Spotlight: Kris Rath, LEOW

The Spotlight series highlights individuals in first responder life who have felt an impact, made an impact, and shared an impact with others. We need to share our stories to know we’re not alone and we can do this… together!

Caroline: Today we have Kris Rath, a recently retired police wife (LEOW) and Illinois Affiliate of the National Police Wives Association (NPWA). Kris is a mom to two teenage boys and has been entrenched in the law enforcement life for 23 years. Hi, thanks for joining me today, Kris!

Kris: Thank you for having me!

Caroline: Your husband was a police officer for 25 years and retired in January. Do you want to start by telling us how you met him and how his career started when you met?

Kris: We met 23 years ago. I was in college. He was a patrol officer on the graveyard shift in a high-crime district of a large city with a major university for about one and a half years. He and his shift buddies would come into the campus pub I worked at on their nights off and sit in my section.  We were – and still are – polar opposites. He’s a laid back, non-confrontational, southern gentleman that’s happy to be at home or visiting family instead of going out. I’m the extrovert, rarely have a problem saying what’s on my mind, and am assertive with my intentions and passions. We balance each other well.

Caroline: He’s a gentleman all around. What was it like dating a police officer?

Kris: Dating an officer, especially when they’re new, working shifts with non-traditional days off, and you’re in college working a job where your shifts change – we had to get creative and intentionally carve out time to be together. In 1998, we didn’t have cell phones. That was when Nextel was popular!

Caroline: I remember the chirp.

Kris: That chirp! [laughing] It’s permanently cemented in my brain! It wasn’t until we moved in together that I got a cell phone [Nextel], so while we lived separately the instant gratification of calling, texting, or social media wasn’t possible. We’d play phone tag, and I usually had to wait for him to call me back; he’d be sleeping or working an overtime detail. I didn’t want to interrupt his sleep and couldn’t interrupt him on shift.

[Trigger warning… the next two paragraphs include graphic details about a crime scene]

Our first date was a ride-along on Christmas Eve. Before getting out of the squad for a ‘shots fired’ call, he told me, “Do not open the doors, unlock the doors, or roll the windows down. Do not make eye contact.” He showed me how to queue up dispatch if I felt I was in danger. Since I was brand new to law enforcement life, I didn’t fully understand what the call for service was about even after listening to radio traffic and dispatch while trying to decipher 10-codes.

I sat in the squad alone for three hours. People from the neighborhood surrounded the squad, banged on the windows, and screamed abhorrent things at me. I pieced together what the service call was by listening to the radio. I thought, “How do you walk into a house with a dead person, only half of their head remaining, part of their brain is splattered over the kitchen? You’re walking through brain matter because you have to maneuver through it, and you have to talk with witnesses and try to piece together what happened.” After he was cleared to leave the scene, he briefed me. I remember wondering how anyone could possibly process something like that and walk away with no internal scars. The answer is they don’t. Not every crime scene or call stays, but there are certain ones they’ll never forget and can recall vividly like it just happened.

A year into dating, the condo I rented was being sold. I needed to find a place, fast. Most people call their parents first, but I called my husband. He said, “Why don’t we just live together?” I told him I’d have to talk with my parents because they’re very traditional, they were still paying my bills, and I hadn’t finished college yet. I told my parents, “I need a place to live, and this is the guy I’m going to marry. We’ve talked seriously many times about marriage, he needs time to save money for an engagement ring.” My parents talked it over for a few days, and they even talked with my husband to ‘find out his intentions.’ They told me that if we were that serious about getting married, I could move in with him. Score!

Shortly after we moved in together, he was assigned to an undercover drug task force. Frequently, we wouldn’t see each other, or I wouldn’t hear from him, for two to three days at a time. I’d find myself wondering if he was dead, alive, or when he would be coming home. Most of the time he’d be conducting surveillance for hours or serving search warrants. They couldn’t take or make calls. I had to get used to doing things myself and become extremely self-sufficient. I also had to trust him as an officer, his extensive training, and that his partners would always have his back.

Caroline: It must have been nerve-wracking.

Kris: Sometimes the only way I would know he was okay was a chirp from the Nextel.

Caroline: So, you had your own code.

Kris: We did. Even then, he couldn’t always do it because it could mess with the frequency of the surveillance equipment.

Caroline: What happened when kids came along?

Kris: I want to address this idealistic notion that the man of the house protects his family. That’s true, but in front of every lion is the lioness who protects three things: her throne which is the home, her king who is her husband, and her cubs who are her children. Those are the three domains that a lioness will unapologetically sacrifice herself for.

I feel that the spouses are the ones who shoulder most of the load at home. I’m generalizing because it isn’t all spouses’ experience, but it’s common. When officers come home, spouses often hear, “I need time to decompress, make a drink first… I just want to watch TV. Please don’t talk to me right now.” And it’s like, “I get it. I need time for myself, too!”

When I was a young wife with young kids, being able to connect and have that support system just wasn’t readily available. You’re trying to juggle it all and you’re like, “What about me? Who’s making sure I’m okay?” Family and friends not in law enforcement don’t fully get it, though they try. I started having animosity towards my husband and his job. I didn’t feel like my needs were being seen. That’s where we started to have a breakdown. We were basically roommates coexisting for a period of time.

Couples therapy is seen as what you do after a problem becomes known, but I would love for couples to see it as a tune-up so that major breakdowns don’t happen; being proactive instead of reactive. That’s how we figured out what our roles were. He’s the cook and the grocery shopper. I do the cleaning and household stuff. We became good at figuring out what our lanes were and staying in them unless we asked for help.

We were married in 2001. Our first child was born in 2004, our second in 2006. That’s when my protective instincts as a mother took over and his natural role as the protector became even greater. Before the kids were born, we decided to move out of the city he worked in. A lot of officers don’t live where they work because they don’t want to risk running into someone they’ve arrested, especially with their family. There are other reasons too.

After my husband finished his two-and-a-half-year assignment with the undercover drug task force, he was promoted to detective in the investigations division. While he technically had banker’s hours, he was still bringing work home (either in his bag or mind) and getting phone calls at all hours. He was a detective for ten years and the lead detective for many of the homicides and other violent crimes. He saw a lot, more than any person should have to see.

He was promoted to sergeant. He spent a short time back on patrol. Later, he was promoted to lieutenant of the investigations division. Two years into his role as lieutenant, COVID hit. Not only was he supervising the entire investigations division, but he was tasked with many COVID protocols: contact tracing, ordering PPE, inventory, and adjusting schedules due to staffing shortages on top of COVID-related absences. Plus, violent crime and gun crime was exponentially rising. That meant he was on the phone or responding to crime scenes all day, most of the night, not sleeping, not eating, drinking more, and anxious all the time.

One afternoon, I walked into our house after a doctor’s appointment (due to my own mental health declining), and I had to immediately go from being in my darkest moment to being a beacon of light for him and our kids. His doctor was wonderful when I showed up at his office with my husband in tow and told the receptionist, “He needs to be seen. Now. We’re not leaving until he sees his doctor.” The doctor wanted to see him every week until he was truly confident my husband could return to work. The doctor told me, “If anything comes up between now and when I release him to return to work, you call me. You tell my nurse you want to talk to me directly. I will see him the same day.”

He was on a leave for six weeks. During that time, I begged him to medically retire. Begged him. His only response was, “No, I want to go out on my own terms. I don’t want it to be for a mental health reason.” I shot back, “That’s one of the reasons disability retirement exists! This job isn’t worth your family losing you because of the mental toll of the profession or you don’t want people to think you’re weak!” I begged and begged, but he was adamant. He said, “I at least want to try and go back so I can say I tried. If it doesn’t work, I’ll consider disability retirement.” That was the compromise, and it was in that moment that I understood the saying, “You can’t pull your sheepdog back.”

After medication started working, he had been working consistently with a therapist, and his doctor was satisfied that he was fit to return, he went back. Fast forward two years to August of 2021. The Chief retired and my husband was asked to step up as Interim Deputy Chief. After four months, he came home from work and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m burned out. I’m done.” I said, “You know what? You’ve put in one helluva 25 years and so has our family. It’s time.”

Caroline: Are you looking forward to this next step? Retirement?

Kris: I am, but when we were cleaning out his office, I got super emotional. I wasn’t expecting that!

Caroline: It’s your family story.

Kris: It’s a large part of our family story. It’s a huge transition. I’ve been a police wife for 23 years. I’m excited and relieved because I know retirement is going to help my husband, but looking at all those pictures, various badges, the bars he’s earned throughout his career, the agency’s patch changing – so many memories flooded over me. I wasn’t prepared. The other component that made it so raw is that our kids hadn’t really seen what their father had accomplished throughout his career. Watching them look at and touch every piece of memorabilia and asking my husband questions was the icing on the cake. They were witnessing the end of a public servant’s career, the end their father’s career.

What’s really helping me at this point is the work I’m doing with NWPA. Even though I’m now a retired police wife, I can still go out to educate others and share our story so that others can learn from our mistakes and triumphs and not be afraid to say they need professional help.

Caroline: Talk about your involvement with the National Police Wives Association, how you got involved, and how it benefitted you.

Kris: In September of 2020, I was approached by ‘Tom’ who started a Back the Blue page on Facebook. Tom was organizing a rally to support law enforcement and he wanted a spouse to speak. He asked if I’d be willing. I initially said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” It kept nagging at me though! I talked with my husband, and we decided I’d meet with Tom to find out more. I wasn’t comfortable putting myself or my family out there, talking about being a spouse, or how we needed to find a way to bridge the gap between law enforcement and citizens. This was four months after Mr. Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. The riots, the protests, and the climate toward law enforcement were all spiraling. Spouses and family members were afraid to wear anything supporting law enforcement. Law enforcement families were telling their kids, “If anybody asks what your parent does, just say they work for the city.” There was so much anger and hatred. How were we going to get through this as citizens and law enforcement? At the same time, I thought, “How do I do this and keep my family safe?”

After meeting with Tom, I agreed to speak. We started working on supporting officers and their families while also bridging the gap between law enforcement and citizens. We organized coat drives, pre-boxed Thanksgiving dinners, and other community engagement projects. We also went to city council meetings to advocate for officers, showed up at agencies to drop off food, words of encouragement, and confidentially support officers that reached out. What started out as supporting officers turned into supporting all first responders and their families, plus our community engagement initiatives.

Jump to February of 2021. The Illinois General Assembly (ILGA) crammed through a police reform bill in the wee hours of the morning after attaching it to a piece of legislation originally intended to address pharmaceuticals. I have good relationships with my state representatives and senators. During conversations, we figured the way to change the tide was having family members speak out, not officers. We knew the Governor was going to sign, though we hoped he would veto it, so we quickly put together a webinar that allowed law enforcement family to speak about how the bill would drastically and negatively impact law enforcement and citizens. We weren’t completely opposed to the bill, only portions. If they had brought all stakeholders to the table, the bill could have been well crafted.

I’d been following NPWA for a year, and I reached out to Kelli Lowe, the President, and asked if she would participate. She responded, we laid out our plan, and she agreed to be our keynote speaker. After the webinar, she invited me to attend NPWA’s Leadership Summit in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in July of 2021. For someone of Miss Kelli’s caliber to recognize the hard work that had been put in was huge.

Caroline: What happened in Baton Rouge?

Kris: Every spouse that went to Baton Rouge had this idea that we were going to learn steps A–Z for responding to critical incidents, natural disasters, riots, protests, and setting up peer support systems. We received that training, but one of the spouses summed it up best. “It ended up being more of a Wounded Warrior type of gathering for police spouses. We were able to start healing.” We were finally given a place we felt comfortable letting our guard down, the impenetrable walls we’d built up. The executive board of NPWA saw that happening. We were well trained, yet we also received significant support; nobody had given us that before. Many, if not all, of us walked out turned upside down, processing everything we’d experienced together. We gained 50 sisters, 50 women who were empowered and ready to proudly stand tall as law enforcement wives without shame or secrecy. If any of us call upon our sisters, regardless of location, we’ll either pick up the phone or drive to you and say, “I’m here. I’ve got you.” I was also interviewed by AXON as part of its collaboration with NPWA.

Caroline: What kind of game-changer was that to suddenly have support?

Kris: There was validation that I’m not crazy and I’m not in this by myself. So many spouses are yearning for this type of connection and aren’t receiving it, and they’re battling this life alongside their officer. Many of us experienced line-of-duty deaths or injuries and other critical incidents. Being able to sit with one another and not have to say a word, but know everything in the other’s heart and mind, was a gift from God.

In my husband’s agency, an officer was murdered and his partner critically injured in May of 2021 while responding to a domestic violence call. Even though I wasn’t directly involved, seeing my husband, all the officers, the spouses and families just being beside themselves – the shock, the grief, the notion of it-actually-happened-here… There aren’t words to describe it. Someone had to step in and say, “We’re going to get you through this.” My NPWA sisters came to support spouses in our agency. That was the moment I truly understood the importance of having a support system.

Caroline: It’s so good to see this movement. What are your hopes for NPWA and other organizations that are building?

Kris: NPWA is unlike any other spouse’s group with over 160,000 members and growing. Kelli Lowe and Rendy Richard, President and Vice President, have made a conscious decision to walk a different path. NPWA addresses issues with solution-based action. NPWA also opens up difficult conversations with compassion and educates members on topics about diversity, equity, inclusion, allyship, trauma, support networks, and more.

We teach people about what it’s really like to be in a law enforcement family. It’s not just missed birthday celebrations, planned dinner dates, and holidays. We intentionally and actively humanize the person and family behind the badge.

NPWA has allowed me insight and personal growth to have in-depth conversations with our kids. “You don’t agree with the topic in your class but tell me why. Let’s talk about what it’s like for someone who doesn’t look like you, or have access to education, or a father in the house, or money for food.” We’re raising children whose brains aren’t fully formed, and it’s our responsibility to have open dialogue about our family and families that aren’t like us. It’s enhanced my parenting. I try very hard to make sure my kids are seeing all vantage points instead of just the thin blue line.

One of the most pressing issues for first responders and their families is mental wellness, the lack of assistance – although resources are growing – or asking for help and feeling supported. NPWA is committed to officers and families having access to mental health resources they need and deserve. We want officers and families to know they don’t have to bury it [trauma] and press it down like a trash compactor. Trauma doesn’t affect just the officer; secondary and spillover trauma happens to the entire family. After the critical incident at my husband’s agency, I said to my husband, “We need to get our burial plots picked out. We need to revise our estate planning.”

These are just some of the reasons I love NPWA, its mission, and being an Illinois Affiliate.

Caroline: Is there any else you want to share today?

Kris: People not in law enforcement don’t realize that officers are still policing the same areas where a violent homicide happened and they were the first to arrive on-scene, where a child had been sexually assaulted and they were called in for backup, or other traumatic calls that are too painful to talk about. Officers simply can’t get away from or shut off what they’ve had to take in because they’re entrenched in trauma they’ve experienced while having to return to the same areas. I can’t fully wrap my head around how a person sees such graphic things on a continual basis and not be destroyed. The weight of the mental and emotional baggage officers (all first responders, actually) carry is overwhelming, and it does spill over onto families. The entire family must help carry the load so that officers don’t shoulder it alone.

For a long time, my husband and I didn’t talk about his work. We were too busy with our individual careers and trying to raise kids like any other family. I remember asking my husband how he did it, how he was able to walk into crime scenes and seemingly not be affected. He said, “You get to a point that you think of it like a movie, and you detach because you’ve seen so many scenes that you become numb. Then you don’t talk about it because you stuff it down and get ready for the next call. You get home from a shift and are asked, ‘How was your day?’ and it’s like, ‘The usual,’ ‘I need a drink,’ or, ‘I just need to be alone for a bit.’”

I started seeing the shift in my husband about eight years into his role as a detective. He was burnt out and had compartmentalized his trauma well enough that I either didn’t notice or, it pains me to say, I was too busy. It took his own mental health crisis opening the flood gates for him to seek professional help, for me to educate myself and identify the red flags, and build a support network. If I could go back in time, I would’ve pushed for consistent two-way communication, learned the warning signs of trauma, and sought peer support for both of us from the beginning. I can’t stress enough how important it is to build that trifecta at the onset of your career/relationship instead of after a mental health crisis has taken place.

A critical incident is not just a line of duty injury or death. It can be a mental health crisis. Not talking about trauma, seeking professional help, or confiding in someone you trust and that understands your profession and life – you’re not helping yourself or your family. Talking about mental wellness must be normalized. The more our officers speak about these things, the more other officers will begin to follow suit and normalize the issues that have plagued their culture from the very beginning.

Caroline: Kris, thanks so much for sharing your story and opening up to all of the things going on behind the scenes. Telling your story will help get awareness out there and help people look at things in a different light. What you do with NWPA is huge, and I hope you continue to be an advocate there.

Kris: Absolutely!

Caroline: I wish you all the best with your husband’s transition, your transition, and everything with your kids. You’ve been a solid anchor for your family, and we need our anchors to remain strong. You are a rockstar.

Kris: Well, thanks for saying that. I don’t see myself that way, but I think that comes from years of mental conditioning and thinking, “I’m doing it by myself.” Now that I have so many supportive people to lift me up and encourage, mentor, and guide me, I know I’m not doing it by myself. I’m part of a rockstar group of women known as LEOWs.