I was sitting in my room, folding clothes, when Caroline came and asked me a question. “Mama,” she started, “is Daddy going to die?” Her questioned startled me. “I don’t think so. Why do you ask that?” I responded. She looked at me and said quietly, “Because he’s a policeman and bad guys want to kill him.” I didn’t know what to say. We have protected our kids, especially the younger ones, from the news stories and the hatred that seems to be everywhere towards police officers knowing that it would cause them worry. At only 6 years old, she shouldn’t be worried about whether or not her father was going to be targeted just because he is a police officer. While our children are aware of the dangers that being a policeman can bring, we have intentionally shielded them from what has been going on in the world because they don’t need to be exposed to such ugliness. I wasn’t sure how to answer her. I gathered her close and told her that I thought her daddy was going to be ok.
A few days later I was in the kitchen cooking supper. Mike was not home yet and I hadn’t heard from him despite my attempts to call him. I kept my worries to myself and just continued cooking. As kids asked me when Daddy would be home I casually would answer, “I’m not sure but I bet he’ll be calling soon.” It wouldn’t be long before Caroline came into the kitchen to see what I was making. Suddenly she looked up at me and said, “Mama, I think Daddy is dead. I think you know it but you aren’t telling us. I think a bad guy got him.” Her face was painted with fear. Again I was left without words. I stooped down and hugged her. I promised her that I wasn’t keeping anything from her and that more than likely Daddy would be coming home any minute. The look that she gave me told me she didn’t believe me.
When supper was ready and Mike wasn’t home yet, she wondered aloud if he was ok. I waited supper for a little while but then we sat to eat without him. As we ate she would run to the front window to look out every couple of minutes, thinking she heard his truck and hoping that he was home safe. Disappointed that he wasn’t home, each time she returned to the table she grew more worried. I didn’t tell her, but I was growing worried too. She voiced her concerns. The kids asked me what would happen if Mike was injured or killed while on duty. I prayed a silent prayer that God would give me the right words and I told them that one of the guys, probably Steven, would come and tell us. “But what if Steven is hurt too?” one of them asked. I told them that someone else would then come but that hopefully we’ll never have to go through that. It was a very somber supper.
When Mike finally arrived we all breathed a sigh of relief. Caroline shouted at the top of her lungs, “Daddy’s home!” and ran to greet him. She told him, “I thought you were dead!” He told her that her imagination was running wild and that he was just fine. She smiled from ear to ear.
Lately we’ve heard a lot about how terrible police officers are and how they all misuse their authority. We’ve heard they are racists and just out to rule with an iron fist, especially to put minorities “in their place”. We hear that they are out of touch with the common man and that they can’t understand what it is like to be profiled, to be looked down upon, or to be poor. We’ve heard people calling for their deaths. What we haven’t heard about is what police officers go through in their daily lives to earn the honor of people hoping and calling for their deaths. We haven’t heard about what their families endure so that the people they love most in the world can be called names, spit upon, and looked upon as monsters.
My conversation with Caroline isn’t the first we’ve ever had like this. Over the years we have endured many conversations about Mike’s safety. One of the most memorable was right after one of our own, Captain Robbie Bishop, was killed while performing a routine stop. I was at the grocery store, just miles from where he was found, shopping with my children when they shut down the interstate. As I stood at the check-out line waiting to pay I overheard the cashiers talking. “Did you hear a policeman was shot?” “I think it was a Carroll County officer.” “They said he was killed execution style.” “His body was on the side of the road.” On and on they chattered as if they were talking about a football game. They showed no real concern and it seemed they just looked to gossip. Every second that passed my heart raced even faster. Mike was working. I remember handing the cashier my money as Kaylie, who only 5 at the time, whispered, “Mama, do you think it was Daddy who was killed?” I could barely hold back my tears.
As we left the store I stopped at the payphone and called the Sheriff’s department. Kaylie kept asking me if I thought it was Mike. I hushed her and dialed. Thankfully someone I knew picked up and mustering up the words I said in a shaky voice, “This is Michelle Fritz. We heard that someone was shot. Can you tell me who it was? Was it Mike?” My heart rejoiced when she told me that Mike was ok but it broke in a million pieces knowing that one of our law enforcement families had lost their loved one- a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend. I hung up the phone and cried. My body shook from the pain and I slumped over the phone sobbing. I reassured the kids that their daddy was ok and I gathered my children and we headed home to wait.
Years later when another of our officers, Billy Jiles, was killed in the line of duty, my heart once again felt that fear and that despair. Mike was home that night but we listened intently on the radio as the deputies tracked a suspect and heard how he fired on the officers, hitting Billy. Mike left immediately while I sat at home waiting to hear if Billy would live or die. Later Mike called me and let me know Billy had died. The suspect left a suicide note. He wanted the police to shoot him. He wanted to die and in the process took a very good man with him. I remember calling a friend that night who was close to Billy’s wife. It was very late and I hated to wake her but knew that Billy’s family was going to need as much support as possible. I struggled to say the words, “Kelly, Billy Jiles was killed tonight.” It was one of the hardest calls I’ve ever made. When I was done I hung up the phone and cried. I cried for Billy’s family, I cried for all of our officers, and I cried for my own family too.
Police officers and their families face many difficulties as a result of being a police family. It’s easy to think we know all the struggles a police family faces when we think of the dangers of the job, but there are many more difficulties that we face as well.
We often hear about prejudice based on color, religion, or even nationality. But did you know that there is a prejudice out there against police families as well? There are people who refuse to have anything to do with our family because Mike is a police officer. There are neighbors that only talk to us if they have a problem they think Mike can solve for them. Otherwise they treat us like the plague- they refuse to talk to us or let their children interact with ours. We live a very quiet life; we don’t get involved in other people’s business in our neighborhood. We try to be good neighbors. We are friendly, sociable, and always kind. But still, we are that family- the police family- and so we are treated differently. We are looked down upon and avoided. You think that discrimination only happens because you are black or brown, come from another country, or practice another religion? Think again. It happens also because you wear a badge and have promised to protect and serve the very people who treat you so poorly.
Police families know that when we are out there will be a time when we hear, “Walk the other way.” We do so without hesitation, leaving our spouse’s side and walk away in the opposite direction from them knowing that he will come find us when things are “all clear”. We know that when we go into a restaurant that our spouse will want to sit where he can have a clear view of the room. He is always vigilant, always watching. We know he will be the first to help in an emergency situation. He will leave our side to protect and serve. We know that if we walk with him in a public place while he is in uniform we will be witness to the looks of hatred he gets every day. We will hear the snide comments when someone whispers, “Pig” as we pass. We know our spouses will be exposed to the dredges of society; the worst of the worst. He will carry those sights and sounds with him for life. We know he will be haunted by the baby he found locked up in a dog cage while the parents cooked meth or by the woman he found beaten by her husband or the body that is in pieces on the highway after a wreck. We will struggle to find a way to comfort him and to make sure his home is a safe haven where he can try to leave what he has seen and heard behind. We will cry when he’s not looking, wondering if we are doing enough. We know that he will miss birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. He won’t want to miss them but duty calls and that is both of our sacrifice for the job. We try not to show our disappointment.
Most of the time the public will never know the struggles that a law enforcement family faces because we quietly accept the strings that come attached to the job. We know there is honor in what our spouse is doing and in what we are doing as well. It takes strength and courage to be a police officer. It takes a heart that is willing to be torn apart and a faith that is willing to be constantly challenged. It takes a resolve to accept the fact that there will be people who hate you because you hope to create a community that is safe not only for your children but for all children. It takes a soul that possesses empathy and compassion. It takes perseverance, especially in the face of danger. And it takes a hope that is not easily extinguished when it seems that no hope can prevail. We see these qualities in our spouses and our hearts have no other option but to encourage them and support them, even when the cost of doing so is so high.
It’s easy to sit in judgment of law enforcement when many have no idea what happens to them on a daily basis. It’s easy to judge all police officers by the actions of a few. What’s not so easy to see, especially because they don’t complain and bring attention to their sacrifices, is how the sacrifices they make extend beyond long days and nights and how choosing to protect and serve their community affects every aspect of their lives. I pray that one day the public will come to understand that most the men and women who serve so valiantly are good, respectful, honest, and caring people. They care deeply for those they serve and they would willingly give their lives for even those who hate them. I have no doubt that those who are calling for their deaths are not nearly as willing to endure all that police officers and their families do. Perhaps they could stand to learn a lesson from those they hate so much.