How ‘Defund the Police’ amplifies the challenges faced by the children of law enforcement
'Defund the Police' amplifies challenges faced by children of police
On the anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 2021, Rhode Island’s favorite local doughnut shop, Allie’s Donuts, stopped its long-standing tradition of offering discounts to military servicemen and police officers. The owner announced the decision on the company’s Instagram account, days after two Providence police officers pulled their guns on a Black Providence firefighter in uniform. People flooded the doughnut shop’s Facebook and Instagram comment sections, some praising the shop for standing up against the systemic racism embedded in the police force and others announcing that they had eaten their last Allie’s donut.
For Ainsley Holman, a journalism senior at Syracuse University, Allie’s held favorite childhood memories of her cousins and her uncle, who is a police officer. As a 7-year-old visiting her family in Rhode Island over the summer, she rode in the back of her uncle’s squad car every Sunday with her cousins to Allie’s Donuts. The one-story, ranch-style shop sits off of Quaker Lane and features white siding, bright red trim outlining the windows, and a small, simple sign outside that reads “Allie’s Donuts.” Most days, people from the neighboring towns line up along the front of the building and wrap around the side, waiting for their favorite mid-morning snack. As she describes their famous “Original Big Donut,” Holman holds up her hands and makes a circle in front of her face to illustrate the enormousness of the pastry. She always bought her favorite, the chocolate-frosted doughnut, and while she ate it, the town’s children sat on the hood of her uncle’s cruiser as their parents snapped photos for future scrapbooks and holiday cards. Eventually, that sugar-coated tradition disappeared just like all the chocolate frosting on Holman’s doughnut.
Allie’s Donuts isn’t the only one touting their lack of faith in those who wear blue. 31% of Americans say they mistrust the police, and that erosion of trust contributes to negative media and comments that adversely impact the officers’ children. In a study published in October 2020 by three criminal justice professors, Dr. Richard Helfers, Dr. Paul Reynolds, and Dr. David Scott, 89% of the children interviewed shared common fears of their parents receiving unfair treatment and “comments” because of their job. All of them feared their parents being physically hurt since these children learn at an early age the dangers associated with the job. The potential harm in policing significantly outweighs other occupations in the nation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that out of every 100,000 full-time police officers, 13.7 suffered fatal injuries in 2018, compared to 3.5 in all other occupations. The risk of nonfatal injuries also is greater for police officers: 371.4 per 10,000 full-time officers suffered injuries or illness resulting in days off from work, almost four times the amount for all other occupations, the bureau reported. “Is it a dangerous job? Absolutely,” said Scott, an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Tyler and former sergeant in Longview, Texas for almost 20 years.
Scott adds that his 2020 study concluded how “hypersensitive and hyper-alert” the children of police officers are to live’s dangers compared to their peers “because I think early on, they learn to see the world through the same lenses their parents as officers see the world.” That hypersensitivity contributes to the children’s worry about their parent’s safety.
Whenever his father left for his shift, Nik Fraitzl, a 21-year-old intelligence senior at Mercyhurst University, remembers thinking “Is Dad going to come home tonight? Is he going to come back? When will I see him again?”
Every night, before leaving around 1 a.m., his father woke Fraitzl up while getting dressed in his uniform. The sound of a metal buckle hitting the belt’s leather strap, the crackle of the Velcro on the bulletproof vest, and the click of a handgun being loaded. “You get used to literally hearing a handgun load down the hallway,” he chuckles.
Even though Fraitzl found the experience odd, he became used to it. “I don’t think there’s many people, or many kids my age, that are listening to their dad load his gun before he goes to work at 6 a.m. on a Wednesday.” As his father earned more dangerous positions and Fraitzl became older, the worry intensified as he learned more details of his dad’s work, and his ability to understand the repercussions of that work grew. Sometimes, his worry spiked, like in 2006 when his father’s coworker was shot and killed. Then, his father moved to the Special Investigations Unit, and the worry became constant, Fraitzl says.
Many children of police officers experience the same childhood as Fraitzl, but others face the fear of their parent’s death directly. Tyler Martin, a criminal justice freshman at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas, lost his father in the line of duty in 2015 when he was in the sixth grade. The morning after the accident, Martin’s mother woke him up. “What time is it?” he asked. His mother told him the time. “I gotta go to school,” he says, “I’m gonna be late.”
“No, no,” she tells him, “You’re fine, you’re fine.” Martin walks out of his room and sees his sister on the floor crying while his teary-eyed mom walks him over a group of officers, including the chief and one of his dad’s friends. They told him what happened. “And it didn’t feel real,” the freshman says sitting on an outdoor table on campus under the autumn sun. “I felt like I was still in a dream. I was like, ‘No, this is not happening.’ Like I just sat there just thinking about it. It just didn’t feel real.”
Scott calls the impact on Martin a part of the “ripple effect” of crime that often causes unintended harm to others who are not victims. In addition to those everyday fears, negative comments on social media surrounding the police add to the worry. Among the shouts and hashtags of “Defund the Police” (556,000 posts on Instagram and 443.4 million views on TikTok) and ACAB (2.4 million posts on Instagram and 3.2 billion views on TikTok), the children of police officers, who are more likely to consume this type of media, find themselves overwhelmed by the content.
The toxicity of social media prompted the son of a retired police officer, Dante Smith (not his real last name at his request), to stop using his Facebook in 2018 because the platform became “way too political for my liking,” including the conversations surrounding police brutality. However, Smith still frequently sees content that he calls “police critical” on his Instagram and TikTok accounts. He sees content from students, lawyers, and freelance journalists about incidents of police brutality or mistreatment, then he scrolls to Blue Lives Matter content “cause like TikTok just knows so much about you,” he says. And for the half-Black, half-Cuban 26-year-old from Dunbarton, New Hampshire, TikTok mirrors his challenge of always being in the middle.
Although his multiracial identity never allowed him to find a “squad,” Smith also sees it as a blessing. “I think it gives me a very unique perspective on a lot of these issues that are going on right now,” he says. “And I think I’m very fortunate to kind of be in that ‘not really having a spot’ space.”
Sipping the last drops from his can of Coca-Cola, Smith sits on his living room’s couch and says that last year he considered sharing his experiences growing up half-Black and half-Cuban in a police household on Instagram as a way to contribute to the conversation. “I should have done it,” he says. “I didn’t do it. I wanted to do it.” I asked him why he didn’t do it. He pauses. “I don’t know. I think part of me thinks that like sure, it could be helpful for people online to see something like that. Like the people that I know, like the followers or the people that I follow, it could be helpful to have that unique perspective. But also, what’s it really gonna change, I guess?”
Children of officers not only remain silent on social media, but their silence often extends into their social lives. For instance, Holman rarely mentions her uncle being an officer at SU because she feels hypocritical, especially when she participated in a sit-in at the university in November of 2019, protesting racist incidents on campus. She believed that others would think her protesting performative if they knew about her uncle’s job, so she stayed quiet. When others, like Emily O’Keefe, a marketing and management senior from the University of New Hampshire, talk about their parent’s jobs, they become the targets of bullying. O’Keefe repeatedly receives comments such as “F- the police” and “Your dad shoots people for fun” from her high school peers who grew up with her.
To protect their children from these encounters, many parents instruct their children to avoid sharing their parent’s profession or to lie about what their parent does. Dr. Jessica Burke, the founder of Burke Educational Consulting in Valley Springs, California, holds “Policing Stress on the Homefront,” a seminar for spouses of law enforcement officers on how to support officers at home to prevent the common familial and marital issues. In her seminar, Burke says that many parents feel compelled to lie to their children, telling them that the parent “works for the city” or that their parent is a garbageman. Although she does not encourage lying to the children, she instructs the spouses to not publicly talk about being married or related to a police officer because of stories like smashed windows on cars with the thin blue line sticker.
However, some aren’t afraid to show their pride. Martin has a thin blue line sticker on the back of his truck. Over the past summer in his hometown of Houston, a group of three boys the same age as him “roll up on me and my friends, start coming at me, and telling me how that’s racist and how I’m racist and telling me that they would shoot me for that.” He tried to explain to them that the sticker is not racist and is a way to support his father, and “there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to support that.” He hasn’t taken the sticker off his truck, and he is not nervous about it happening again. “If you can have your voice, why can’t I have mine?” he asked them.
However, many others decide to remove their bumper stickers or even change their clothing, so they won’t be approached and potentially harassed. A daughter of a detective sergeant in Pocono Pines, Pennsylvania, Amelia Bray, stopped wearing a necklace with the badge of her father’s station. She received the silver and gold necklace as a gift when she graduated high school three years ago and wore it every day until the national attitude toward police become negative after George Floyd’s murder. The 21-year-old stopped wearing it “more so because I just felt like, not that I was in danger if I wore it, but I definitely wasn’t trying to show it off,” she says.
These comments and interactions contribute to the children’s mental health, regardless of whether the child stays silent or not. Scott’s and Heflers’ study concluded that the worry and fears might negatively impact the children’s academic performance and behavior and that school counselors should be aware of this, but current mental resources relate more to officers’ health and wellness than to their children’s. After the publication of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing report in May 2015, mental and emotional resources for officers increased, but more resources for children of officers align with the conclusions of the report, says Helfers. “It’d be difficult, I’m sure, to do it,” he said.“But just to have that opportunity that’s available, so kids can talk to other kids that [have parents as] police officers, understand what other kids are going through, what sort of comments that they’re getting, how they’re being treated by teachers and other students.”
However, resources specifically for the officers’ children are limited. The few existing ones, like Burke’s seminar, are for parents and how to talk to your children about law enforcement. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, the world’s largest organization for police leaders, offers digital brochures for officers about discussing the job with young children and teens. For teens, the IACP instructs parents to encourage critical thinking skills when they consume the media’s portrayal of law enforcement, knowing that every story has missing pieces, making a conclusion after gathering all the facts and understanding the procedures and policies that inform an officer’s actions.
Other organizations help children who’ve lost a parent. “Unfortunately, once an officer is killed in the line of duty, then there is support,” Helfers says. Martin was a part of Blue Hero Kids, a program created by the Houston Police Family Support Unit. Martin became close to the retired officer, Todd Young, who started an annual $500 shopping spree at a local Target three years ago for the children in the program. This winter, 12 children will participate, walking through the store’s aisles with an officer and buying presents for the holiday season. “It’s really big deal,” Young says of the annual event. “I hate that we have to do it, but I think it’s really good for the families, and especially for the children because a lot of them are really young, they don’t understand why their dad and their mom’s not coming back ever.” Some of Martin’s favorite purchases include an Apple Watch, computer gaming equipment, and a GoPro that he uses when jet-skiing. However, this year, Martin aged out of the event. This event illustrates that the limited resources typically target only young children. For instance, books such as Kid Hero Series, written by clinical psychologist Dr. Susan Hunt and “The Policeman: Our Daddy, Our Hero” written by Two Cops’ Wives, are specifically meant for young kids. However, teens and older children of police officers that better understand the dangers and the systemic issues existing within policing do not have the resources to navigate their struggles.
Because of these struggles, some of these children don’t want a career as a police officer, and the parents feel the same. During his research for the 2020 study, Helfers discovered that many police officers do not encourage their children to join the police force. Specifically, 42% of the children interviewed said this, which Helfers found surprising since the profession typically passes from generation to generation. O’Keefe never wanted to be a police officer. Whenever someone told her father that they wanted to join the force, he asked “Why would you want to do that?” She jokes that she only knows of two officers with a “bubbly, lively” personality: her uncle, who worked undercover for most of her childhood, and the father of Fraitzl, who lived in the same town as she did. “That’s the only two!” she exclaims. “Every other cop that I met was just miserable.”
Helfers and Scott think this mental and emotional toll of the profession might be affecting the recent national decline in recruitment in police stations. In a survey published in June 2021 by the Police Executive Research Forum, 195 agencies had an overall decline of 5% in hiring rate from 2019 to 2020. However, 18% more resignations and 45% more retirements from the previous year show that officers no longer want this job, like O’Keefe’s father, who retired this past May after serving 25 years. “He was just, you know, worn out,” O’Keefe says about her dad. “It’s a really tough job. It takes a lot off your body and your mental health. I think he kind of just reached a point of exhaustion, especially with the way people perceive police officers, especially in this day and age. He definitely was just ready to get outta there.”
Fraitzl clearly remembers his father’s retirement party in 2015. Hundreds of people, who Fraitzl recognized from trips to the station as a kid, came to congratulate and celebrate. “It was odd to see a lot of them out of uniform, like in a relaxed social setting,” he chuckled. He watched his dad bounce around and talk to everyone for hours. Fraitzl felt the room’s mixed emotions. Some congratulated his dad on making it “out of the ringer,” while others expressed their sadness watching him leave.
Unlike O’Keefe, who is studying marketing at school, his father’s career inspired Fraitzl to study national security intelligence for a career in the public sector after graduation next May. Although a few others want to wear the badge, like Martin, a lot of these children want careers with the same mission of helping and interacting with the community as police officers without being one. Bray wants to be an occupational therapist, specifically for kids with disabilities, and Smith works as an account manager in a marketing firm.
While being an officer never captured Smith’s imagination, he believes that children of officers maybe have another purpose. “Imagine if you had children like us, right, these sons and daughters of police officers kind of bringing people together and being like, ‘Look, this is what I’ve experienced, this is what I’m seeing,” he says, illuminated by the room’s lighting on a cold Tuesday night. Behind the halo of his curly hair, a sign on the wall reads “Nashua Police.” He pauses and then continues with what these sons and daughters might help the public understand. “It’s not as clear cut in black and white as what you’re saying and what you’re believing.”