Though public support for law enforcement has waned as allegations of racially motivated police misconduct and negligent deaths suffocate officers’ reputations, thousands of honorable men and women still patrol daily with their safety on the line.
Law enforcement officers risk their lives each time they go to work, and they worry over what may happen to their loved ones should the worst occur. What happens to their families if they never return home?
That’s where Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) comes in.
C.O.P.S. was founded in 1984 when Suzie Sawyer, wife of a slain Prince George’s County, Maryland, police officer, began volunteering to fill her time. One day, she sat down with 10 widows who had lost their husbands in the line of duty. As they cried together and talked, Sawyer saw the demeanors of the women change. She quickly realized that organizing a peer support group would go far in consoling survivors and encouraging them to continue on.
From that small start in 1984, now, 30 years later, C.O.P.S. serves 37,000 survivors.
“Peer relationships are the number one thing that helps the survivors,” said Sara Slone, director of public relations at C.O.P.S. “We basically step in and offer them the time and the place, but they help one another.”
Support begins for survivors when they’re children. Kids 6 years old and up enter the community starting with kids’ camp. They continue for as long as they choose.
“There’s always the kids who stick out,” Slone said. “At kids’ camp there was this little boy who was 6 years old, and seeing them that young and hearing how they talk about their parents … This little boy said, ‘My daddy was shot by bad guys. My daddy is a hero.’ And you can just see it in his face that he thought of his dad almost like Superman or Batman. They’re superheroes.”
For many, the reality of losing a parent hasn’t set in.
“They were killed, but it’s not quite real to them yet,” Slone said. “But, it’s going to become very real, which is why we’re here on into later in life.”
Kids continue at these camps until they’re 14. From ages 15 to 20, they have two options: outdoor camping or attending camp at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. From ages 21 and up, they go to adult retreats, which they attend as long as they wish. Some members are even in their 70s.
“There’s this one surviving son who lost his dad over 50 years ago,” Slone said, “and he didn’t start coming to our retreats until three years ago. He didn’t realize how much the death had affected his life until he came to our retreat and started talking about it and getting the help he needs. He said we completely changed his life and he is 72 years old.”
One of the biggest events for C.O.P.S. coincides with Peace Officers Memorial Day, instituted by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 to be honored annually May 15. Every year, the week that includes May 15 is National Police Week. Various events honor the fallen, including a candlelight vigil. C.O.P.S. hosts the National Police Survivors’ Conference, which provides counseling sessions, guest speakers and programs for survivors and siblings of fallen officers.
C.O.P.S. also hosts its National Conference on Officer Wellness and Trauma, open to all active and retired law enforcement. Growing numbers of officers are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, while divorce and suicide rates rise. The conference focuses on officers’ mental health as they navigate their difficult careers.
C.O.P.S. also produces a program for active personnel called Trauma of Law Enforcement. It provides information on the dangers of police suicide, how pre-planning for their deaths may help their families, what will happen to their families should the worst occur and more.
With public opinion turning against police officers, C.O.P.S. is doing its best to support law enforcement. On Jan. 9, 2015, the organization initiated the first annual Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, during which people are encouraged to thank officers for their hard work, shine blue lights from their homes or fly blue ribbons from their vehicles. Some states have even officially designated the day as a yearly honor for men and women in blue.
“Especially in the time where law enforcement is seen as negative, we’re trying to let them know we’re here for them and give them the tools to keep doing what they’re doing and [know] that we appreciate them,” Slone said.
The public’s changing sentiment leaves survivors upset and scared, Slone said.
“It is outraging a lot of survivors because a lot of the survivors’ officers were taken very violently,” she said. “In this past year — you’ve seen it in the news — there’s been a lot more violent, flat-out murders of police officers …
“It’s a very difficult time and we don’t know how to make it stop, so we’re doing everything we can to try to protect our officers, keep their heads up, let them know we stand behind them,” she continued. “We’re pushing for the public to try and stand behind them.”
If you want to support the amazing work of C.O.P.S., check out the website: nationalcops.org. Want to do something more immediate? Slone says it’s really simple.
“If you see a police officer, thank them for what they’re doing,” she said. “It really does boost their morale.”