Life after Law Enforcement
The transition to civilianhood is not easy, even under the best of circumstances
Brian A. Kinnaird Ph.D.
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 been developed.
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 your personality. In research conducted by police psychologist and author J.M. Violanti, 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 every day 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.”
It is further 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 that are widespread, deep, and long-lasting.
Consider that officers spend much of their time preparing for the worst. Day in and day out scenarios are played out in their minds. 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. They are hyper-energized, sensitive, irritable, tired, and secreting various stress hormones when seemingly trying to relax on the sofa.
Although law enforcement is often routine, it’s also jumbled with quick cuts—responding to death, destruction, violence, and interpersonal human aggression as well as goodwill, compassion, 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 police psychologist K.M. Gilmartin 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 illustrations 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 another factor and 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 elements of post-traumatic stress disorder.
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 and one in which they are often 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 a result, a lack of adequate and satisfying work for the trauma-exposed person has its emotional costs in family and friends.
Law enforcement officers will tell you that it is not a job or a career but a way of life—how they look at people, where they sit in restaurants, scanning locations and people, questioning their children and spouse, being suspicious and distrustful of others and hyper-vigilant about the safety and security of loved ones. 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 define themselves by their job.
The transition to civilianhood is not an easy one, even under the best of circumstances. Transitions are difficult in general — a new baby, divorce, marriage, home, boss, going back to school, or even a new car. The old program is, in a strange sense, “safe.” Change is uncomfortable and no one likes to feel uncomfortable.
Finding relationships that 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 that structure their lives. Suggestions to buffer the anxiety and toxicity of unchecked post-separation fallout include:
- Use family and friends as support structures
- Use department-offered or local mental health services (you’re only as sick as your secrets)
- Maintain ties with your agency (auxiliary 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
- Be a guest speaker at the police academy (you become a point of reference)
- Write articles and columns for the law enforcement community
- Teach a part-time criminal justice class 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 badge, gun, and uniforms have been turned in. Even so, they will be with them every step and breath that remains in their frame.
“Vocatio” is Latin for “to call.” The burdens of the job are ones claimed by cops who have accepted such a call. Although you will still look at people suspiciously, will see what others do not see (or choose to ignore), you will always look at the rest of the law enforcement world with respect for what they do—only accomplished by a lifetime of knowing.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today.
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: Thomas.