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Loving and Leaving the Badge

Navigating identity and social connectedness through the challenges of change.

Key points

  • A police officer's transition from service to civilian life can negatively impact their sense of self and social belonging.
  • Transitioning officers may socially withdraw and resist change when their identity is incompatible with a new sociocultural environment.
  • An empirically-supported reintegration strategy offers a way to buffer the psychosocial challenges associated with identity change.

Actively serving law enforcement officers enjoy a police self-concept that is fully engaged in their vocational mission. They also have ready access to fellow officers' trust, friendship, and support. When a police career is over, however, an officer will lose a significant connection to this greater whole. Moreover, they will be faced with the process of adjusting to a civilian lifestyle in which the application of their police identity or reliance on a brotherhood is no longer necessary. Yet the psychosocial need to identify as a cop or be socially connected to the work and people of law enforcement may persist. It’s a common change dynamic among newly separated officers that places them at risk for social isolation or psychological distress without appropriate reintegration strategies.

In my experience working with transitioning officers, they often express feeling like “strangers in a strange land” when placed back into their communities as John or Jane Q. Public. I introduced my findings on this phenomenon in my post “The Case for Former Cops.” Socially and culturally, a police career is a homogenous, insulated operation with built-in morals and duties that reflect an officer’s individual principles. The civilian world, on the other hand, is a hodge-podge of theoretical “freedoms” marked by less structure and uncontrolled influences.

Separating from a police career doesn’t automatically resolve this dichotomy, nor does it immediately change the occupational perspective from which an officer has been experiencing their world. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a transitioning officer to stubbornly avoid new patterns of behavior that would otherwise allow them to be more competent in effectively adjusting to the new environment. They may also attempt to force their prior culture onto unsuspecting or unwilling participants out of self-protection. Ultimately, this will never be successful given new roles and expectations and so officers are faced—sometimes painfully—with the process of adapting to a non-police environment.

Social Identity and Connectedness

Although a range of individual differences impact officer functioning when navigating a service to civilian life, effective identity and social adjustment are fundamental to well-being (Bryant et al., 2019; Flack, M. & Kite, L., 2021). The social identity approach, which consists of social identity theory (Tajfel H. & Turner, J., 1979) and self-categorization theory (Turner et al., 1987), supports this wellness hypothesis because social groups form the basis for self-definition. The more one identifies with a group, the more powerful that group is in influencing a person’s values, thoughts, and actions.

Group memberships—and the social identification born from them—create access to psychological resources such as a sense of belonging, personal control, meaning, connection, and support (Jetten et al., 2018; Jetten, J., Hutchinson, P., 2011). Because officers are immersed in these resources to both survive and thrive on the job, they are also key to understanding why leaving law enforcement can be psychologically challenging. When altered or lost, they put an officer’s capacity to adjust at risk, which can negatively impact their well-being. This holds significant implications for aiding the recovery of trauma responses, given the occupational stigma associated with mental health assistance (Menger et al., 2017; Nevarez et al., 2017).

Social Identity Model of Identity Change

The social identity model of identity change (SIMIC) builds on the social identity approach and suggests that transition stress is influenced by a person’s subjective capacity to adopt an identity compatible with the new environment (Flack, M. & Kite, L., 2021; Haslem et al., 2018). This can be challenging for law enforcement officers who are literally and metaphorically transformed from citizen to sentinel at the outset of their careers. Coupled with an “us vs. them” mentality that protects the group from perceived threats while ensuring unit cohesion, many officers find it difficult to ever see themselves as anything other than a “cop.”

Making a healthy transition from service to civilian life, however, doesn’t mean that an officer must immediately (or completely) abandon their police self-concept or ignore their vocational impulses. It doesn’t require them to dispose of certain lifestyle habits or isolate themselves from anything or anyone associated with the profession either. Rather, the goal of SIMIC is to promote a flexible identity to help navigate social change. With a malleable identity, an officer can put themselves in a better position to adopt aspects of the new culture.

SIMIC suggests two pathways for helping people cope with identity change: social identity continuity (maintenance of pre-existing group membership) and social identity gain (acquisition of new group membership) (Haslem et al., 2018). As a reintegration strategy for law enforcement officers, these pathways promote a “bridge” between the police and civilian worlds and facilitate access to the psychosocial resources they both employ. Such a link can foster a meaningful engagement of the police identity while counterbalancing the uncomfortable and sometimes threatening weight of civilian norms and conventionality typically thrust onto an officer within the first six months of separation.

To the degree this bridge is compatible with one another, it can produce a moderating, mediating, or buffering effect. A transitioning officer can then build the capacity to reconstruct features of his or her identity in accordance with changed roles and expectations at home, in a new job, or recreationally. They may also be more inclined to invest in the social groups of civilian life that were previously accessible but always rejected out of self-protection.

Building a Bridge

Ideally, the best time for an officer to start building a bridge for identity change and social connectedness is during the preparation stage of retirement or resignation. However, the reality for many officers is that career-end considerations very seldom go beyond financial security. As a result, anticipating a change in sociocultural environments can become a source of increased stress or anxiety after putting in papers or otherwise making the decision to leave. Officers forced out by disability or discipline will have even less time to anticipate change and can be more at risk of getting stuck and spinning their wheels. Even those who leave with the utmost preparation and goodwill can find themselves in a pinch later. For some, the career “dust” must settle before they begin to realize how isolated, alone, or disconnected they feel.

Whatever the situation or circumstance, the pathways to social identity continuity and gain are always viable. In my experience, the acquisition of new group membership tends to be less daunting because officers are already immersed in a quasi-civilian life with ample opportunities to connect. The issue is whether or not they have the capacity or willingness to participate. Rather, it’s the continuity piece that poses the most significant challenge, especially when family or friends are not equally supportive of the endeavor. To that end, the following suggestions are offered to inspire the process. Because there is no “one-size-fits-all” when deploying this pathway, it’s important for a transitioning officer to be intentional in determining what they need and realistic in their expectations.

Paid or Volunteer Work in the Field

  • Police reserve, auxiliary, or special duty assignments
  • Academy instructor (full-time, part-time, guest)
  • In-service training provider (local, state, federal)
  • Jail or community corrections
  • Dispatcher
  • Private/industrial security (businesses, schools, churches, etc.)

For Those With an Entrepreneurial Spirit (Police-Oriented Business or Non-profit)

  • Writing books, memoirs, blogs, or professional articles
  • Creating face-to-face or online classes, support groups, online communities, or hotlines
  • Trainer/speaker; peer support/wellness/life/career coach
  • Selling police-inspired goods and services based on current skills and craftsmanship (woodworking, metals, fashion design/clothes, sewing, etc.)

Other Social Group Networking Opportunities

  • Coffee, meals, and get-togethers with other officers
  • Ride-a-longs
  • Membership/participation in professional police associations (may also offer speaking, training, and writing opportunities)
  • Attending a police wellness retreat
  • Starting or finishing an academic degree in the field
  • Pursuing new police-related certifications or maintaining old ones
  • Teaching criminal justice classes at a local college or university
  • Guest speaking for local high schools, colleges, or community organizations
  • Doing interviews for mainstream and social media or podcasts
  • Activism in pro-police causes

Non-Social Identity Continuity (Self-Soothers)

  • Creating a police-inspired memorabilia room at home
  • Making a career-inspired scrapbook (traditional or digital)
  • Listening to a police scanner (if you don't have a handheld or box, there are a number of great scanner apps for phones)
  • Maintaining certain routines and habits (i.e. night-shift officers might like to continue staying up at night doing chores at home, running errands, or participating in hobbies)
  • Maintaining a police haircut
  • Wearing police-inspired attire
  • Watching police-related TV dramas, movies, or online content
  • Tattoos, bumper stickers, flags, or other symbols/iconography that show your love, affection, and support

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.

References

Bryant R., Lawrence-Wood E., Baur J., McFarlane A., Hodson S., & Sadler N. (2019). Mental health changes over time: A longitudinal perspective. Mental Health and Wellbeing Transition Study.

Flack, M., & Kite, L. (2021) Transition from military to civilian: Identity, social connectedness, and veteran wellbeing. PLOS ONE 16(12).

Haslam, C., Jetten, J., Cruwys, T., Dingle, G. A., & Haslam, S. A. (2018). The new psychology of health: unlocking the social cure. London and New York: Routledge.

Jetten, J., Branscombe, N. R., Haslam, S. A., Haslam, C., Cruwys, T., Jones, J. M., & Zhang, A. (2015). Having a lot of a good thing: Multiple important group memberships as a source of self-esteem. PLOS ONE, 10(6).

Jetten, J., & Hutchison, P. (2011). When groups have a lot to lose: Historical continuity enhances resistance to a merger. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 335–343.

Menger, R., Robbins, J. W., & Bell, R. (2017). Military neurosurgery socioeconomic data: Benefits, challenges, and opportunities. Neurosurgery, 83(5), 1076–1081.

Nevarez, M. D., Yee, H. M., & Waldinger, R. J. (2017). Friendship in war: Camaraderie and PTSD prevention. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 30(5), 512–520.

Tajfel, H., & Turner J. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. (W. Austin, G. Worchel, Ed.). The social psychology of intergroup relations. California: Brooks/Cole; 1979. pp. 33–47.

Turner J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S.D, & Wetherell, M. A. Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. England: Blackwell; 1987.

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