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Goodbye 2020: Don’t Let the Door Hit You in the Butt

Dec 6, 2020

Why do we ask cops to stay on the job for decades when many are done in one?

2020 had such a nice sound, so round it rolled right off the tongue. What a metaphor of hope, twenty-twenty vision, the ability to see perfectly without wearing glasses. So much for happy metaphors, especially if you’re a cop.

2020 was a bad year for law enforcement officers (LEOs) and their families who were already under a lot of stress. They were heroes one week, villains the next. Who would want to be a cop in the middle of a deadly pandemic, a wave of anti-police sentiment, massive civic unrest, social protests, feelings of betrayal, and a spate of violence?

A short national online survey of 1,355 active-duty LEOs caught my eye. It looked at mental health functioning during the twin crises of Covid-19 and ongoing civil unrest. There are limitations to this study, as there are to all studies, especially those relying on self-report. The study authors advise over-interpreting their findings in that the acute symptoms they were measuring may abate naturally if and when the current crises diminish. Even with those limitations, I found some important and interesting takeaways that mirror my own observations.

  • Forty-seven percent of the sample screened positive for PTSD, 29% were in the moderate to very severe range of anxiety and 37% were in moderate to very severe range of depression. All of which the study authors said are greater than the prevalence found in the general population.
  • Fifty-five percent of the sample reported considering quitting their jobs on a daily or weekly basis
  • A majority reported they felt trapped or helpless in their jobs at least once a week and weren’t likely to recommend a job in law enforcement as a career.
  • Officers with 5-10 to ten years on the job were at heightened risk for symptoms of PTSD and depression when compared to officers with fewer than 5 years or more than 10. Or, as the study authors said in a summary article, these officers were “Too far in to quit, not far enough to retire.”

There are a number of reasons I believe officers in the 5-10 year range of service seem to be at heightened risk for emotional problems. They are likely to be in their 30s with young families and, for some, significant personal debt and fraying marriages. The job still has appeal, but the novelty has worn off and the learning curve has flattened. Once youthful idealism is tempered by a more realistic appraisal of the limits of law enforcement and of their own limited abilities to make a difference in the world.  The boring and frustrating aspects of the job have started to outweigh the positive ones. Administrative policies, distorted media reports of police actions and public criticism become harder to take. And there is a dawning realization that the officer has invested time and energy into a career over which he or she has little control.

There may be also be a shift from police goals to personal goals. Individual comforts such as shift assignments, pay raises and benefits, take precedence over organizational needs. The officer who would once have done the job for free is now putting in a timecard for every 15 minutes of overtime.

Even more worrisome are the LEOs who once had a range of non-law enforcement interests and were actively engaged with family and civilian friends.  But now, after years of service, they may be exhausted, traumatized, and so overly involved with the job that being a cop is their main, perhaps only, source of identity.

If you are an LEO, it’s reasonable to ask how you can get past this hump and navigate the continuing challenges of growing old on the job. Police psychologists, like myself, know something about this already.  Agencies could, though many don’t, offer sabbaticals, robust confidential mental health services, annual wellness checks, and inter-agency transfers that don’t force the transferring officer to lose rank or benefits.

My question is a bit different. I’d like to know why, in the first place, do we require cops to work twenty to thirty years in  a career that has abundant emotional and physical risks? Isn’t it possible to re-imagine a different career path for law enforcement? One that rolls out in increments like the military.

I know that many LEOs have strong security needs and may have been attracted to policing, not only by a desire to make a difference and pride in the profession, but by the job security. In reality, job security may be a myth. Early retirement is not uncommon in law enforcement for a variety of reasons ranging from injuries (medical and psychological) to the current prospect of down-sizing departments. Smarter heads than mine can certainly figure out how to fairly benefit officers for their time on the job, whether it be five, ten or twenty years. There are many models for this both in government and in the private sector.

Doesn’t what I’m suggesting have potential pitfalls?  Of course. It could be used as punishment or to avoid compensating officers who have valid emotional or physical injuries. Won’t we lose experienced officers? Doubtful, if they’re happy in their jobs and well treated by their employers. More likely the officers we will lose are burned out, cynical, disillusioned, and ready to do something else with their lives.

Policework prepares officers to do a great many things.  It is only the lack of vocational guidance and imagination that keeps officers from seeing how well their many skills transfer into non-law enforcement applications.

If you’re just starting out, don’t get caught by those golden handcuffs. Don’t be the unhappy, demoralized person who is hanging on by a thread waiting for retirement.  Actively manage your career. Prepare for the unexpected, all it takes is a blown knee. Save money, don’t live on your overtime. Stay in school, you’ll broaden your options.  Don’t count on getting promoted, only about one in eight LEOs get promoted and some of them have regrets.

Thanks for reading. I know that often what I say is controversial. I like hearing from readers. Please leave a comment on this topic if you are inclined and/or let me know if there’s something you’d like me to write about in future blogs.

Thank you LEOs and LEO families for another challenging year of service. Happy holidays everyone. I wish you all a safer, more peaceful, happier, and healthier New Year.

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