To serve and support: Tampico woman helps grieving police families
She is there at the saddest time in their lives.
She is there when their lives come crashing down around them and all hope seems lost. Jennifer Morales is there because she knows how they are feeling – she lived it herself.
The Tampico native is one of the founders of the Illinois chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) and it’s through this agency that she spends much of her time trying to help other families pick up the pieces when their lives change forever.
Morales was inspired to start the Illinois COPS chapter after she moved back to her hometown of Tampico, but not until she found herself in the situation she now tries to help others come to terms with and survive.
Morales’ husband, Marlon Morales, was a Washington D.C. transit police officer who was shot by a fare evader while on duty on June 10, 2001, and succumbed to his wounds 3 days later. He died just 3 weeks after their daughter, Meghan, was born, and on their son, Jeramy’s 11th birthday. Their other child, Josh, was 8 at the time.
It was at that darkest moment that COPS members came and stood beside her and her family to offer support and a way to deal with the grief.
“I hadn’t heard about it before and when I lived in D.C. the chapter members showed up there to show their support,” Morales said. “I would go to meetings out there but then I moved back to Tampico.”
She wanted to connect with COPS again when she settled back home, but could not find an Illinois chapter.
“There was no chapter in Illinois so I helped to get one started. I’ve been with COPS 17 years now,” Morales said.
She serves as treasurer on the board of directors, and as a board members she goes to regional meetings and meets with law enforcement personnel in various departments.
She and her fellow members usually get an understanding nod now, but that wasn’t always the case. The greeting was more of a confused expression back when the group first started.
“Very few people knew what it was and they would give you that look,” she said. “But COPS has been around 35 years now and it’s the best kept secret that you don’t hear about until you need us.”
And there is plenty of need, especially recently. So when that time comes that another family is grieving a loss, Morales and her board of directors will get the word out and activate their response team.
“We get notified online of a duty death and will activate our critical incident memorial team,” Morales said. “They help set up for the services, especially for the smaller departments, and give them ideas on how to deal with the services. We meet with the family and make sure their needs are being met.”
She said the biggest responsibility for COPS is to take care of the families, and they do that in many ways. The national chapter hosts a retreat for families each year along with a kids camp. They also pay for travel expenses to get to the Police Week memorial event in Washington D.C. each year to participate in the memorial service and 2 days of seminars.
“That first year for me at Police Week, it was 11 months after my husband was killed and I thought this is so amazing,” Morales said. “There were eight widows with me and it was great to have a support group.”
The Illinois Chapter also has meetings throughout the state, and Morales said they try to do other activities besides just the business portion.
“We try to have some kind of fun gathering at the meetings to bring people out. Nobody wants to get together and just be sad,” she said. “We know why everybody is there and it helps to talk with people individually so it’s not so overwhelming.”
Perhaps the biggest activity COPS does during the year is its fundraiser bike ride from St. Louis to Chicago where members stop at the police departments that have lost officers during the year. Money raised through this event helps pay for families to get to Washington D.C. for Police Week.
Going forward she hopes COPS services are not needed as often, but the truth is there will be times when they are, and she wants to be there to help support those families because she was in their place all those years ago. Morales wants them to know they are not alone and there is help.
“Everybody here can identify with them. It’s such a unique experience,” she said.