Most of the people in the room had never seen such graphic scenes of death and mutilation. In one photo, the charred face of a woman was the only recognizable feature in what remained of the driver’s seat after she had set fire to her car. In another suicide, two kitchen knives pierced the eyes of a boy. There was a young woman whose head had been pulverized by hammer blows, a drug dealer shot in the face by a shotgun blast, and a severely decomposed body in a shallow grave. After the shocking images flashed onto the small screen at the end of the darkened meeting room, Metropolitan Toronto police staff inspector David Boothby rose to his feet to explain: “These are the sights your husbands or your wives may well see any day of the week.” Boothby, chief of the homicide bureau and a veteran of 24-1/2 years on the force, added: “It’s very difficult. It traumatizes you.”
Breakdowns: If anyone in the inspector’s overwhelmingly female audience on that crisp early winter evening was rattled by the gruesome slides, few betrayed any signs of it. Most, in fact, seemed eager for more information. They nodded knowingly as Boothby spoke and they pressed him for more details about the cases. All were members or guests of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Wives Association and they were taking part in a program to gain further insight into their spouses’ job. It is the kind of exercise that many feel is sorely needed to help the wives and husbands of police officers understand the unusual pressures that contribute to the destruction of so many police marriages.
For his part, Jaan Schaer, co-ordinator of the Toronto force’s employee assistance program, declared, “The number 1 problem that we’ve been presented with is marriage breakdown.” Grim statistics bear that out. Although details differ, recent studies indicate that as many as 75 per cent of police marriages in large metropolitan areas are likely to end in divorce. A survey of marital arrangements among Toronto police officers in 1981 found a divorce and separation rate of 63 per cent, almost double the national average among ordinary Canadians at the time.
Experts say that it is breakdowns in communication between police officers and their spouses that cause many marriage breakups. Beverley Hiscock, for one, understands the problem. For 16 years, she has been married to a Halifax force veteran who, last January, quit the police to work as a civilian staff relations officer with the Police Association of Nova Scotia. “Policemen have to learn to hide their feelings,” she said. “It’s part of the job. You have to deal with the public with a straight face. You bring it home. Sooner or later, you’re dealing with your family with a straight face.” Staff Sgt. Michael Dungey, president of the Calgary Police Association, explained the problem in more pungent terms. “Coming home after a harrowing shift is not like coming home after a tough day at the bank. It’s very difficult to have to tell your spouse about the two-month-old kid who just choked in her vomit.”
Pressure: Underlying the difficulty that police officers have in relaxing at the end of the day are the peculiar forms of pressure that their work produces. Frederick Van Fleet, a 53-year-old consulting psychologist with the Justice Institute of British Columbia, says that police are subject to two kinds of stress that most other Canadians escape. The first is what Van Fleet calls an “overload phenomenon,” which he likens to an electrical outlet that short-circuits. At the root of the human version of that problem is the inadequate manpower in many Canadian police departments, which results in each officer carrying a heavy work load. Even more serious is a type of pressure that Van Fleet describes as “critical incident stress,” which affects officers who have to confront dangerous and traumatic situations on a regular basis. Police who do not seek help to deal with that kind of pressure, said Van Fleet, are liable to be crippled by “post-traumatic stress disorder”—the same destabilizing disability suffered by many veterans of the Vietnam War.
Devastating: The disorder can strike police officers involved in shooting incidents. Said Toronto’s Schaer: “A postshooting trauma is an individual reaction. We have found that one-third of officers experience no reaction at all, another third will have a mild reaction, while the remaining third experience severe reactions.” According to Schaer, the reaction “can vary from a couple of seconds of emotional numbness to weeks on end of anxiety, sleep disorders, eating disorders and so on.” It can also have a devastating impact on marriages. Said Van Fleet: “Of 21 police officers I counselled who were involved in shootings, 20 didn’t seek counselling until well after the fact. Those 20 had already divorced when I began counselling them.”
The problems linked to violence in a police officer’s life can be compounded by an uncooperative spouse. Schaer recalled a case in which a police officer’s wife refused to listen to her husband’s description of a shooting incident that he was involved in. “Eventually, he closed the door, broke down and cried,” said Schaer. “He just needed to talk to someone.” The need is widely shared among police officers.
Wariness: Boothby told his audience of police spouses that “after a shooting, an officer needs support. We have found that no one is immune. The ones who have the most difficulty are those without that support around them.” To counter that, Boothby now requires any officer involved in a shooting incident to sit down as soon as possible to talk to his or her spouse or friend. Still, Boothby notes that it is becoming increasingly difficult for an officer who has been forced to shoot someone to get a sympathetic hearing, “because everybody jumps to the conclusion that the police have overreacted.”
Because of the psychological damage that violent episodes can inflict on police officers, a few Canadian police departments have begun to establish programs or policies designed to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder among their officers. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for one, has developed a postshooting policy that involves counselling by mental health professionals. The Vancouver police department has a trauma team that is made up of fellow officers who have had similar experiences, and the Toronto, Calgary and Halifax police departments have similar programs.
Still, it is not only the potential violence in police work that wreaks havoc with police marriages. The wariness that many civilians feel toward off-duty police officers is another destructive factor in many marriages, forcing members of the force to withdraw into the closed society of the so-called police brotherhood.
Jacqueline Fitzgerald, who is married to former Halifax police constable David Fitzgerald, says that she remembers how quickly she lost contact with her old friends when her husband joined the force in 1972. She added: “We’d go to a party, people would find out David was a policeman, and right away someone would have a story about ‘this stupid cop’ giving him a ticket. Other times, people would just freeze up. We finally stopped seeing them. Police get into this brotherhood of theirs for a reason. It’s because they’re accepted there. They’re not accepted outside. Other people never allow cops to be just other people.”
According to Van Fleet, police couples who restrict their socializing to other police couples are increasing their chances of separation or divorce. Joan Evans, the wife of Cpl. Richard Evans of the Vancouver force, agrees, and said, “You want to maintain a healthy mix of friends inside and outside the police force.”
Gruelling: Other police spouses say that the depressing nature of police work can be a destructive force in marriages. “It’s hard to live with someone who can’t see much good in life,” said Hiscock. “Ed was always seeing the worst side of people, dealing in the underside. You start to think of the police, of yourself, as well-paid garbage collectors, picking up the trash, putting it into a pile that’s overflowing. You keep picking it up and putting it back. Nothing changes. After a while, it wears on you. How many dead bodies can a person see without it starting to take a toll somewhere?”
Some police spouses find that there is a heavy price to pay for the gruelling shift work that most police officers do. Said Schaer: “When you’re working seven 10-hour shifts, and you have five days off, and the wife’s at work and the kids are at school, unless you develop some lifestyle skills, it’s going to be a very lonely time.” As well, shift work can help to prevent police couples from developing a normal social life. “People don’t realize that your life is very scheduled,” said Elizabeth Bass, the 38-year-old wife of Toronto constable Lome Bass and president of the force’s police wives’ association. “They get sick of you offering excuses for things and finally stop calling.”
Others express concern about the less-obvious dangers of police work. “I worry more about AIDS,” said Bass, who recalled an incident last year when her husband’s eyebrow was cut open as he tried to handcuff an out-of-control drug addict on a downtown street. “I was in a panic over the cut he had. The guy was covered in what my husband called body slime. These guys pee themselves, barf all over themselves. They couldn’t get the handcuffs on him because of the slime. I worry about hepatitis, lice, AIDS. It’s scary. Other people don’t understand what we have to deal with.”
Dangers: Despite the pressures, some police marriages seem relatively free of strain. Fifteen months ago, accountant Elliot Valles married Toronto constable Shehara De Silva, a 24-year-old native of Sri Lanka who works in a tough downtown district. “I think of her as a cop,” said Valles. “I’m a little tough on her at times. If she comes home with the groceries, I won’t go and bring everything in myself. She’s tough and she does things I wouldn’t expect my mother or my sister to do.” Valles says that he sometimes worries about his wife, “especially when police are being shot. And sometimes Shehara comes home and tells me what happens out there, and it worries me. I don’t want to think about the day when something does happen.” Although the dangers of police life loom over the Valleses, they have so far escaped the breakdown in communications that wreaks so much damage to so many police marriages. But the odds are against them.
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