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When the job comes home: A documentary on the hidden battle facing police families

“Is There Something Going On At Home?” by Jason Harney shines a light on the overlooked effects of police work on officers’ spouses and children

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“He wasn’t able to let go of the job and he had to focus that energy somewhere. It was on us. And it was a living nightmare.”

Those are the words of Deborah Ortiz, telling her story of the impact of her husband’s career on their family, in a new documentary film from Jason Harney at Lightning Digital Entertainment titled “Is There Something Going On At Home?” The answer to the question in the title is yes, there definitely is something going on at home, and it needs to be recognized before it can be fixed.

The film explores new territory in the world of law enforcement media: the way officers’ jobs affect their home life and families. Harney’s previous documentaries about law enforcement covered more public territory, including the struggles of disabled officers to access care and the influence of martial arts on police training. In this film, family members let the camera crew and interviewer inside their homes, their hearts and their relationships.

Three former officers are highlighted; two have retired and one left the career field after realizing the destruction it was wreaking on his marriage. The interviews with wives and children are personal and often emotional, as they describe becoming “collateral damage” when the trauma piles up on each officer and overflows onto the family. Dr. Olivia Johnson, an expert in police officer health, wellness, and first responder suicide and prevention, adds commentary and context.

A closer look behind closed doors

The film uses family photos and home video to bring intimacy and depth to each story, beginning with retired New York state trooper Michael Ortiz’s description of his long career.

He handled near-daily, often gruesome wrecks on a busy stretch of I-95, and eventually spent years undercover on a DEA narcotics task force. Hiding became his default: hiding his thoughts, his identity, his real personality, and masking his feelings to the detriment of his relationships. His marriage faltered. Caring for his infant daughter, born after he retired, felt trivial. His destructive choices to fill the void led to battles with addiction and his eventual arrest.

Ortiz was completely undone, but his self-worth wasn’t the only casualty. As Deborah and his now-adult daughter Angela told the audience, Ortiz’s need for the urgency and adrenaline of the job shaped the life experience of the entire household.

Family sacrifices

An ongoing theme in the film emphasizes that cops don’t exist in a vacuum. The pressures and traumas that they experience (even sometimes seek out) pile up until they overflow, and their families are dragged in the wake of those experiences.

Retired officer Glen Williams, now an author and speaker, teaches classes using his own professional experience. “If family is the most important community, then why is our divorce rate so high?” he asks in one scene. The answer, provided in different words by each family profiled, is that LEO families often find themselves competing with “the job,” mostly unsuccessfully.

US Marine Corps and police veteran Scott Medlin, also a speaker and trainer now, left the job before retirement when his wife Rachel, tired of feeling like a single parent even when he was present, bluntly told him to choose between his family and career. She tells her story with passion but without drama: that she felt silenced, shut out, and their family forever in second place to the “calling” of police work.

Unusual for police-centered films, Harney devotes significant time on-camera to Rachel’s point of view, as he also does for Deborah Ortiz and her daughter Angela. Harney is careful to balance the narratives of officers and family members, demonstrating the cause and effect of a fraught and difficult career field, and the ways each officer developed speech, thought patterns and work habits that affected their homes and relationships. Time is spent confronting the narrative common to first responder families, that the families and the officer “knew what they were getting into.”

The path to recognition and resolution

Dr. Johnson’s voice injects calm observation into chaos, between interviews. She is a military and police veteran and the founder of The Blue Wall Institute, whose mission statement is, “We improve quality of life for those we serve, by reducing injury and death on and off-duty.” She advocates for closer oversight of working officers as common policy because “they are humans before cops, humans have baggage, and something will trigger that.” And that is the missing piece in the puzzle — Harney addresses seeing cops first as people.

Johnson said, “When you hire people, you think you’re getting the best of the best … (but) you also have to take responsibility for the people who are being created now because of the environments they’re working in, and making sure that we’re checking on them periodically so that, if they’re not well, what do we need to do to get them back on track?”

And that circles back to the original question asked of Deborah Ortiz in chambers by a compassionate judge, “Honey, what’s going on at home?”

As the wife of a now-retired LEO, I admit I watched a good deal of this new film with gritted teeth and tears on edge. I sympathized with the officers and their families, and sincerely wished that the resources available now — the Blue Wall Institute, the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat — had been available to my family back when. I’m relieved and glad they are available to blue families now, and that Jason Harney is telling the story of these families, with compassion but without excuses.

You can find “Is There Something Going on at Home?” and Harney’s other award-winning films streaming on Amazon Prime.

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.