Leaving a Police Career Can be as Dangerous as Police Work

There is no backup when officers become civilians

A career police officer effectively puts civilian life on hold for 25 years or more when they enter the force. When that service is complete, transitioning back to being a civilian can be exceptionally difficult.

Police training is focused on getting people into the career but many forces overlook the need to help officers exit their career successfully. As the wife of a police officer and therapist for police officers and their families, I know the planning and preparation to leave policing is as important as the training to get into the career.

I am also a professional exit strategy coach and because this gap in exit training exists, I’ve witnessed the tragic consequences of officers not being prepared for the life changing stage of leaving the force. What if, a year after leaving their post, a former officer feels they have no purpose? Their impression may be that nothing will ever be as important, engaged and impactful as their policing career. This is the tragedy. Preparing for an exit means officers learn to see the bright future ahead filled with plans and goals equally as important as their policing career. The decisions to create these plans need to take place many years before the party to see an officer off because planning for the future is what makes for a successful, meaningful second stage of life.

When officers enter their careers, whether in a municipal, provincial or federal force, training is mandatory. There are standard, regimented training requirements: firearms qualification, conducted energy weapon, pepper spray usage, interview and interrogation procedures, block training and harassment. Plus, there are other optional, specialized training courses that can increase chances for promotion and higher rank. No one questions the need for this training, but what is absent from the mandatory list is how to transition out of a police career.

Transition planning can create a huge amount of pressure on officers if there is a lack of formal training to guide them through the process. They are forced to do it alone without the skills to create their personalized plan and what’s worse is that they are trying to find the time, energy and other resources to navigate the unfamiliar while juggling the stress and demands of the job.

An officer is used to being part of an organization defined by hierarchy, structure, routine and protocols, it can be challenging to re-define, re-structure and re-purpose oneself. There is a danger of exiting without help because the officer may face uncertainty over “who they are” if they are no longer on the force. They must imagine life without a uniform, gun belt and vest and the lifestyle of busyness and drama.

Both with and without help, there is initial happiness and relief to leave the stress and politics of police work upon exiting the career. It often resembles the feeling when just starting on a leave, but without the help in creating a plan to exit, this happiness can be quickly followed by challenges of reconnecting with civilian life. Leaving is assumed to be easy – leave the stress, walk away from the regimented culture and forget the difficult cases. Just ride off into the sunset swiftly and easily. If only it worked that way.

Because an officer making plans for the future is still faced with the everyday potential hazards of the job that continue right up to the exit date, forces need to be aware of the added stress and pressure on top of standard health issues that are part of the job and can impact decisions to exit well in a positive manner.

Physical health is compromised because of disruptive sleep patterns, wearing a 20 lb gun belt and chasing bad guys through all kinds of terrain.

Overall general health takes a back seat when attending call after call or working short staffed, consecutive shifts, excessive overtime and tight deadlines, not to mention the danger inherent in the role.

Mental stress from the very nature of violence, death and horror seen on the job causes the potential for anxiety, PTSD or other mental challenges.

Additional financial and family pressure occurs because marriages, relationships and child connections are strained by shift work, late hours and missed special occasions and events.

I have presented exit strategy training to different police forces that recognize the stress and resulting problems when a lack of planning paralyzes officers. At first, the programs were offered only to those officers who were planning to leave within two years, but it did not take long to learn that worries and stress begin much earlier and education is needed at least five to ten years before exiting.

The exit strategy training topics has a special focus on the transition from police officer to civilian but also include education on pensions, benefits and legal issues. The jam packed sessions and evaluations were evidence of how informative, necessary and effective it is for officers to receive training to prepare early for a successful transition and exit.

One of the participants in our exit program, Sgt. S. Kirk (rtd) explained, “The decision to retire was a two-year process with many highs and lows. There was uncertainty on several fronts: what was I going to do, how would I fill my time, what did retirement look like for me? While I worked my way through the minefield of my own creation (not having sought guidance and failing to attend a seminar), I completely ignored the second component that it could and did effect, namely my wife”. He also said, “Had we attended a seminar well in advance of retirement it would have negated the stress not only on me personally, but also on my wife. I highly endorse and recommend all those even remotely contemplating retirement, to attend a seminar that focuses on the transition aspect”.

With a wave of Baby Boomers expected to leave their policing careers soon, police forces may be behind the eight ball if they don’t begin to offer transition training. A lack of support and education can delay department succession plans when officers put their exits on hold due to fear and uncertainty of the future.

Benefits of helping officers with an exit strategy include:

  1. Officers make plans and become comfortable to exit. It is not uncommon for anyone to put off selecting an exit date due to uncertainty and lack of a plan. On the flip side, some select an exit date in haste because of frustration and over reaction. The creation of a concrete plan reduces stress about the future and enhances focus and concentration on the current job.
  2. Officers will make better, more informed decisions. Their choice to exit will be personal rather than based on the earliest unreduced pension date. This usually works in favour of the force because officers often decide to stay on longer for better pension numbers.  They may agree to return for projects or special short-term assignments.  It is beneficial to optimize the experience and expertise of the Boomers.
  3. Police forces will have an accurate picture of planned exits and future staffing needs. This works to build recruitment strategies for seamless transitions. Officers in Charge, Chiefs and Human Resources can plan in advance to avoid empty positions, gaps in units and understaffed departments and detachments.

No one would teach weapons training then send the trainee alone into the field two minutes later. Exit strategy planning is the same. It should not be offered to officers in the year, month or week before they plan on leaving their career.

Don’t let exit strategy planning be reactive like the policing industry. This integral training is needed well in advance to allow police officers to create a solid exit plan, prepare for the transition to civilian life and succeed in the future. Sometimes spouses and family members also need to contribute to the plan and receive guidance on how to help officers reintegrate back into regular life.

Like any business sector, police forces can provide exit strategy training to benefit their officers and use this long-term staffing information to be better prepared. Shift officers into the driver’s seat of exiting – help them create a plan and increase the confidence they need before they remove the Kevlar vest and gun belt for the last time.  Learn more about our Exit Success Program or contact us at pam@strategytoexit.com or 604-349-8660 to discuss how we can help you.

This entry was posted by Pam Paquet and is filed under Exit Strategies, Retirement Preparedness. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.