Human-made disasters such as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; natural disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Florence; and large-scale public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak create enormous stressors for law enforcement officers who are charged with maintaining public safety in the midst of the resulting chaos. Anecdotal evidence suggests that law enforcement agencies, officers and officers’ families were ill-prepared for the widespread, devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, which included the genuine concern for the safety of their families, prolonged absences of the officer from home, lengthy lapses in communication with loved ones, and challenges associated with being personally affected by the events (e.g., death and/or injury of loved ones, damage or loss of personal property). Law enforcement agencies were affected with diminished assets, including responding officers, resulting in major disruptions in the agencies’ ability to enforce the law and ensure public safety.
Concerns facing law enforcement officers in response to large-scale crisis events led the National Fraternal Order of Police Foundation (NFOPF) to query its Hurricane Katrina-affected membership regarding their duties and responsibilities to their departments and families during the crisis. Overwhelmingly, officers responded that they reported for duty maintaining their focus on public safety, but with the safety of their family and loved ones heavy on their minds. However, the NFOPF also learned that a small number of officers, who were personally affected by the disaster, failed to report when called to duty. Since natural and human-made disasters and other crisis events will continue to occur, it is likely that officers will again be faced with difficult decisions about whether to report for duty or secure family and loved ones unless their concerns about family safety can be proactively addressed before the crisis occurs.
The NFOPF proposed conducting research designed to explore law enforcement family readiness at times of disaster. This research would be based on examination of research literature, input from law enforcement officers and their families, and data collected from various types of law enforcement agencies. This data would be used to develop guidance tools and materials and a comprehensive model policy to enable local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to design and implement their own law enforcement family readiness plan for officers and their families. Agencies that have already developed family readiness plans would be able to incorporate the tools, materials and model policy as empirically based best practices components of their existing plans.
Law enforcement officers face dangers and life-threatening situations in the course of performing their duties. Officers take an oath to protect and serve. However, when their families and loved ones are involved in and possibly affected by a public safety crisis, the officer may feel as if they are faced with a difficult decision—duty to job or duty to family. Officers are expected to choose duty before family; however, it is clear that in the case of a small number of officers called to duty during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the call to protect family and/or home was too great for them to ignore or overcome.