant. He was shot in the shoulder area that was unprotected by his vest. Sgt. Malone worked with him in the same division. Deputy Sheriff Timothy Dunn, who was part of the metro Gang Unit, was killed in a car accident on his way to work when his cruiser collided with a pick-up truck driven by a 17-year-old female on October 2, 2004.
“It makes us realize how fragile life is. It makes you want to hold your family closer. Your fears are your family’s,” said Sgt. Malone who is single but has her parents, one sister, and one brother.
Following the death of her colleagues, she talked about the situation on the job and discovered it was more difficult for her to go to work. Though time passes and a form of healing takes place, the memories never fade.
“It never leaves your mind. You always know it’s there,” Sgt. Malone said. Following the death of her colleagues, she became friends with their wives and became well acquainted with them. “It makes it harder because you see what they’re going through.”
Suzie Sawyer, the Executive Director of C.O.P.S. since 1984, fully understands what these officers go through. “We know for a fact that agencies try to take care of their officers, but it takes more than one debriefing,” she said.
Sawyer acknowledged that some police agencies do not do good follow-up. “The more they bury, unfortunately, the better they get at it,” Ms. Sawyer said.
In the last two years, the C.O.P.S. Executive Board voted to add affected co-workers to the category of membership for the organization. “There is a tremendous effect that police deaths have on surviving co-workers,” Ms. Sawyer acknowledged. Though C.O.P.S. is noted for its programs for surviving families, Ms. Sawyer recognizes the impact on co-workers and the need to reach out to these professionals. “If we’re doing it for surviving family members, we can probably do that for affected co-workers. So many law enforcement officers are hurting terribly,” she said.
For the first time this October, C.O.P.S. is sponsoring an Affected Co-Workers Retreat that will be held at the YMCA Trout Lodge on Sunnen Lake in Potosi, Missouri which is 90 minutes outside of St. Louis. This retreat will enable those in attendance to attend support sessions, obtain support from peers, and receive assistance from experienced mental health professionals with substantial law enforcement experience. The retreat will have a Code of Conduct, and attendance is confidential.
Sgt. Malone is planning to attend. The word is spreading, and news of this event is generating interest among cops nationwide to attend this retreat that will be held October 1-4, 2010. “We’re going to do what we can to help them,” Suzie Sawyer said. And, in what better way and with what better people to join the effort than the C.O.P.S. organization which continues to be the backbone of support for survivors of all kinds in the law enforcement sector.
For further information about the 2010 Co-Workers Retreat, contact the C.O.P.S. National Office at (573) 346-4911 (573) 346-4911. You can also find information in the online listing on Facebook.