30 years of police work is not for everyone. Here’s how to make a graceful exit.
- Asking police officers to stay on the job for 20 to 30 years may be a mistake, costly to the officer, the agency and the community.
- Transitioning out of police work into the civilian world may not be easy, but for many it’s worth the risk.
- An unhappy cop is a liability to everyone. Changing this requires agencies and officers to change their thinking.
There comes a time in almost every law enforcement officer’s (LEO) life when they wonder if they can keep going. It varies from person to person but frequently happens sometime after the tenth year of service when the LEO has one eye on their pension and one eye on their fading youthful aspirations. A career that used to promise years of fulfillment may have run out of steam after too much trauma, too much bureaucracy, too much negativity, or too little appreciation or support. The compensation and job security that were once appealing now feel like a trap. The time for changing careers seems long past and it is difficult to imagine working at anything but a job in public safety. Take heart. Many officers have changed careers before their expected retirement date and are happy about it. Think of it as remodeling your house. It’s a pain while it’s happening, but when it’s over, you wonder why you didn’t do it years earlier.
As a police psychologist for more than four decades, I can say many of the officers I’ve counseled were miserable at work. They weren’t just having a bad day, they were having a bad year or longer. After spending so much time and energy to get the job, thinking about leaving it for the civilian world seemed overwhelming. If you are contemplating a change, here are some things you can do as an individual and some ideas that agencies and/or unions might use to reimagine a career in law enforcement.
- Save money from day one. A police career can be cut short by injury, by cutbacks, or by any number of unanticipated events.
- Get a college degree if you don’t have one. In addition to the reasons to save money, when reality sets in, you might just fall out of love with the job.
- Police work is a job, not your identity. (This is really a tough sell). Develop a wide range of interests and relationships. If you decide the job isn’t for you or the job decides you’re not the one for it, you have plenty to fall back on.
- A police career should not be a marathon. The finish line is different for everyone. The number of years on the job don’t mean as much as the contributions you’ve made and the people you’ve helped. Give yourself credit for what counts.
- You are not leaving a sinking ship. True, this is a tough time to be a cop—an uptick in some crimes, social unrest, the pandemic and more. Keep in mind that there are many ways to be of service to your community. Your true friends from policework will stick with you. This is another reason to continue making or keeping non-police friends while on the job.
- Learn to assess your abilities in terms that the civilian world understands. (Or use a career counselor to help). Police work is not a blue-collar job requiring mostly physical aptitude. As an officer you have many valuable skills—good time management, report writing, strategic planning, interpersonal communication, data analysis, and decision making, to name just a view.
- Don’t jump to conclusions. Before you decide transitioning to something outside of policework is impossible, take the time to figure out your talents and interests along with your practical considerations. Consult with your family and with professionals. (See the resource below).
- Don’t be defensive. You don’t have to hide the fact that you used to be a cop. Most civilians admire cops. Rehearse how you might deal with someone who doesn’t like cops or had a bad experience. Learn how to end a conversation without starting a fight.
- •Don’t be scared about money. It is a paradox. I know many brave officers who would rather chase an armed suspect down a dark alley than risk a dime on themselves. Rather than assuming you can’t make the break financially, put pencil to paper and figure it out. Hire a reliable financial consultant. It will be worth the money you spend.
- Don’t assume you have to reinvent yourself. You may have lost touch with parts of yourself doing police work, but they haven’t disappeared. Your friends and family can help you reconnect. So can therapy.
For police agencies and unions:
- Shorten the length of police careers. Use a military model with options to leave or re-up in increments. Agencies hate this idea because it is costly and labor intensive to keep hiring and training new people. I ask if isn’t it costly to keep angry demoralized officers on staff or support premature retirements due to stress or physical injuries?
- Vest in officers’ retirement pensions on a year by year. Pension plans vary. Most are defined benefit plans requiring 20 or 30 years of service before you are eligible to receive benefits. Being self-employed, I’m far from an expert in retirement plans. Still it seems reasonable to ask why an individual with 10, 15 or 19.5 years of dedicated service should be financially penalized for leaving a job that no longer fits.
- Offer sabbaticals: The shelf-life of LEOs might be extended if they could take sabbaticals at regular intervals, say every five or 10 years. Time off the job can lead to a major psychological reset, get creative juices flowing again, and increase an officer’s dedication to the job.
- Flex time: Allowing part-time or flex time schedules might slow burnout, increase recruitment and retention, encourage more women to join the force, and help officers build resilience by allocating time and energy across several different roles or identities.
I wish all my readers long, happy, productive, and safe careers, no matter what you do or how many times you start over.