Too many cops run headlong into retirement with no plan for what to do once they get there — do better!
Usually, at the 12- or 13-year mark of an officer’s 20-year career, the countdown begins. The thrill of the job has faded. The officer has been burned on more than one occasion (suspension, losing a promotion, internal politicking, etc.). This is typically where the work slowdown begins. No longer enamored with chasing crooks down the block, jumping over fences and so on, the mid-career law enforcement officer is now much more conservative in his or her approach. Officers at this juncture also often have physical injuries sustained earlier in their career that nag them.
A few years later, the officer may begin regularly reflecting on how many years left before retirement. A locker room conversation might go something like this:
“Good morning, Jimmy. How you doin’?”
“Two years, eight months,” says Jimmy.
No need to explain that. This career that seems to be getting more ridiculous with each passing month is now a prison sentence.
Retirement Becomes Reality
When retirement becomes a reality, there are many Jimmys in our field who are woefully unprepared psychologically for what their new life will look and feel like. During the last year before retirement, Jimmy will begin getting nervous because he has a vague but dawning realization that his life is going to be very different after he leaves the building for the last time.
For the officer, whether he or she is consciously aware of it or not, retirement involves loss. We lose our well-worn daily routine, a routine that provides structure and activity and thus keeps anxiety at bay. We lose our status as police officers. We are demoted to the civilian world! To say it’s not easy to hang up your police uniform and the personal identity that goes with it is an understatement. A cop is who we have been for all these years. For decades, the officer never has to give a second thought to the question “Who am I?”
I’m a cop.
Losing that at retirement isn’t easy for most.
In a wider context, one of the challenges facing the officer is that retirement is a major life transition, akin to joining the armed forces or moving away from home for the first time. And as such, retirement comes with a great deal of unsettling feelings. It’s a different world outside the police station. Most officers think they know that world outside, but few are prepared for the reality of actually joining it on its terms.
A common solution to these anxieties is found in the retirement job, which is often another law enforcement gig. Usually this is at a quiet department where the officer isn’t expected to do too much. This can be an effective way to get one foot out the door of a law enforcement career. (It also has potential pitfalls, but nothing is perfect.)
Challenges at Home
Retirement also involves big shifts at home, where the spouse may see his or her newly retired officer much more than before. This, of course, could be a wonderful period of renewal for the marriage. But it might also create new problems around issues like division of labor inside the home. Any pursuer–distancer dynamic — that is, the cycle of requiring intimacy on the one hand and space on the other — will be enflamed by the couple spending so much more time together. Old marital wounds and resentments, previously thought to have been worked through, may re-emerge with a vengeance. Officers often report feeling unwelcome or “in the way” at home.
Decades of exposure to traumatic incidents will eventually take their toll. Those officers who downplay the effect these incidents had on them initially are less likely to pay attention to healing from them. Too often the result is that the retired officer has flashbacks while sitting on a riverbank fishing. The old chickens come home to roost.
Finding New Friends and Hobbies
Another challenge for the retired officer is to find replacement social support. Working cops have built-in support from fellow officers. We laugh, keep up on each other’s lives, and always have someone around to confide in. We have social events at each other’s houses. We essentially lose that whole social support system. This can lead to the retiree feeling lost in their new world, despite the long-held institutional ethos that everything will be great in retirement, full of friends and relaxation. Instead you find yourself anxious and alone.
It’s important for officers approaching retirement to know that retirement is a major psychosocial stressor. Yes, it can (and should) be a happy event. But it creates stress — a lot of it. Expecting it, and preparing for it, can make a huge difference in how you handle that stress when it’s finally experienced.
Please watch for the second part of this article in the next edition of Vegas Beat.
Jeff Shannon is a police officer, law enforcement instructor, and licensed marriage and family therapist. He teaches wellness and crisis de-escalation as part of the Alameda County, California, Crisis Intervention Training program. Jeff is recognized by the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) as a subject-matter expert in the area of stress management for law enforcement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission of the author.