- The end of a law enforcement career can pose new and unique challenges for officers.
- Officers often leave their careers without the preparation, awareness, and support necessary for a healthy adaptation to this major life change.
- There are cultural, psychological, and emotional impacts of a police career that often complicate civilian reintegration.
- Affirmation and validation can be valuable tools for helping cops navigate the difficulties associated with life beyond the badge.
It’s a fact: Every law enforcement career will come to an end. That was true in the 19th century when the police were first organized as a civil service and it continues to be true today. It will also be true tomorrow as long as we embrace this institution and have people both able and willing to take up the shield. Knowing this fact, however, isn’t always valuable when you're a cop, especially when you’re first starting out. It doesn’t cross your mind much while kicking in doors in the prime of your career either.
With critical responsibilities to be concerned about—including going home, keeping your job, and not going to jail—it’s not surprising that pondering a life where your badge is no longer the center of the universe would get much attention. Yet, this bill comes due, and it’s only later, after the late notices are piling up, that you’re finally forced to take action.
My 2015 post "Life After Law Enforcement" addressed the end of a police career by offering a snapshot of the hardships often associated with transitioning to civilian life. My 2022 book Life After Law Enforcement takes this phenomenon a step further by exploring the cultural, psychological, and emotional impacts of a police career that often challenge an officer’s suitability for healthily adapting to this major life change.
The issue of post-service reintegration isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that has drawn little scholarly attention or point of focus in the police community. Although I see that landscape changing, securing a healthy transition from duty belt to waist belt hasn’t always been a priority. As a result, many cops new to the civilian scene often struggle to find relevant resources, services, and support.
While there are a number of reasons for this, perhaps the most glaring indicator is the absence of a duty of care that extends beyond an officer’s years of active service. Very simply, the laws, policies, and liabilities that govern the duty and welfare of a cop on the job don’t exist on the other side of the yellow police tape. Unlike military veterans who are eligible for, and readily connected to, mental health services no matter their discharge status or service history, former cops are often unaccounted for or fall through the cracks. They become a civilian problem instead of a police problem and are subject to the same rat race of services consumed by the general public. Although help does exist, it’s not always tailored to their unique needs or responsive to the challenges they face after having spent time washing society’s dirty laundry.
I know because I was one of them. And in the decade since I first began researching this dynamic, I discovered I wasn’t the only one out there fighting demons or struggling to fit in. Having worked with hundreds of former cops who were wrestling with transition or who considered themselves already maladapted, what they had to say about their experiences ran the gamut:
- They felt isolated and alone
- They were disconnected from an identity that made them feel whole
- They felt like no one understood what they were going through
- They missed the action, adrenaline, and chaos of the job (and many of them needed it to regulate their emotions)
- They suffered from residual stress symptoms resulting from occupational trauma
- They struggled to cope with grief, guilt, shame, or anger
- They missed the camaraderie of their brotherhood
- They had problems adjusting to new roles at home, play, or a new job
- They felt devalued, disrespected, and tossed to the side of the road
- They were stuck in “perpetual transition,” often not knowing how or where to put their police skills to new use
- They hit brick walls with attaining new or satisfying employment
- They felt as if they made a mistake in leaving or resented having been shown the door
Their problems varied from those battling PTSD and suicidal thoughts to those who felt worthless being at home all day doing laundry or picking up kids from school. Need a cop to blaze through town to manage death or destruction? No problem. Need a dad to fold socks and take out the trash in suburbia? Well, that’s more complicated.
I’m not suggesting here that every cop who leaves their law enforcement career will have a hard time or is destined to suffer. Our individual preparations, systems of support, and adaptability to life transitions can vary widely and often hinge on an external environment that can, directly and indirectly, impact our change management processes. Still, it’s difficult to pinpoint a cop’s trigger or range of tolerance, so you never know when someone who seems to be doing fine might only be quietly suffering.
Whether you’ve retired on your own timeline, resigned for another job, were forced out by a disability, or otherwise left due to circumstances beyond your control, it’s not uncommon to experience certain obstacles when adjusting away from the badge. Without awareness of those challenges, it can be difficult for a transitioning officer to identify the source of their problems or recognize the need for help.
Identity and Purpose
When you leave a law enforcement career, you will have a rich history to be proud of and its understandable to want to hold on to your sense of identity and culture. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate well to new roles or responsibilities at home or in a new job, especially when nobody’s looking for you to be a cop anymore. Through powerful socialization and conditioning mechanisms at the outset of your career, you were transformed from citizen to sentinel. Your police self-concept was further reinforced by your mission and the experiences of your career. What happens when that mission is over?
The police brotherhood serves as an insulated social, moral, and physical lifeline. Losing ready access to this protective membrane, especially early on, can create feelings of isolation and despair that may lead to increased anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation if left unresolved. Although the running advice in our industry has always been about finding a social circle outside of other cops, that’s not the reality of what most cops actually experience. You may also find that your agency or buddies no longer relate to you the same way when you try to reconnect with them which can further prey on your sense of self-worth.
Fitting Back In
Fitting back into a society you had an uncomfortable relationship with as a cop can be difficult. The same holds true at home where your family learned how to survive (and thrive) without you. The time you had off-duty, on days off, or on vacation was never a good litmus test for your adjustment because you always had to go back. A post-service life is a “permanent vacation” that often demands a reorientation of your skill sets, roles, responsibilities, and general view of the world. Because your police culture and value system will come with you, you can be left to wonder if you’re still a sheepdog or if you must now take your place among the sheep.
Prolonged exposure to toxic stress with no abatement can diminish your life and reduce your capacity to live resiliently. Residual symptoms can also persist for months or years beyond active service, leaving many cops confused as to why they behave poorly or can’t seem to self-regulate. Things that never bothered you on the job may very well show up down the road as you go to relax and adjust to safer settings. For cops, fight or flight is a double-edged sword that requires time to work itself out, and in some cases, a more focused reorientation of your perceptual set.
Unfortunately, there are cops who have learned over their careers (myself included) that a "big event" must occur on the job in order for it to qualify as a traumatic experience and that’s simply not true. Occupational exposure most often comes vicariously and it chips away at you along with the hodge-podge of toxic stress you are directly exposed to. Officers will often state that they were never treated for residual trauma symptoms because they didn’t meet certain criteria listed in a diagnostic manual. That doesn’t mean you aren’t suffering or don’t need help.
The predisposing and precipitating risk factors that lead to suicidal ideation and suicide for cops on the job are often the same for cops who have separated. Yet we don’t see many media headlines or academic research reports about suicide in the former cop community. The missions of the police industrial complex aren’t necessarily focused on this elusive population either. Sadly, these stories become lost in a sea of civilian statistics that fail to recognize the socio-cultural and psychosocial impacts of a law enforcement career.
Once separated, officers may struggle with unresolved issues arising from their years of police service and, at the same time, experience entirely new problems triggered by separation and transition. In particular, officers who leave involuntarily or become disabled on the job are often (and unexpectedly) thrust into civilian life without an opportunity to plan, anticipate the future, or heal. Even officers who retire or resign with foresight and preparation can still find themselves overwhelmed with unmet needs and a limited capacity to cope.
A new sociocultural setting, changes in roles and responsibilities at home, grief, a perceived loss of purpose, social isolation, and a nervous system that is still in “police mode” can all contribute to anxiety or despair when you are without healthy coping mechanisms and adequate support.
No matter how long you were on the job, what badge you wore, or how you left your career, the case for former cops is clear. The job comes with you and can yield unexpected consequences for no other reason than having done the job right. Secondly, the process of separating and then reintegrating into a society you once stood apart from can be a painful existential exercise. Both will challenge your suitability for life beyond the badge. Because there is no one-size-fits-all in the business of helping cops prepare for or recover from the end of a police career, having a little affirmation and validation can go a long way in helping you create your own successful outcomes.
Note: The information in this post is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide clinical or legal advice.
Copyright © Brian A. Kinnaird. All rights reserved.
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.