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For a law enforcement officer, leaving active duty can be a difficult time. Whether or not the person freely chooses to leave, is forced to leave, medically retires, or just hits that “mark” of retirement, a strong camaraderie among fellow officers has already been developed. Much like the military, survival depends on a close working relationship. Leaving those ranks, a loss is experienced. Although officers have a love-hate relationship with their jobs it’s difficult to stay, but perhaps more difficult to leave.
At some point, officers must be prepared to become civilians. A loss of police power and a feeling that one is no longer part of the cop family strongly accompanies the change. To leave this interpersonal web of protection is not easy and is likened to removing an integral part of their personality. In research conducted by Violanti (1992), an officer commented:
“It’s like I belonged to a big club. I made my mark, I was one of the guys, I did my job. Everyone in the station respects you. Suddenly, all of that is gone and you are on the outside looking in. I felt so different. I called the guys almost everyday to see if they still related to me the same way. I visited the station, wondering what was going on and wanting to be part of the action. Somehow, it wasn’t the same. I wasn’t one of them anymore. It’s hard to explain. I left, but I couldn’t let go of this strong attachment” (p. 24).
Violanti (1997) suggested that officers continue to experience residual trauma even after separating from police service. A residual stress hypothesis proposes that prior trauma exposure leaves residual effects which are widespread, deep, and long lasting (Figly, 1978).
Consider that officers spend much of their time preparing for the worst. Day in and day out scenarios are played out in the mind. What if? On or off duty, training emphasizes the worst possible case scenarios and prepares officers to deal with that event only. As a result, they become occupationally and personally socialized into approaching situations with considerable suspicion, distrust, and anxiety.
Although law enforcement is often routine, it’s also jumbled with “quick cuts”—responding to death, destruction, violence, interpersonal human aggression and within a confine of personal excitement—goodwill, indignation and vigilance. Officers can become addicted to this excitement and cannot function well without it when they separate from service.
An interesting hypothesis by Gilmartin (1986) examines adrenaline as an addiction that may be a result of learned behavior. Police work creates a learned perceptual set which causes officers to alter the manner in which they interact with the environment. Statements by officers that “it gets into your blood” are evidence describing a physiological change that becomes inseparable from the police role. An interpretation of the environment as always dangerous may reprogram the reticular activating system and set into motion physiological consequences. This is interpreted as feelings of energy, rapid thought patterns, and speeding up of cognitive and physical reactions.
The police subculture is a pervasive microcosm in which a closed mini-society perpetuates a sense of strong cohesion, a code of silence and secrecy, and dependence upon one another for survival. Most research suggests that one of the major regrets of separated officers is that they no longer feel a part of the department. Separation and loss of support from the police group may serve to increase the already heightened physiological and psychological state associated with PTSD.
Upon separation from active law enforcement, officers exposed to trauma will lose ready access to the group and may no longer be able to depend on other officers, the police agency, or police benevolent groups to reinforce a sense of understanding and recognition of their trauma. This is most significant for officers who retire with a disability. While others are in some mode of exit, the disabled officer is immediately “thrown” into a new life which they are ill-prepared to handle.
Another factor upon separation is adapting to new work. With such consistent exposure to trauma, cops devote psychic energy to deal with those traumas, often leaving them void of energy to direct towards other things. As such, a lack of adequate and satisfying work for the trauma-exposed person has its emotional costs in the family.
Law enforcement is not a job or a career but a way of life. When they leave the job, it is still a way of life—how they look at people, where they sit in restaurants, scanning locations and people, questioning their kids and spouse, being suspicious of others or vigilant in safety and security of loved ones. This never changes.
The pendulum will often swing “back” the other way and there are times of great depression, isolation and a sense of being lost that they had never felt before. In essence, many officers defined themselves by their job.
The transition to civilianhood is not an easy one, even under the best of circumstances. Transitions are difficult in general. Consider the slaves who were freed but remained on the plantations that they worked on (even though some could not afford to leave). An abused wife who remains with her husband or even the old fellow from the Shawshank Redemption film who was released from a near-life sentence but couldn’t make it on the outside—it’s what they knew and were comfortable with. Even though it was not necessarily in their best interests it was, in a strange sense, “safe.” Change is uncomfortable and no one likes to feel uncomfortable.
Finding relationships which substitute for the police subculture is necessary for officers when they leave. When a primary role is no longer there to occupy, they must spend time seeking out activities which structure their lives. Psychologists or officers who have made that transition often suggest keeping ties to their agency. According to a recent article, Lt. John Leonard retired from his full-time duties, but planned to stay on the job as a special officer---even for a place to go for coffee once in awhile. He also planned to keep his police certification so he could occasionally work road jobs.
Where possible, suggestions by psychologists and former officers to buffer the anxiety of such a transition are:
• Use family and friends as a support structure;
• Use department-offered or local mental health services;
• Maintain ties with your department (reserve or special duty work);
• Maintain ties with your police colleagues (coffee, get-togethers);
• Enjoy a hobby or activity that gives you personal satisfaction and meaning;
• Serve as an expert witness or litigation consultant in the profession;
• Write articles and columns;
• Teach criminal justice classes (part-time at a local college)
• Enjoy a second career completely outside of law enforcement.
When a law enforcement officer leaves the “job” for another life, some are pleased and yet others will wonder. They know that after a career of camaraderie that few experience, it will remain as a longing and nostalgic outlet for those past times. We know in the law enforcement life there is a fellowship which lasts long after the uniforms have been turned in. Even so, they will be with him with every step and breath that remains in his frame.
These are the burdens of the job and the vocational calling one claims as a cop. You will still look at people suspiciously, will see what others do not see (or choose to ignore) and will always look at the rest of the law enforcement world with respect for what they do—only grown through a lifetime of knowing.
“Never think for one moment you are escaping from the life. You are only escaping the ‘job’ and we are merely allowing you to leave ‘active’ duty.” ---Anonymous
Figley, C.R. (1978). Psychological adjustment among Vietnam veterans: an overview of
the research. In C.R. Figley (Ed) Stress Disorders Among Vietnam Veterans-Theory,
research, and treatment. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Gilmartin, K.M. (1986). Hypervigilance: A learned perceptual set and its consequences
on police stress. In J.T. Reese and H.A. Goldstein (Eds) Psychological Services for
Law Enforcement, (pp 443-446). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Violanti, J.M. (1997). Traumatic stress in critical occupations: Recognitions,
Consequences, and Treatment. Charles C. Thomas Publisher.
Violanti, J.M. (1992). Police Retirement: The impact of change. Springfield, Illinois:
Brian A. Kinnaird, Ph.D. is a former commissioned law enforcement officer in Kansas, holding assignments in field training, tactical team operations, and use of force instruction. He has spent over a decade as a university professor of criminal justice, police academy instructor, and law enforcement consultant. He is an associate member of the Texas Police Association. www.briankinnaird.com
Previously published in National Sheriff's Association and Texas Police Journal
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