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Love And Order Fear, Reassurance All Part Of Package When Officers Are Family Members

MONDAY, OCT. 23, 1995

It’s 6 a.m. and Becky Thomas is just home from a long tour on the graveyard shift.

She peels off her bulletproof vest as her husband steps into his own uniform, straps on his gun belt and heads out the door.

If they’re lucky, they may have a few hours together in the evening before she heads back out on patrol.

“I always said I’d never marry a police officer,” says her husband, Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Thomas. “In my estimation, a two-cop marriage was doomed to failure.”

But love will do strange things.

For many North Idaho cops, police work is a family affair.

“When you fall in love with somebody, other things go out the window,” says Brian Kitchen, a patrol officer with the Idaho State Police. His wife and his brother are officers.

While Kitchen cruises the highways, his brother, Brad, is Pinehurst’s top cop. Becky Thomas patrols Post Falls’ streets while Jeff Thomas leads the Kootenai County Sheriff’s patrol division.

Willis Brownlee, the new boss at ISP’s Coeur d’Alene office, has 28 officers under his command - one of whom is his son.

The nature of police work often creates intimate relationships among officers, says Robert Smalley, a chaplain who offers counseling to Kootenai County’s officers.

“We’re often looked at as the bad guys,” Smalley says. “If you go through that week in and week out year after year it’s bound to affect you. That’s why law enforcement is so tightly knit, because they can only trust each other.”

But having family members in the profession makes for a tough lifestyle.

“The divorce rate is a lot higher in officers,” Smalley says. “I believe it is because of the emotional stress we go through day to day.”

Cop family members can often offer understanding and support that non-officers can’t. But they often work different shifts and face immense emotional stress and fear when their loved ones put their lives on the line.

“You always have in the back of your mind, ‘What if this is the night?”’ Becky Thomas says.

Brian Kitchen remembers hearing his brother’s voice over the police radio.

Brad was arriving at the scene of a car accident - a seemingly routine call that turned sour.

“All I heard was him saying, ‘Send me help now,”’ Brian says. “I ran flat out to get there.”

When Brian arrived at the accident he found his brother struggling to control three irate people.

“His uniform was all messed up and had buttons torn off of it. His lip was bloody and he was lying on top of this guy,” Kitchen said.

“I was pretty relieved. A split lip heals. But if they had a weapon in their possession, they certainly would have used it.”

Brian Kitchen, 35, became a police officer 17 years ago. “My folks freaked out when they realized I was choosing law enforcement as a profession,” he says.

It didn’t help when his older brother, Brad, soon followed. To this day, their father listens to a scanner to keep an ear on his boys’ safety.

Brad Kitchen, now 38 and the Pinehurst police chief, remembers watching his brother learning to be a cop. He couldn’t help but follow.

“Dad gave us a pretty strong ethic to live with and I don’t think Brian or I saw something that matched up with that ethic until we got into law enforcement,” Brad says.

Over the years, the two brothers looked forward to working together and they often backed each other up.

“We hadn’t been all that close up to that point,” Brad says. “This has given us a common ground. It made us closer.”

But Brian Kitchen understands his parents’ worries. For him, the fear comes as a bitter taste in his mouth.

He married a cop, Beth, who works as a state investigator. By listening to his police radio, he often knows when she or his brother are headed for danger - shots fired, a bar fight, domestic violence.

“You’re just thankful when you walk in the door and see your family,” he says.

Ultimately, all three know they have jobs to do and have learned to rein in their concerns.

“Sometimes you have to bite your lip,” Brian says. “Say a little prayer and keep doing what you’re doing.”

Jeff and Becky Thomas admit their marriage has been harder than they thought it would be.

They attend church together so rarely they’ve been dropped off the mailing list. On their anniversary last week, they had only one hour together, just enough time to rush out and grab dinner at a Mexican restaurant.

She works nights. He works days. She usually is off duty in the middle of the week. He has the weekends free.

“We’re married but we feel like we’re single,” Becky says, a frown creasing her pixieish face.

“When people ask me where she is, I say she’s hanging upside down in the closet,” Jeff says from their Post Falls home.

Pictures of them, each in uniform, hang on the living room wall. Inside a large cage, a cat-sized macaw hangs by its beak from a handcuff. It’s the bird’s favorite toy.

Becky tried dating outside the police force before she married.

But the men she went out with “were more interested in my job than me,” she said. That, or they seemed intimidated.

Jeff had little luck with his prior marriage to a civilian. “Either the person wants to hear every sordid detail when you don’t want to talk or they don’t want to hear it when you need to talk,” he said.

He and Becky started working the graveyard shift together. They became close friends and married.

At home, they shine each other’s boots while watching TV. Cop code slips into their conversations: Ten 22 - Disregard what I just said. Code 4 - Everything is OK.

Despite the hardships, “I have never been more loved,” Becky says.

Both Brian Kitchen and Jeff Thomas say they depend on deeper understanding from their wives - their closest fellow officers.

“Once you trust in your partner,” Jeff says, “in both their marital abilities and on the street, you’ve got it made.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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