Inside the CPD unit dedicated to supporting families of fallen officers

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A small unit within the Chicago Police Department is designated to support families after an officer dies or is killed in the line of duty, and they have been called on a lot recently.

The unit is comprised of just a handful of officers that comfort their peers' families through their darkest days. They are there for the public services and with the families in private moments as well, helping the bereaved through the pain and onto a new beginning.

It's a call they don't want to get, but they answer.

"Letting the families know what happened, it's very difficult," said Officer Jim Rybolt.

Chicago Police Special Activities officers take on one of the most difficult assignments. Along with police chaplains they notify families of fallen officers of their death, and stay connected with those families for years after that life-shattering news.

"We are constantly with these families and it's important for us to be there," Rybolt said.

"You know, we make promises to family, Leah, and we always say we will never forget," said Sergeant Lori Cooper. "A lot of people do get sidetracked with their own lives, their own jobs, and our job is to make sure we hold true on that promise."

Each officer is hand-picked for their compassion and grace amid grief. In 2018 the team supported 42 officers' families after deaths, including in-the-line-of-duty tragedies that left four young widows and several children missing their fathers.

"That was difficult to see," said retired officer Judith Hodges. "And what was heartbreaking is to see an infant that wouldn't know a parent."

The day Officer Sam Jimenez was killed was Officer Rhianna Hubbard's first day in the unit.

"It was difficult for us as a unit, for me personally, for the whole city, as a department," she said. "The most important thing for me at the time...being there for her, that was important to me."

Officer Hubbard was also there for the family of Conrad Gary.

"You think less of yourself and more about them," she said. "In that moment, it's about them."

Sergeant Lori Cooper held Officer Gary's baby girl during the funeral service when his widow was and would be given flags.

"I basically said, 'Let me hold the baby' instead of her handing the baby back because she wanted her baby close, so she was very grateful," Cooper said. "I feel very honored to do that."

"If something were to happen to me I would want my family taken care of," said Rybolt.

"I feel like we do God's work, and that's important to me as well," Hubbard said.

"I spent 19 years of my career working and doing for the city, and now I had the opportunity to help my fellow officers," said Hodges.

"We need to continue to remember them," said Cooper.

The Special Activities Unit also includes the honor guard, school visits and support for victims of hate crimes.

The family liaisons said beyond the bereavement, their jobs are most rewarding when they see these families moving forward and finding joy again.

The wife of Commander Paul Bauer shared her thoughts with ABC7, saying, "I really appreciate all of the guidance they've given me over the past 12 months. I don't think every police department across the country has a unit like this to help widows and widowers. I feel very fortunate that they've helped me navigate some rough waters."

So how long do they support the families? They are never really "off duty." They help navigate services and benefits, are there for first days of school, graduations and birthdays. They consider them part of their own families.
Copyright © 2022 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.