Officer Wellness Spotlight
The Law Enforcement Family
One aspect of law enforcement often discussed during an in-briefing or at a recruiting event is the idea that by joining the organization, you are being accepted into that agency’s “family.” Additionally, many new supervisors inevitably will speak with and encourage employees to ensure they take care of their own family and keep both work and home lives healthy. Although the message undoubtedly is sincere in both cases, problems can arise in the follow-through. In discussing the matter with FBI National Academy (NA) students, this seems to be a law enforcement-wide issue.
Understanding the Concern
Where the national average of marriages ending in divorce is around 50 percent, some statistics show the rate of divorce in law enforcement, whether one or both members are officers, can be as high as 70 percent.1 Some would debate that there is no difference between the two groups. Others believe that any increase in the rate of divorce exists because of an assumed expectation of divorce as couples enter a law enforcement marriage (i.e., a self-fulfilling prophesy). Many think there is no scientific data showing a higher rate of divorce in law enforcement and that empirical data indicates a lower divorce rate among officers. Regardless, it appears agencies can and should take steps to protect law enforcement families as much as individual officers.
To this end, the idea of an NA course or group of classes related to the concept of family dynamics in law enforcement was presented to a group of NA students. The response was a resounding “yes” that it would be appreciated and is much needed. Not many departments address the family dynamics aspect of a career in law enforcement.
Developing a Course
The Spouse’s Forum is a course currently being developed at the FBI Academy. While aimed at FBI families, it can be replicated by other agencies.
This initiative not only will provide families of new agent trainees (NATs) and new intelligence analyst trainees (NIATs) basic information about the FBI, such as its history and current workforce estimates, but also will address such issues as—
- FBI identity (when your NAT or NIAT signed up, so did you);
- who to tell that a family member is in the FBI;
- keys to having a successful law enforcement marriage and family; and
- basic topics, such as government moves, the Thrift Savings Plan, and the promotional process.
An FBI chaplain, Dr. Dan Middlebrooks—a retired U.S. Army chaplain—spent much of his 26-year career working with soldiers and their families in a manner resembling what the course proposes. He currently serves with the Hillsborough County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office; the FBI’s Tampa office; and the FBI Academy.
Dr. Middlebrooks has taken an assessment tool developed to determine job placement compatibility and has begun using the results of tests taken by spouses to identify strengths, areas of potential communication barriers, and a personal resiliency plan for life.2 He also has developed and is making available to the Spouse’s Forum the Communicating to Connect video series, which incorporates “5 Principles of Communicating” and “5 Practices of Communicating.”
When the Spouse’s Forum concept first was being developed, it was intended to be conducted in person for the spouse, significant other, or other family member of a graduating NAT or NIAT the day before graduation. After discussions with instructors, as well as training executives at other law enforcement agencies, it was determined that the information and format would serve better earlier in the training cycle.
Because graduations are not in person during the COVID-19 pandemic, the concept is being revamped to continue virtually. The format has not yet been completely formulated at this time, but the virtual platform offers even more benefits for new FBI families, such as an immediate support group as they transition through training and to their first assignment, as well as a resource they can return to as they continue to be mentored and become mentors for new FBI families.
Receiving Positive Input
As many current and former FBI agents, NA students, and others have provided input regarding this proposed class, their feedback validates the need for such a forum. Their input has offered valuable insight into needed changes to the original design, as well as ideas for keeping information on a permanent, virtual platform, allowing families to revisit it periodically as they need assistance or desire updated information. At least one former NA student in charge of training and recruiting is eager to help promote the Spouse’s Forum concept to his own and other agencies around the country.
Law enforcement officers face many challenges in their profession. When they join an agency, they become part of that organization’s family. To that end, developing a course for spouses and other family members can prove beneficial to ensuring both a healthy work and family life.
"...agencies can and should take steps to protect law enforcement families as much as individual officers."
Supervisory Special Agent John Wetherington is an instructor in the Leadership Education Unit at the FBI Academy. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1 See, for example, "Marriage and Divorce,” American Psychological Association, accessed January 26, 2021 https://www.apa.org/topics/divorce#:~:text=They%20are%20also%20good%20for,subsequent%20marriages%20is%20even%20higher; and Jeff Shannon, “The Myths and Realities of Cops and Divorce,” Police 1, July 15, 2010, accessed January 26, 2021, https://www.police1.com/off-duty/articles/p1-first-person-the-myths-and-realities-of-cops-and-divorce-GjJKRRC3Pzzi8H0W/.
2 eRep, accessed February 1, 2021, https://erep.com.