Police Interview Newsletter
Police Life: The Later Years

Volume 4, Issue 2
March-April, 2005

Several months ago, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a retirement reception honoring a Captain who had served the Henrico County Division of Police for more than 30 years. It was the first police retirement reception that I had attended so I didn't know exactly what to expect beyond some cookies and punch, and an expression of thanks from the Colonel. I was blown away by what unfolded in front of me! Several hundred people filled the triple-sized classroom and spilled out into the hallways of the academy training facility. Family, friends, neighbors, and county employees from virtually every government office showed up to take part in the send-off. State Police, deputy sheriffs, and local fire fighters seemed to come out of the woodwork. And, as you might expect, many retired Henrico Officers, command staff, and a former police chief chose to be present. Over the course of the hour-long reception, stories and jokes were exchanged, deeply-felt gratitude and respect were conveyed in both directions, and career successes and struggles were acknowledged. The Captain was touched and his tears testified to the ways in which all of these people had become so important to him during the course of his exemplary career. What a marvelous way to end one’s police career—to know with assurance that you have been an unusually effective, and well-loved law enforcement officer.

In Chapter 3 of I Love A Cop, Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D. writes about “Growing Old in a Young Person’s Profession.” She uses the metaphor of marriage to draw some parallels between the developmental stages of one’s law enforcement career and the challenges inherent in any long-term marital commitment. Kirschman and other psychologists have observed that long-term police careers and marriages often follow a U-shaped course—with reported levels of satisfaction being highest early on, then much later on as well. It is those intervening middle years of policing and marital life that can prove most challenging and even disheartening to the participants.

Ellen Kirschman's four phases of a police officer's career include: “The Honeymoon”, “Settling Down”, “Dealing With Disillusionment”, and “Coming To A Crossroad.” The January-February 2005 issue of Police Interview (“Police Life-The Early Years”) was dedicated to describing and discussing the first two of these developmental phases. Each phase, as in a long-term marriage, is characterized by specific experiences, interpersonal dynamics, and developmental challenges that the police officer and his/her spouse and family will encounter. The new law enforcement officer is well-advised to acquaint himself with the challenges of each career phase, so as to best plan and prepare for the realities that unfold when the honeymoon is over.

So, keeping these things in mind, let's take a look at the latter two phases of police life as defined by Dr. Ellen Kirschman: “Dealing With Disillusionment” and “Coming To A Crossroad”. I quote liberally from Kirschman's chapter.

Phase Three: Dealing With Disillusionment

“Just few years ago, the veteran was an idealistic super-cop out to solve crime and make this a better world. Now he or she feels like the best that can be done is to maintain order and hold the line. The judicial system doesn't work, criminals have the advantage over cops, and victim's need don't count. Neither the community nor the department understands nor appreciates the police. Politics, rather than fairness or justice dominate the scene. The media are ten times more interested in the occasional police scandal than the thousands of everyday acts of courage and persistence. To make matters worse, your cop has likely discovered a few gray hairs, your children might be approaching adolescence, and your parents are showing signs of aging.” (p 41-42)

Kirschman has observed that cops who have been promoted may enjoy some degree of protection against the negativity that can so easily develop during this phase of the officer's career. Generally speaking when officers have been promoted, they report greater job satisfaction, enjoy a better self-esteem, and appear to be more interpersonally skilled and comfortable. However, the longer hours and increased responsibilities can often put additional stress and strain on family life and personal time. So, promotion is clearly not without its problems.

An officer who desires promotion, but fails to receive it, can easily experience an identity crisis. Here is a guy (or gal) who has put all his time, talent, and energy into becoming the best law enforcement officer possible and he gets passed over-often multiple times. This is a blow to the self-image and causes the officer to doubt himself and his capabilities at a very basic level. If he is not able to come to terms with his situation, the officer is “at risk for becoming frustrated, bitter, and cynical” (p.43). As Kirschman suggests, it takes a very confident individual to gracefully accept the realities of being supervised by a younger officer, whom he may have helped to train years ago fresh out of the academy.

These officers often begin to feel locked into policing, given the stable salary and benefits, while wishfully thinking about other more appealing careers. The idea of switching careers is attractive to many officers after 10 or 15 years with the department. However, the cop's financial debt and the educational coursework required to re-tool for the new job often makes this option seem impossible. “With no programs in place to assist in the transition out of policing, many disgruntled officers settle in to wait out the years before retirement in apathy and depression” (Kirschman, P. 45).

“Mick hung in through the bad times. At forty-seven, he was still pushing a patrol car. He wore glasses that he was afraid of losing in a fight, and while his back wasn't bad enough for a medical retirement, it hurt him all the time. He was bitter because he had never received the recognition he felt he deserved, and he would sit in the back of briefings taking verbal pot shots at everyone and everything. His cynicism infected others on his shift, and he was generally regarded as a 'problem employee.' The young 'hot dog' cops referred to him as a 'slug' and a 'blow hard' “ (p.45)

It turns out that Mick was also struggling at home. He and his wife seemed to have little in common any more. She was pursuing interests of her own and they had little to say to one another. A crisis occurred when then teenage son got into some trouble with the law. The entire family was sent to court-ordered treatment and some healing was finally possible. Each had struggles and issues that had been pushed aside and ignored in the day-to-day hassles of competing schedules. Mick started taking responsibility for his frustrations and depression, and was forced to recognize that he couldn't put his life on hold until retirement.

“As his depression lifted, Mick got less irritable at home and at work. He began to participate in recreational activities and take up exercise. He and Katherine took a long overdue trip together. He had a little more energy because he was less depressed, and he found other ways to feel successful and satisfied. He got philosophical about work and decided that being a mediocre cop was good enough for him. It was important for him to plan for the future and concentrate on getting to retirement safely” (p. 46).

Phase Four: Coming To A Crossroad

After being on the police force for 20 or more years, officers are pretty clear about where they fit into the organization and have come to accept the realities of their circumstances. Certain things can be changed and others cannot. Kirschman suggests that most are ready to “invoke the Serenity Prayer (from Alcoholics Anonymous): 'God grant me the serenity to accept those things I cannot change, the courage to change those things that I cannot accept, and the wisdom to know the difference' “ (p.48).

At this crossroads, whether individuals have achieved promotion or not, police officers are looking for new ways to stay interested in their work and to satisfy more personally-oriented goals. This often involves looking inside oneself and more honestly identifying one's values, priorities, and sources of satisfaction. Higher ranking officers may be enjoying the fruits of their labors and often begin thinking in terms of the “legacy they want to leave behind” as retirement approaches.

Senior officers, without command-level rank, may show some interest in developing specialty skills or initiating community service projects-that aren't linked with promotional advancement. This kind of special expertise may involve: mentoring younger officers, learning about accident investigations work, supervising a youth recreational program, starting a police officer peer support network, or starting a home visitation program for disabled cops. The possibilities are endless.

In addition to making some work adjustments, Kirschman observes that most marital couples, at this time in life, must work at renewing their relationships as well. Children are grown up and out of the house (hopefully), so there is opportunity to refocus and perhaps to repair the relationship if necessary. There is often a refinement of personal tastes and preferences that has occurred over the years. So, spouses need to communicate openly about the best ways to spend time and energies. This process may involve some re-discovery or re-invention of self.

Kirschman cites the example of Todd as someone who successfully identified some ways to experience renewed meaning in the latter years of his career. “He spent many of his last years assembling and updating a computerized list of all the previous retirees and their dates of service. This gave the department a sense of its own history, acknowledged the people who had gone before, and reconnected them to each other and to the department, since the department now had an accurate mailing list for inviting these retired officers to events honoring newly retired people. It also gave Todd a good excuse to learn more about computers, a useful skill and hobby for his retirement” (p.49).

In the next and final section, Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D. offers some “Tips For Career Management”. Every new recruit and seasoned officer would do well to familiarize himself with these concepts and suggestions. By anticipating struggles before they arrive, the officer and his family can better navigate the phases of a law enforcement career-and make the necessary course corrections along the way.

Tips For Career Management (Kirschman, p.50-51)
  • Determine early on what success and gratification mean to you and your mate. How do money, prestige, and status affect your definition of success?
  • Look for rewards and satisfactions that aren't based on upward mobility and accumulation. Such rewards are more often found in family life and personal pursuits than at work. People on their death beds rarely regret not having gone to their offices more often.
  • Talk with your spouse about your mutual goals in life while you still have time to make long-range plans that don't rely on promotion or increased income. Sit down together and write up a family plan: Set realistic, achievable, and manageable goals for five-year increments from now through retirement.
  • Plan your finances from the beginning so that your cop can leave his or her job if it becomes unbearable. Avoid becoming financially handcuffed to the police salary or far-off pension. Save money from year one. Avoid living beyond your means or confusing material accumulation with genuine satisfaction. Create a back-up plan that answers the question: What will we do if this cop job doesn't work out in five, ten, or fifteen years?
  • Don't blame yourself or each other for disappointment. There are always more candidates than open slots. Don't assume-or let your cop assume-that because he or she failed a competitive process he or she is a failure.
  • Develop social networks in fields besides law enforcement, in case you need them.
  • Continue with your education and encourage your spouse to get a broad-based education that qualifies him or her for other fields.
  • Plan, plan, plan. If you have not begun planning for retirement, decide now what you want to do and how you will spend your time. Will you both be working or will one of you be at home? If so, what issues does this raise? What are your expectations of each other? It is beyond the scope of this book to go into the specifics of planning for retirement, but there are excellent books to consult.
  • Encouage your officer to begin considering his or her legacy about five years before his or her retirement date. It is best to retire on a positive note, feeling we have made a difference in the lives of people we have met. Look for positive examples of how others have done this.

    Please purchase your own copy of Dr. Ellen Kirschman's book, I Love A Cop, to read about these and other issues in more detail.


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