Retirement for Cops, Part 1: The Challenges

Too many cops run head-long into retirement with no plan for what do once they get there--do better!

By Jeff Shannon  |   Feb 11, 2016
I used to be somebody. I used to be a cop. Sure, it had it's ups and downs, but it was better than this ... this sandwich ... (Photo Bill Branson via Wikipedia.)

[Author’s Note: This is the first of a two part series. The second part will explore the joys of retirement.]

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 the 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 his 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. Being 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 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 with the couple spending so much more time together. Old marital wounds and resentments, previously thought to have been worked through, may reemerge with a vengeance. Officers often report feeling unwelcome or “in the way” at home.

Old traumas: 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 a 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.

Conclusion

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.

In part two of this series we will address the amazing opportunity for personal growth and happiness that can accompany a law enforcement retirement. After a long career of public service, we deserve nothing less.

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Jeff Shannon
Jeff Shannon worked in law enforcement for 14 years. He is a nationally recognized expert in the area of police stress. He is a licensed mental health professional with a private practice specializing in treating first responders. In California, he is a certified Master Instructor through the California Commission on Police Standards and Training (POST). Jeff consults and provides training to law enforcement agencies through his company, BlueResilience (www.blue-resilience.com).
Jeff Shannon

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