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Both sides of the bars: When a cop's kid lands in jail

As an active or retired cop, no matter what your family member did and how much attention it draws, continue to hold your head up high

Editor’s Note: I’m very pleased to welcome Keith Bettinger to our ever-growing roster of writers. Keith has written several essays for the P1 First Person Series, and literally hundreds of articles for a variety of law enforcement publications in the United States. He is also the author of two books, Fighting Crime With “Some” Day and Lenny, and End of Watch. I was able to spend quality time with Keith during the annual Public Safety Writers Association meeting in Las Vegas, and during one of our long talks we both agreed we’d need to have a regular feature from Keith here on PoliceOne. Check out his ‘official’ debut below. 

Everyone knows a cop knocking at the front door doesn’t deliver good news. There are two things that scare a cop — and both start with another cop knocking on the front door.

The first frightening scenario is the cop telling you your child has been either injured or killed in some sort of catastrophe. The other nightmare is when a cop arrives at your door and tells you your child has been arrested. While there is nothing more horrific and painful than the former, there is nothing more embarrassing for a cop than the latter — find out your child, no matter what the kid’s age, has crossed over to the “enemy.”

I know that embarrassment and humiliation — my son is sitting in jail.

Words of Wisdom
It gives you an empty feeling. You feel like you are being stared at by all your neighbors. You start to wonder what they’re saying about you and your family. You feel like you’re no longer one of the good guys — like you should move from your neighborhood.

However, this life-changing event is the kid’s choice, not yours. Calibre Press used to say in their seminars regarding critical incidents, “you did the best you could with the information that was available to you.”

So too, is the case in raising your child. My sister-in-law — who has been through the same situation — said something that is very wise. “You cannot take credit for your children’s successes and you are not responsible for their failures.”

Those words are so true. 

If you wind up in this situation, there is a lot of learning that will take place in a very short period of time. You will learn that you are not alone. There are many active and retired cops who have gone through similar events. Believe me, they will support you and share their experiences with you. Many of them have stories — some of which will give you hope for the future, others will give you guidance.

You will also be given the opportunity to reflect on the way you deal with parents of troubled children. No person or occupation is immune to family problems and embarrassments. My wife went to our church pastor to ask for a jail visitation for our son. The pastor shared the trials and tribulations he had with one of his children. Just like cops, people of the cloth are not exempt from family problems either.

Many people, no matter what they do for a living, really aren’t very different from cops.

Stick Together as a Family
As I said before, cops don’t deliver good news. They also have a very jaded view of the public. They never get invited into homes to share joyous family occasions, they only get invited in to referee family fights. I now know, if I had foreseen what was coming in my life, even if I couldn’t change my son’s behavior, I would have been more empathetic to the parents who called the police for help with their children, especially now since I have seen things from both sides of the bars.

As an active or retired cop, no matter what your family member did and how much attention it draws, continue to hold your head up high. You are not a criminal.


Look for support for you and the rest of your family. All of you are in this together.
Be kind to one another.
Don’t ignore your other kids while worrying about the one in jail. Too often in crises we forget the other people who are just as important and don’t create problems.
Keep your emotions in check. Don’t lash out at the other children or your spouse. They are not the problem.
Don’t let the rest of your family or your marriage become casualties of your child’s arrest.

As a police officer on the street, take the time to make a difference to someone. Keep a list of community referrals for family problems in your briefcase. Make photocopies of the list so you can hand it out to the people in need of this information. While on patrol, stop and visit other community agencies in your patrol area to see what help is available. This is good public relations and you might be able to compile a list of referrals for the department.

Take the time to let parents who called the police talk. You’re paid by the hour — give them their money’s worth. Let them explain what is going on. Learn from what they have to say. As they speak they are giving you the warning signs of a troubled child. They are an excellent resource.

Thoughts for the COs
If you are a corrections officer, you certainly have a tough job dealing with prisoners all day long. However, one thing you must learn — just like the cops on the street must learn — not everyone is a criminal. Yes, during visiting hours, you will have the regulars who have been through the system many times and know it better than you do, stopping in to visit their incarcerated friends.

You will also see parents coming in who have never been to a jail before. They will be confused and have questions. Answer them as politely as possible. Rudeness does not show how smart you are or how much you are in control.

While waiting outside the corrections center, I’ve seen people from all walks of life, different races and many ages going in to spend some precious time with a loved one. I have also heard corrections officers “barking” at people:

“Take off your hat!”
“You can’t drink that in here!”

Rule compliance can be gained more easily by turning those orders into requests with simple, but polite statements:

“Sorry, hats can’t be worn in the building.”
“You’ll have to finish your coffee outside before entering.” 

It is much easier to escalate to commands if compliance does not take place than it is to deescalate the situation once you have set the tone for a confrontation. At some time in our lives we have all said something, and knew as the words left our mouths, it did not come out correctly. Either it was our tone of voice, or the way we phrased our statement. We immediately regretted what we said, and became involved in a confrontation of words.

Thoughts for the Cops
If you are the law enforcement family member please keep your identity to yourself at the jail. Don’t call out greetings to officers you know from work or law enforcement organizations. Don’t call attention to yourself.

If you are asked for identification, show your driver’s license, not your departmental identification card. Guns are not allowed in the jail so leave your weapon home. Your badge will set off the metal detectors as you enter. Even if you say nothing about being a cop, the officer at the entrance will have to examine the badge case to see what set off the detector.

You don’t need other people in line identifying you as an officer. Even if you are retired, a civilian cannot tell from your badge whether you’re active or retired.

You do not need them spreading the word through their inmate family members that a cop’s kid is in jail. No matter how tough your kid thinks he is, you don’t need to bring attention from other inmates to him. Since you won’t have your gun, you might as well secure your badge at home too. Your identification card is more than enough to identify you to another officer if the need arises to let him know who you are.

If you have questions to ask the corrections officers ask them in a polite manner. Show them the respect they deserve. It might help if you compile a list of questions at home before you go to the jail. That way you can get all the questions answered at one time and save yourself multiple trips to the information center. If you encounter a rude corrections officer, don’t get into a confrontation. Just make some mental notes, go home and calm down. After you have calmed down you can decide if you want to bring the matter to the attention of a corrections supervisor. 

At some point you will probably come in contact with either a probation or parole officer. These people are specialists in assessing and supervising prisoners. Be honest when speaking to them. Let them know your concerns for your kid. Once a child reaches the age of majority, you can not dictate terms to them. However, if you inform the probation officer that you believe psychiatric testing, treatment and medication are needed, they might be able to mandate it through the court sentencing as conditions of probation or parole.

Life as a law enforcement officer is not easy. You work hard to provide your family with the best of everything and to keep them safe from what you see every day at work. Working overtime or on special details is never a problem as long as it makes life better for your family. It breaks your heart when after all you did for your children you find out one of your kids is on the wrong side of the bars looking out.

You are not the only parent this has happened to and not the only cop it has ever happened to or will happen to. Take care of yourself and the rest of your family. Get the support you need to get through this ordeal and decide for yourself as a parent, how you’re going to deal with the child in jail. Let the child in trouble go through the system and learn from his mistakes. As painful as it might be, it might turn out to be the best thing you ever did for him. Every life experience offers a chance to learn something.

Learn from your child’s mistakes and let the child learn from his own as well.

Don’t forget your fellow officers when they need help. When you hear another officer’s kid has been arrested, pull up alongside his patrol car, hand him a cup of coffee and say, “I heard what happened. I’ve been there too. Let’s talk.” 

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