Rebuilding Shattered Lives: Concerns of Police Survivors

We know policing is one of the most dangerous careers that exists, yet tens of thousands of Americans still suit up and serve their communities daily. We also know that, tragically, not all who commit to serve are able to safely return home to their loved ones at the end of their shift.

In times of the unthinkable, communities, agencies, and surviving family members are often left paralyzed by the loss. What's worse is that often, these survivors do not know where to turn, much less where to go for guidance or direction. That is when a critically important organization known as Concerns of Police Survivors Inc., (C.O.P.S.) steps in.


This year will mark the 40th anniversary of Concerns of Police Survivors Inc., (C.O.P.S.), a nonprofit dedicated to offering support and tangible resources to individuals, also known as survivors, who have experienced a devastating loss in the line of duty. To illustrate its evolution, which the organization is not necessarily "proud" to tout, in 1984, C.O.P.S. supported 110 survivors. In the four decades since, C.O.P.S. has expanded to 55 chapters nationwide, supporting more than 80,000 survivors.

To highlight the significance of C.O.P.S., NPI's President Jim Burch recently sat down in what turned out to be an honest and emotional conversation with C.O.P.S. Executive Director, Dianne Bernhard. The two discussed the organization’s legacy, what it offers to survivors today, and how both Jim and Dianne wish the organization didn't have to exist.

C.O.P.S. was founded by ten survivors and a group of women from the Fraternal Order of Police’s Ladies Auxiliary who recognized their unique challenges and need for peer support. The founders also knew that the distinct experiences of those who lost a loved one in the line of duty made it increasingly difficult for survivors in the aftermath. One of the most difficult factors was recognizing the complexity of a very public grieving process.

Dianne Bernhard, Executive Director at C.O.P.S.
Dianne Bernhard, Executive Director at C.O.P.S.

“It's so incredibly isolating to lose an officer in a community somewhere in the United States because nobody else in that community has likely lost someone in the line of duty, which in itself is very public. You grieve publicly. Everybody has all eyes on that survivor.”

Dianne Bernhard

These public tragedies moved Suzie Sawyer, the wife of an officer, to contribute to the establishment of C.O.P.S. and become its first executive director. A few years later, the Department of Justice (DOJ) gave the organization its first grant. Since then, DOJ has almost consistently provided funding. However, with regrettable but ongoing expansion and more people served each year, the organization must still seek funding support.

Today, C.O.P.S. offers resources to many survivors: agencies, spouses, parents, children, friends, extended family, co-workers, significant others, remarried spouses, and others. This includes free counseling, retreats, resources, peer support networks, and more. The reach is widespread, and the type of support is tailored toward the needs of each survivor.

Many agencies that have lost an officer in the line of duty are experiencing tragedy unlike ever before. This may be the agency's first line-of-duty death in a 50- or even 100-year history. It not only shakes an organization as a whole, but its members and the victim's coworkers as well, and on multiple levels.

The 55 C.O.P.S. chapters across the US have volunteers ready to activate and help grieving agencies at a moment’s notice. These volunteers are ready with resources to help that agency apply for benefits, respond to the community and survivors, and support funeral arrangements. Agencies are also supported before tragedy strikes through Traumas of Law Enforcement Trainings, which provide an overview of best practices in responding to line-of-duty deaths, disability, critical incidents, and police suicides; a training everyone hopes they will never have to use.

“C.O.P.S. is your insurance policy. If something terrible or tragic were to happen, we are going to be there. We’re stable, sound, and we're ready to go into the future to make sure that their survivors will always be taken care of. They won’t be forgotten.”

Dianne Bernhard

A toolkit of digital materials is offered on the C.O.P.S. website, which includes sample procedures and guides to funeral preparation.

Fellow officers and co-workers are also supported by C.O.P.S., which responds to provide supplemental grief counseling. We know and understand why some officers are reluctant to seek their own agency's services due to fear of vulnerability and stress regarding their positions within their agency. C.O.P.S. provides third-party counseling that eliminates those factors, giving officers a safe place to grieve.

The Co-Workers for Couples Retreat enjoy a group activity on the beach in St. Simons Island, Georgia in April 2024.
The Co-Workers for Couples Retreat enjoy a group activity on the beach in St. Simons Island, Georgia in April 2024.

“C.O.P.S. is here; has been for 40 years, and it will be here as long as they need us. We have survivors who come back to our programs that had an officer die 35 years ago, and they still come every year.”

Dianne Bernhard

Retreats and conferences are also held annually for co-worker survivors. The C.O.P.S.’s National Conference on Law Enforcement Wellness and Trauma, for example, is held each year and provides networking and education around trauma, peer support, family, fitness, and more. This year's conference is offered to anyone in the police profession and will be held October 31st to November 3rd in Orlando, Florida.

Losing a family member in the line of duty has a devastating impact that is hard to explain or quantify. Fortunately, C.O.P.S. recognizes the differences in each family member’s experience, including kids—our most vulnerable survivors. At C.O.P.S. Kids Camp, children meet others going through the same life-altering change. The camp experience is designed to help kids work through losing a parent, incorporating grief counseling and fun activities to foster new bonds with like-minded peers who are also navigating the unthinkable.

As part of their conversation, Dianne shared the following story with Jim about her experience at Kids Camp when she first joined the C.O.P.S. organization.

“During my first year at C.O.P.S., I went to kids camp. All the kids at camp gather in counseling groups that are age-specific. So, the six-year-olds were with other six-year-olds, 7-year-olds were with 7-year-olds—but the six-year-olds were there, and they had just met with their counselor, and they talked about the loss of their parent.  

There was a little boy named Alex, and as he was getting out of camp, he was running and I said,

‘Hey Alex, how do you like kids' camp so far?’

And he stopped and looked at me, and he said, ‘I love kids camp!’

And I said, ‘Well, what do you love most about it?’

And he says, ‘Oh, I love it here. Everybody’s dad died.’

It literally just stopped me in my tracks and set me back on my heels.  

And I was like, ‘Well, you know, you're right.’ And then he asked if we could go get lunch. Because, you know, as a six-year-old, that's how grief works. It's there and then it's gone.

At lunch, I was talking to his mom.

I said, ‘Hey, I just met Alex..’ and I told her what he said.

She says, ‘You, you have no idea. We just finished his kindergarten year and Alex was talking about his dad being shot in the head in the line of duty in his kindergarten class..’

She told me that the teacher had to call her and they had to talk to him and tell him that he shouldn't talk about that at school because it was disturbing the other kids. 

But, at Kids Camp, it’s a very normal conversation for them to have, and normalizing that feeling makes them feel like they can talk about what they need to. That’s how I knew peer support can happen even at age six.”

In addition to supporting children, C.O.P.S. also created two camps for teenagers and young adults: Outward Bound Adventure and Young Adults Camp. The profound differences in children and young adults living through the loss of a parent warrant separate healing experiences which C.O.P.S. knows and understands well. Both are offered, providing a chance for peer support, self-discovery, and healing from individualized experiences of grief and trauma.

Surviving spouses, fiancé(e)s, and significant others are also supported through retreats for relief and healing from the stress of losing a life partner. These survivors face different and significant changes in their life plans which often might include raising children alone. C.O.P.S. offers a network of peers going through similar experiences and resources that can help survivors overcome hurdles along the way.

Survivors gather in Arizona for C.O.P.S. Walk Southwest, a 25-mile walk to remember their officers.
Survivors gather in Arizona for C.O.P.S. Walk Southwest, a 25-mile walk to remember their officers.

As Jim and Dianne concluded their conversation about the significant—and at the same time, regrettable—need for C.O.P.S., the two agreed they are so grateful the organization exists.

As painful as it may be, building a network of those walking a similar path can make traumatic experiences feel less isolating. C.O.P.S. provides that network and helps maintain those connections; a service we are undoubtedly grateful for.

In the coming days, we will see C.O.P.S.' work in action during National Police Week. This year, the organization invited and will provide partial funding to support the attendance of 4,500 survivors in Washington, DC.

On behalf of the National Policing Institute, we extend our gratitude to Dianne, her team, and the remarkable survivors who continue on this journey and inspire us daily.

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