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Single mother of five balances career as Baltimore police officer

Single mother of five balances career as Baltimore police officer
Karyn Crisafulli, of Westminster, center, has had to balance her duties as a Baltimore City police officer while caring for her children, from left, Ethan, 10; Caleb, 13; Izzy, 12; Jacob, 15; and Colton, 3, not pictured, especially during the recent unrest in Baltimore. (DYLAN SLAGLE STAFF PHOTO, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Caleb Crisafulli, 13, doesn't hesitate to explain what he thinks of his mom, Karyn Crisafulli, an eight-year veteran of the Baltimore City Police Department.

"A superhero — my superhero — goes into work and helps people every single day," he said.

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A superhero, however defined, Crisafulli is certainly a super woman; a police officer, single mom to Caleb and his four siblings — Colton, 3, Ethan, 10, Izzie, 12 and 15-year-old Jacob — and a full-time student at the University of Baltimore.

But even superheroes have their families that love them, that worry over them when they are deployed to help hold the blue line in the face of rioting, as Crisafulli was two weeks ago.

"I've always been fine with her being a police officer and knowing that she's going to get home safe, but recently it's just been scary, like what's going to happen?" Caleb said. "Is someone going to try something? Is something bad going to happen?"

Even superheroes begin to worry over their children as they work 16- to 18-hour shifts on the front lines for 14 days straight.

"I left my kids glued to the TV and newspapers, wondering what was going to happen to their mom," Crisafulli said. "I brought home new equipment, which made my children realize it was bad in the city."

And yes, even superheroes need help sometimes. As Crisafulli began working shifts that left her exhausted, with only a few hours to sleep at her home in Westminster before heading back to Baltimore, family, friends and sports teams all stepped in to help support Crisafulli's children while she was away, providing dinners, rides or just the reassurance that their mom was going to be OK.

"They started calling and asking, 'How can we help? What can we do?" Crisafulli said. "The parents and coaches of these teams were able to transport the kids back and forth to practice and games. ... My older son's indoor football team provided three dinners and two gift cards so I had one less stress. [Coach] Ryan Warner ... provided lasagna and brownies and [team administrator] Lisa Breeden organized everything."

That support from the community, Crisafulli said, was what allowed her to put on the uniform, and the mindset that comes with it, and to go and join the line.

Two 'chaotic' weeks

"We were not prepared; we weren't," Crisafulli said of the Baltimore Police Department: unprepared in terms of equipment — she finally received her first gas mask in eight years after the riots began — and unprepared for the logistics of supplying officers with their basic needs.

"The officers went for the first two days without water and food, and stood up in there and took rocks and bricks," Crisafulli said. "It was so chaotic. ... All the stores were shut down. If you didn't have a dollar bill, if you had $5, you couldn't go to the vending machine at headquarters."

They were also unprepared, psychologically, for what they would encounter.

"The first night we were down at the Inner Harbor when they tore up the whole Inner Harbor and we were on Howard Street and we just kept advancing the line on Howard Street ... while they were destroying the business. ... I just looked around and said, 'I never, never thought it.' It's unbelievable," Crisafulli said. "It's just amazing. The smell because of the tear gas they use, and the pepper spray, it still was there. ... Even by the time we got there and secured the surroundings, it was still there."

Crisafulli packed an overnight bag, as she might in a blizzard or other emergency, but instead opted to come home for what short intervals she could.

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"By the time I got home, I was exhausted," she said. "I barely made it to the bedroom to sleep for two to three hours and then they would call us back in on emergency because they needed more people."

Crisafulli asked her children not to watch the TV while she was gone — it was live coverage of Baltimore, nonstop, and she couldn't be sure what they might see. Crisafulli's best friend, Crystal, came to stay with the kids in the afternoons and evenings, and all the while Ethan would ask to call Crisafulli's cellphone to find out when his mother was coming home.

"I would have to say, 'I don't know. I just don't know,' " Crisafulli said. "We would go to one place, we would jump out for an hour and then they would redeploy us to another place. Then we would go there, and we're like, OK, we're safe, we're going to get off. ... But we didn't get off. We would jump in the van and they would redeploy us somewhere else."

A career in the city

It was painful to see the city of Baltimore in such turmoil, Crisafulli said. Raised in Highlandtown, she had never wanted to work anywhere else.

"I love, love Baltimore City," she said. "Every street you go down it's something different. I can't describe — if you walk down it, Canton is one area, you go down to Hopkins it's another; you go down to Highlandtown you meet a whole other type of person, and how they talk and how they act."

Before joining the police eight years ago, Crisafulli had been a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier in Highlandtown, a job she loved, but, as she told her sister just before her 30th birthday, not the job she had always wanted.

"She said, 'Well, what do you want to be?' I was just like, 'I always wanted to be police,' And she's like, go take the test," Crisafulli said. "She watched the kids, and I went and took the test and I got hired."

As her first patrol assignment, Crisafulli was assigned to that same Highlandtown neighborhood where she had delivered the mail for six years.

"It was so funny because people would be like, 'I know you from somewhere!' " she said. "I would just giggle at them and say, 'Yeah, I was your mailman.' "

After a few months of foot patrol, Crisafulli was moved to the much larger Northern District, doing patrol by herself in a police cruiser. That's changed in the wake of the riots, she said, even in the relative calm that has followed, with all officers riding with a partner.

"When you go into a business, when you walk out of your car, you always have to take the extra look, which we never had to do before," Crisafulli said. "There was always — you always were aware, but you never had to go into the bathroom and make sure you have a partner because you don't want to come out of the bathroom and not know what you're walking into. Now you have to be more aware."

But after the initial days of fires and bricks and tear gas and riot gear, Crisafulli said she also saw the people of Baltimore remind her why she loves the city so much.

"The whole community in the city, after the first couple of days, had just really stepped up. The people were thanking us. That's something that we don't normally get on a day to day basis and it was good," she said. "I mean any time someone says thank you. I just look at them and go, I'm here. I'm not doing something special. ... I'm going to run to you instead of running away if you need me, no matter who you are."

An uncommon duty

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Even when things are normal in Baltimore, Crisafulli's schedule is anything but the run of the mill nine to five. As a "midnighter," she leaves home in Westminster around 10:30 p.m. and works overnight until 8:30 a.m.

"I get home by 9 a.m. and the kids are in school, so that is the perfect time for me to sleep," she said. "I sleep until they get home and then I get up. ... They are not affected by my sleep, and they are not affected by my going to work until later that evening."

Crisafulli is also a full-time student, taking three classes at the University of Baltimore this semester, her junior year, as she works toward a degree in criminal justice, aiming to eventually attend law school.

"I go to school in the morning, and I try to go only twice a week so the kids won't notice," she said. "[It's] normally 9 to 12, then I come home and sleep [from] 12 to 4 or 12 to 5, and they wake me up and we start activities."

On a typical weekday, when her schedule is at its most "normal," Crisafulli still has to make arrangements to get four of her children to their four different evening activities at the same time. Her philosophy on the point of getting things done is clear.

"I'll sleep tomorrow," she said with a laugh. "I figure that school is only for another year and for that year, you know, you can just do it. I want my kids to know that, no matter what life throws you — did I think I was going to be a single mom with five kids? No. I thought I was going to have the white picket fence and, you know, live in that perfect dream — but I want to show my kids that you can go get your degree."

It's a family philosophy, the lesson having taken. In addition to playing indoor football, Jacob wrestles, lifts weights and sings in chorus at Westminster High School and Izzie does cheerleading, ballet, softball and plays the bass. Ethan plays football for the Westminster Wildcats, wrestles and plays baseball; and Caleb does the same, with the addition of doing theater.

People from all corners reached out to help, according to Crisafulli.

"[Caleb's] coach lives across the street and she said, 'What can I do?' and I was just like, 'Please can you just send a pizza or something, anything, so I know my kids are not eating cereal, so she ordered pizza to be delivered," Crisafulli said. "Though it's so little, it's just one less thing I had to worry about with the kids. We had laundry piled up, we had things that needed to be signed, and I didn't know when I was going to come home."

Everyone involved with the Crushing Crows football team knew that Jacob's mother was a police officer, and the idea that they should do something to help out spread quickly through the organization, according to team coach Ryan Warner.

"We asked the boys, the players, to take an active role," he said. "It was pretty simple gesture from our family and something very — we were happy to do it to provide a little relief to someone doing an important job like Karyn is doing."

It made sense to circle the wagons and support the mother of a player on the team, said Lisa Breeden, the Crushing Crows administrator, or "team mom," but when they learned how many police were going without food and water, it was decided to ask for donations for Crisafulli's fellow officers as well.

"We took a collection of drinks, snacks and hand sanitizer, and took that down to the Baltimore Police Department Northern District station where Karyn works," Breeden said. "We had a minivan full."

Thanks to the support from the coaches and other team families, Crisafulli's children never missed out on their activities or practices in the two weeks she was away. It helped keep their minds off of what was going on in the city.

"It takes a village to raise Team Crisafulli," Crisafulli said.

Relaxing, but not resting

Her two weeks of special duty complete, Crisafulli gathered with her children on Thursday, May 7, in their Westminster home. It was a chance for them to spend some time together ahead of Mother's Day. Although Crisafulli had the weekend off, she had already committed to riding in the Police Unity Tour, a four-day, 280-mile bicycle ride from Philadelphia to Washington in memory of fallen officers. She would be leaving the children with her mother, Gail, beginning Friday.

The children didn't mind. The Unity Tour was, after all, a more certain thing — a safer thing — than the two weeks of special duty their mom had served, and just another reason to be proud of their mother. And they all said they were proud.

"Very proud of her," Caleb added.

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