Beat the retirement blues: What to expect when leaving LE
By Rachel Fretz, PoliceOne editor
Ahhh…retirement. No more shift changes. No more dealing with crabby, sad, angry people every day. No more reports. No more bureaucratic BS. Just relaxing days, low-stress days.
Now won't that be the life?
For some, the truth about what it’s really like to leave police work comes as a painful surprise and can cause more stress than it eliminates. It can come with feelings of isolation, a lost sense of purpose and identity and a perpetual longing for belonging. But if you’re prepared, retirement can be as enjoyable and fulfilling as you want it to be. And after all these years, you’ve earned it. . .right?
“For most people retiring from police work, one of two things happens,” said Dr. Laurence Miller, a Florida-based police psychologist. “Some officers continue in a career related to law enforcement — they go into security, sign on for extra tours or work in a courthouse — while others go on to do something completely different.”
For Al Tetreault, a retired Lieutenant and former head of the Traffic Division of the Albuquerque (NM) PD, retirement couldn’t shake his need to contribute to the mission of law enforcement.
“I loved being a ‘Boy in Blue,’” said the 22-year veteran. “I knew that after leaving the department, I’d need to do something that fit with my lifestyle. And my lifestyle was saving lives, my love was traffic safety.”
Tetreault, retired for 16 years, is now a Master Instructor and co-founder of T.A.C.T. & Assoc., a private police traffic training group he co-founded with a few of his retired friends. When Tetreault talks about the sense of purpose he felt as an officer, it’s clear his decision to train younger officers in his retirement gives him the same kind of fulfillment.
“The key to my ‘retirement survival’ is feeling the same worth I felt as an officer,” he said. In other words, he knew he couldn’t have gone out and been a car salesman or taken a job outside of law enforcement, “even if it paid a bundle of money.”
But everyone chooses a different path, and with so many officers retiring relatively young — some in their 40s and 50s — many will have plenty of time for a second career. For those who’ve maintained side businesses or hobbies over the years, retirement might be the time to take these endeavors center-stage.
Dr. Miller recommended starting the process of evaluating post-LE careers sooner rather than later to make sure they’re feasible.
“Start planning a couple years ahead of time,” he said. “You don’t want to wake up one Monday morning and find there’s nothing to do.”
“Find out what kinds of careers are available for retired officers,” he said. “If you want to continue with some aspect that relates to law enforcement, research security jobs like in-house, corporate investigations, which can be rewarding and lucrative.”
Dr. Miller said he believes you can tell what a person’s retirement will be like by seeing how his or her career goes. Those who have been well-rounded, well-adjusted, take pride in their work, do a good job, but also have a wide range of interests are likely the ones who will adjust best to retirement.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’
Robert Force retired from the Rio Rancho (NM) DPS in 2003 as a Deputy Chief, and is also a co-founder of T.A.C.T. He said retirement brings highs and lows, but most of all a “weird paradigm shift, like you lost a family.” He and many of his retired friends, he said, did struggle with the feeling of being “out of sight, out of mind.”
“I know some people who have not struggled, and others who have struggled dramatically, mostly due to the feeling that ‘my family’ has forgotten me,” he said of the transition into retirement.
Force believes that his continued affiliation with law enforcement made his change easier, and said the upside to having a less “dynamic” existence is that he can finally cross things off his to-do list. “I can plan my day without dealing with service calls, personnel issues, or homicide!” he said.
For some officers, retirement just isn’t in the cards — not yet anyway. Some call them “re-treads,” those who retire, then return to the force.
After 20 years of service, John Corvino felt it was time to punch out. The Albuquerque police officer was receiving a generous retirement package and thought, Hey, what’s the use of coming to work and making all these deductions when I don’t have to?
But when he left, he missed both the camaraderie and the work. And despite staying in touch with the department and occasionally teaching at the academy, he got a strange feeling he got every time he went down to one of the sub-stations.
“I can’t really put my finger on it,” he said, “but apparently everyone goes through it. It felt like I should really be there.”
Corvino stayed on as a reserve officer and finished his Bachelor’s degree, but after two years of retirement, an itch to return to police work set in.
“When the department asked me if I’d like to come back,” he said, “it was a no-brainer. And when I came back to work, it felt like I’d never left.”
Once a cop, always a cop
So is it true what they say, once a cop, always a cop?
“This will be true for some people, but not all of them,” said Dr. Miller. “For people who may have been overly enmeshed in the police role, where it becomes almost like oxygen, retirement throws some of them into a panic.”
Many former officers find it difficult to cope with the loss of the community and camaraderie. “This will also be true of people who retire from the military or the fire service — any vocation that feels like a second family,” said Dr. Miller. “It’s going to be very hard to give up.”
There’s also the potential of feeling alienated out among civilians.
“Most of what civilians know about police work, they get from television,” said Dr. Miller. “It’s very hard for police officers to talk about work because they don’t think civilians will understand.”
Also, Dr. Miller said there is a tacit code of silence between officers that’s hard to relax out there in the real world. “You don’t really talk about what you do for a living; it’s almost like betraying a trust.”
Making the transition
After 16 years of retirement, Tetreault said he can finally look at police officers in a different light.
“I’ve gotten in a mode where I can understand the civilian side of things — it’s scary!” he laughed. “You act in a different manner with officers than you do with civilians, and you have to bridge that gap.”
Corvino knows that sometimes people think cops are heavy handed and want to throw their weight around, but makes no apology for holding onto the mindset. “I like the lifestyle,” he said, “I just love being a cop — being able to do something about things that are wrong, like asking people not to litter. As a civilian I bite my lip.”
The importance of acceptance
For those who retire and wish they had a continued law enforcement connection, retirement can be stressful. Dr. Miller emphasized the need to gain perspective on the situation.
“If they’ve said, ‘Look, I’ve put it my 20, it was fun while it lasted but it’s time to move on to something else,’ they’ll likely have an easier time of things,” he said.
And while putting a plan into action can help fend of feelings of boredom or restlessness, Dr. Miller believes that the real difference between an easy retirement and a rocky one may lie in an officer’s ability to let go of law enforcement as an exclusive identity.
“The ones who don’t make the adjustment are usually the ones who can’t find anything to take its place,” said Dr. Miller.
Part of the trick is taking a realistic approach.
“If you really love this job, which I did, it can be a difficult change,” Tetreault said. “But I planned it out. Don’t just leave and think, ‘Oh well, I’ll wait (to start planning).’”
“It takes time,” he said. “It took two years before I started seeing things differently, when I could finally open up a little and be less protective of the police world.” However, he conceded, “I still don’t have my ‘civilian legs.’”
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