AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Before yesterday's shooting in Baton Rouge, police across the country were already shaken by the loss of five officers in Dallas. The deadly attacks on law enforcement and the recent killings of black men by police have many wondering if that relationship between the police and the communities they serve will get worse before it gets better.
NPR's David Schaper spoke with several police officers and their families in Chicago last week. They were candid about their emotions, about sinking morale and about how the tensions of the job affect their home lives.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It's a warm and muggy summer afternoon, but that doesn't seem to bother the kids clamoring to ride the Ferris wheel, the Rock-o-Planes and the other carnival rides set up in a southwest suburban park. This is the annual Chicago Fraternal Order of Police summer picnic. City cops and their families hauled in coolers and set up grills to enjoy food and to bond with brothers and sisters in blue.
But there's something hanging over this picnic - the stress and the strain of the job and the scrutiny that many here say is harsher than ever.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're being judged for every little thing, and when it gets portrayed, the story only shows a portion of it. And nobody wants to end up that way.
SCHAPER: The FOP allowed willing officers to talk with NPR for the story only if they were not identified by name. Shootings are up in Chicago. The number of homicides are higher than at any time since the '90s. But this white, middle-aged, 15-year veteran of a gang crimes unit says for all the good that they do, all of the attention seems to be on the few incidents police get wrong.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And it's disheartening to see what's happening with us and how - I hate to say it - the media and the politicians are dropping it all on our backs and pointing the blame at us. It's just a shame.
SCHAPER: Morale, this officer says, continues to drop.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I wish I'd have stayed in school. My kids wanted to be the police. I - I'm definitely wanting them to go a different way. If I could retire right now, I'd be gone.
SCHAPER: What keeps this officer going are the friendships, trust and bond he shares with his fellow officers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is all we got, you know? I bleed blue. You know, the majority of people I've ever worked with - I wouldn't hesitate going through a door.
SCHAPER: This picnic, in fact, is a chance for these Chicago police officers and their families to enjoy each other away from the stress of the job while sipping beers and cooking burgers over one grill or churning thinly sliced and perfectly seasoned meat on another.
What are you grilling here?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Some carne asada. It's skirt steak.
SCHAPER: It looks and smells wonderful.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It is (laughter).
SCHAPER: This Latina officer has nine years on the Chicago Police Department.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's very difficult. We're under a tremendous amount of stress.
SCHAPER: And that is stress this officer has a hard time leaving at work.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Let's just say I have a lot of sleepless nights replaying stuff in my mind. And I have little kids. And I can't bring that home. So you need to start - you need to learn how to cope with it so that it doesn't start affecting your family. It's not easy.
SCHAPER: No matter how hard they try, many police families are even more on edge after the killing of five cops in Dallas and now three more in Baton Rouge. And it's not just spouses who worry.
GWENDOLYN SCOTT: I fear for my sons. My two sons is policemen, so I say a prayer for them.
SCHAPER: Gwendolyn Scott says she also worries that all police officers are being painted with the same broad brush because of the high-profile shootings of young, black men.
SCOTT: Because all police are not crooked, you know? Now, as a black mother, I'm upset that this is happening to our black men, and it's sad to say that it's white police that's doing this.
SCHAPER: Scott says she prays for the protection of not just her sons but every citizen.
SCOTT: I'm tired of all the killing. I really am. And I'm not saying I want them to quit their job because we need policemen. We need protection. So the only thing I can do is pray.
SCHAPER: Among African-American officers in particular, the strained relations between the community and the police are especially difficult. This 16-year veteran officer says there's a lot of anger out there.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Some people - you wave at them; they flip you to finger. And you just saying, good morning, so...
SCHAPER: So she tries to just shrug it off.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It is what it is. I mean the reality of it is, we spend most of our time encountering people at their worst. We don't usually encounter people at their best. There's usually an issue or a situation.
SCHAPER: But this officer also says the tragedy in Dallas seems to have brought about a better understanding of the dangers police face.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I've actually had more people recently stopped us on the street as we're working, saying, thank you; we appreciate you; we're glad you're here.
SCHAPER: And that goes a long way for the many police officers who right now feel under siege. David Schaper, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.