As Protests Continue, Police Families Feel The Strain
As protests have continued in the St. Louis area following August's police shooting of Michael Brown, it's not just responding officers who are feeling the strain. It's also affecting their families.
One St. Louis organization that specifically provides support for police and their families is now reporting that it has doubled in size in recent weeks. And other members of police families are becoming more vocal and public with their support for law enforcement.
Toll on families
Membership in the The St. Louis Police Wives' Association has increased two-fold in the last couple of months, according to spokesperson Hope Jones.
Jones said the organization, which works to support officers and their families in "a time of need or crisis," is attracting new members who are picking up the slack at home as area officers have responded to protests.
"For us as police wives, it's taken quite a toll on us as well," she said. "When they are on 12-hour shifts with no days off...you are thrown into that single life. A lot of us work full-time and then go home and have to be alone with the kids and do our best to filter out the negativity and try to remain as positive as possible. It's exhausting."
At the height of the protests in Ferguson, St. Louis County Police Officer Shawn McGuire said he relied on his family for help while he worked 12-hour shifts. His parents and in-laws helped care for his children, so he could get a good night's sleep and his wife could go to work. But the SLPWA's Jones said not every police family has that network.
"It's just so important to have that. Not everybody has a support system or family that they can pull on," she said. "We are able to come together with people who know exactly what you are going through and be that support for each other."
The group, which includes wives, relatives and widows of officers, offers camaraderie, counseling and even babysitting.
"People have been picking each others' kids up from school when they can't get off of work or helping each other, whether it's just to be a shoulder to cry on," she said. "We've called in counselors to come answer questions and to talk with us during some of our meetings."
The services offered by SLPWA point to the fact that not all of police families' needs are logistical; they're also emotional.
"For many newer wives, they had no idea anything like this existed. They felt safe to be able to come in and share some of their feelings, or if they needed to just cry, they felt like it was a safe place to do that," Jones said. "I’m just happy that they are finding us and they are coming to us for support."
Jones said many SLPWA members say their spouses are coming home from shifts "emotionally and physically drained."
She said it can be difficult for officers to work long shifts and then jump back into family life, but their reactions vary.
"We’ve had some wives share that their husbands come home and they are agitated," she said. "We've had other share that spouses come home and they are very quiet and withdrawn, and we've had others say they sleep like a rock and nothing’s waking them up once they walk through the door."
Officer McGuire said it can be tough for police standing on the lines at protests.
"When bottles are thrown at you and people are cussing at you, when you’re standing on the line and people are telling you what they’re going to do to you and your family, it gets pretty emotional," he said. "You kind of think about it when you go home and go to bed at night and you’ve got your wife and loved ones at home."
A North St. Louis County native named Katrina, who asked that her last name not be used for safety reasons, said it was hard knowing what was facing her father and other relatives. Many of them are high-ranking members of North County public safety departments who responded to Ferguson protests.
"As things continued to unravel and the intensity and severity kept increasing, the overwhelming dread and angst and worry and fear, I honestly never thought I’d experience that, on behalf of a parent," she said. "The toll, the physical toll it took on us, the sleepless nights. Words can’t describe the fear and the worry and the concern that you feel for your loved ones out there in the street."
Mid-Missouri resident Monica, who also asked that her last name not be used, said the worry is part of being a police wife.
"When I say goodbye to him and say, 'Be safe and I love you', that could be the last time I say it to him, because somebody wants to make a really bad decision that day," she said. "It makes me sad that people can’t take a step back and realize police officers are human beings and they have families and people who love them more than anything in the world."
But she said that stress and worry have increased as anti-police sentiment grows in response to events in Ferguson.
"We've been threatened," Monica said. "Because I'm a police officer's wife, they automatically think they can threaten and bully me. I feel bullied, I feel like we are being bullied into not supporting law enforcement. There's no reason for that."
But some officers don't want their families to worry. Katrina said her family members simply wanted to enjoy family time when they returned home from protest shifts. And Officer McGuire said he tries not to tell his wife too much about his experiences as part of the SWAT team that responded to Brown's death and the early protests in Ferguson.
"I don’t want her more nervous whenever I go out to work," he said.
Some police families are becoming more public in demonstrating support for law enforcement.
Monica led a group in rallying on the steps of the Missouri state capitol building to support law enforcement officers as well as Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Michael Brown in August.
"I need them to know that we are here to support, there’s people who care about them, there’s people who respect them, and appreciate what they do on a daily basis," Monica said. "Because until you are in our shoes, nobody knows how you feel."
Katrina began a supply drive for officers ahead of the "Ferguson October" protest events earlier this month. She said she wanted to make sure officers didn't have to worry about having anything to eat.
"If I can just remove that one tiny burden, then we’re helping, we’re helping human kind in general. Because for me, this isn’t a political issue, this isn’t a 'who’s side are you on' issue, it’s supporting the community," Katrina said.
The SLPWA's Jones said her organization also held a drive in August to collect food and monetary donations to feed on-duty officers.
"While they are exhausted...standing on front lines for 12 full hours, they don’t have the luxury to say, 'You know what? I'm hungry. I need to take a break and sit down and have a full meal,'" Jones said. "So what we did was start a food drive where we could collect grab-and-go type food, so when they are starving they can grab something to eat."
Jones said the association collected enough food to provide 600 meals a day to officers through all shifts. She said it made a difference to officers.
"It brought some of our officers to tears, just receiving a card, or hearing somebody donated all this food, it’s something that they need during this time, to remember people out there do support and love them," she said.
The group has since depleted its initial supply. So Jones said the group is holding another supply drive ahead of the highly-anticipated grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case, after which officers may be called in again for long shifts.
Donations can be dropped off at the Ferguson Firehouse and the Third Baptist Church in St. Louis. Jones said prepackaged foods like sunflower seeds, beef jerky, nuts, trail mix, granola bars, and cookies are great items. The group is also collecting money to buy pizza and meals from local restaurants, as well as other items.
"You would be surprised, but Gold Bond or friction sticks is a hot commodity when these officers are in their vests or their cargo pants all day," she said, with a laugh.
Jones said such supply drives are a way for community members to reach out without feeling like they are taking a political stance.
"In situations like these, people feel helpless," she said. "They don’t necessarily want to choose a side, or be perceived as on a side, just want to know how they can help. One of the options we want to give them, one way we can help, is helping us feed these officers, so hopefully they can keep these situations as controlled and safe for all."
Aside from the food drive, Jones said the organization is focused on its growth and how to best serve its new members, while continuing its support for area officers.