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They only think they "leave it in the car."

But for police officers, just as for everyone else with a job, the work goes home with them. And no matter how much they want to separate their personal lives from their public promise "to serve and protect," the work affects their families.

"(Officers) spend more time learning how to deal with other people's domestic problems, since domestic calls are among the most volatile, than they do in dealing with their own domestic life," say Robert P. Delprino, assistant professor of psychology at Buffalo State College. In fact, until recently, the time spent on teaching officers to handle family pressures hovered close to zero.

Delprino is finding out a lot about law enforcement workers and their families these days, all in the interest of helping them.

As part of his research as a forensic psychologist, he is conducting a wide-ranging survey of how police work hits home, and what kind of helping services would be best for spouses and children when the stress starts to overwhelm.

"I had one officer tell me that he found himself at home treating his family like he was on a call -- separating his wife and son during an argument and taking charge. It shocked him when he realized what he was doing," Delprino says.

Men and women who have never been in a police car -- whose main experience with police comes from news reports, TV and movies -- may say, "I can imagine that must be terrible." But they can't imagine. What troubles an officer is not always what the uninitiated might think. And the uninitiated often include their own families.

Charles Fieramusca, retired chief of homicide investigations for the Buffalo Police Deprtment, recalls what affected his own family most. He describes a course he attended in Quantico, Va., on interpersonal violence. Part of the class was on handling cases involving violence against children, using real cases as examples.

"When I got back home, I was absolutely paranoid about my kids," Fieramusca says. "I didn't want to let them out of my sight. It took me three or four years to get comfortable about them again."

He compares that to the many, many killings his office investigated.

"Being in homicide didn't have that effect. It was just a sad, sad thing to see those things happen," Fieramusca says, but he took only the sadness, not the worry, home with him.

"I think the average person doesn't realize the things that go on in this world. A good portion of the population is really sheltered, and I think the officers try to shelter their families, too. They don't want to share it."

The lack of sharing and communicating is part of an ongoing "code of silence" among police officers, Delprino says.

But that code could be rewritten.

"It's changing as more female officers come onto the force, and as more younger officers come in, who haven't already been taught to be so stoic," Delprino says.

Lt. Gail Allen became a Buffalo Police officer 12 years ago, before there were many women on the force and after her three children were born. She knows her work affects her home life, and that coping was especially hard when she first started her job.

"It was a rough time," Lt. Allen says. "It was probably rougher on my husband than the rest of us. (He was on disability at the time; he now works as an electrical engineer.) He was home, and I was the breadwinner. That was the first time I had really worked since having the kids.

"We just dealt with it."

Delprino's goal is to have family support groups or counselors available for these rough times. But even if they had been available 10 years ago, Lt. Allen says, she doesn't think her husband would have gone outside the family for help or advice.

"I can't say for certain, but I know him," Lt. Allen says. "I don't think he would have wanted to talk about it."

Now, she says, "It's kind of grown on him after 12 years. He's more relaxed."

In fact, she says with a smile: "He's proud of what I've accomplished. I'm up for a promotion, and he's already bragging about it to people."

She doesn't brag. She often doesn't even tell people she meets off duty that she is a police lieutenant. That demonstrates one trait that separates the uniforms from the civilians.

"I think police officers are less trusting of other people," Lt. Allen says one afternoon in her Lovejoy office. "We always hold back, no matter who we're talking to."

Even as she says this, she adds, "I'm holding back right now."

In that reservoir of thoughts and emotions that she keeps to herself are the details of cases she cannot forget: The time that two boys went to play in the rail yard after dark, and one was killed by a train. The time a little girl took a shortcut and went off with a friendly stranger. She survived the abduction and rape, but will grow up knowing what it is like to have a knife at her throat.

An officer who has found a terrified child and arrested the person who hurt her cannot help but be affected. And it shows up in their own families.

"You tell children over and over about 'stranger danger,' but he talked to those kids and she went with him," Lt. Allen says, in a voice that's a mix of frustration and sadness. "I don't know how many times I told my kids after that not to trust strangers, until they were saying, 'Mom, we know!'

"I may have overdone it."

John Cardarelli is commissioner of the Erie County Department of Police Services, and the former police chief in Eden. His first marriage ended in divorce, partly, he thinks, because he never wanted to tell his wife anything.

"I wanted to protect her. For generations, cops did that. We would talk and laugh about what we saw (on the job). You didn't have any other friends," Cardarelli says.

"We are our own worst enemies," he explains. "We think if we show that it bothers us, we'll lose control. People (on the scene) watch how the cop reacts. They don't know that later you get in your car and cry or go home in a daze."

He believes things are different for many officers just starting on the job today. For one thing, he says, they are better-educated. The training period has doubled, and during that time, he says, rookie officers are learning that it is all right to ask for help.

He oversees police academy training for officers in Erie County and sees the differences from when he was a young recruit just coming up.

"Police work is dependent on family support. In the back of their minds, there are always thoughts of their family -- you always think, 'What if that were my wife, or my kids?' " Cardarelli says. "Now we try to get the families more involved. They help them study, and some can answer the questions as well as the cops can."

Phyllis Woods is a registered nurse and alcohol and drug abuse counselor who has seen many types of people with many types of problems. She also is a police wife -- her husband is retired from the Amherst Police Department -- and knows the special stresses that go with the territory.

"For me, there was a lot of loneliness and isolation," Mrs. Woods says. "I was home with the children, and he was always either working or at school.

"But," she says, "this could apply to anyone, especially families of workaholics. A lot of the stresses are the same as for the general population. But the officer doesn't come home and talk about what's going on, and that adds to the stress."

Today Mrs. Woods is active in developing police family programs that bring wives, girlfriends, parents and even children into the process before the walls have gotten too high between officer and home.

"I think there are skills people can learn to manage problems, things that at the time you didn't know could be handled differently," Mrs. Woods says. She envisions parallel training for families as their loved ones go through the academy, maybe having them ride in a patrol car, studying ways to strengthen relationships and build trust, and getting an understanding about the unique stresses of the job.

"In a support group, there could be someone there to say, 'This is normal' or 'This is how you may be feeling.' That all helps."

She emphasizes that, despite reports of high rates of suicide and divorce, of alcoholism and depression, police families don't have to be different from anyone else.

"My husband was able to handle the stress pretty well," Mrs. Woods says. "I saw a lot of hardiness in him, and that helped me. It was a good job for my husband, and he loved it."

Emphasizing those positive aspects makes sense, according to Deborah Hard, local field representative of the New York State Employee Assistance Program. She teaches classes at the police academy on ways to avoid pitfalls of the job and on what EAPs offer in general.

"Let's focus on keeping people well and healthy," Ms. Hard says. "Let's deal with them before their world falls apart."

One thing officers and their families eventually can understand is that every occupation has its hazards and unique stresses, whether it's medicine, law enforcement or being a college professor.

"It tends to be more difficult for an officer to shed that uniform. We encourage them to develop other interests in the community, with other people," she says. "When you introduce this at the recruit level, it's easier for them to start. They can join a non-police gym or running club; they can get a balance in their lives."

The most important thing is to do what many successful people in law enforcement have already done -- gotten comfortable with their jobs.

As Ms. Hard says: "We want the law enforcement person to know he or she is not an abnormality. They have a difficult job to do, and most of them do it very well."

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