The last call: Reflections on retirement

One day we’re in this incredibly stable job with friends, enemies, and a mission — the next day we’re one of 'them' ...just another citizen


As I was finishing up in the range I heard one of my guys on the radio: “He’s running from me, we’re in a foot pursuit, southbound through the park!” As the radio came alive with units responding, I ran to my car, still loading one of my magazines. I got on my portable: “Sam-33 I’m responding from the PD!” The nineteen year old male was wanted on warrants and had committed some additional misdemeanor offenses and now he was on the run.

I was only two blocks away; the sun was shining, the traffic was light, it was a great day for a foot pursuit. I flipped on my red lights and was heading into the area when I heard the full description: white male, tall, thin, wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and a pink Mohawk.

A pink Mohawk?! Did I hear that right? This was too good to be true. I parked my squad car on the street and bailed out into the back yards, grateful that I work out as much as I do. Besides, how hard was it going to be to find a guy with a pink Mohawk?

We never found him, but we know who he is. There will be another warrant for him by the end of the week; one with a really high bond thanks to a local judge who doesn’t tolerate people running from the cops. But I won’t be there when the warrant is served. I won’t get to help arrest him or hang out in the lock up when they bring him in, just to comment on that pink Mohawk. I won’t get to tell my guys “Good Job!” or sit with them while we laugh and recount the “man hunt” through the back yards of that suburban neighborhood, looking for a pink tuft of hair sticking out of someone’s hedges. By the time that warrant is signed, I won’t be their sergeant anymore; I won’t even be a cop.

I’ll be...retired.

When I got hired in 1980, I first heard the statistic that cops tend to die within the first five years of retirement. I didn’t give that LEAA study much thought though. After all, I was never going to retire. I was going to die in that uniform, either in the line of duty or of old age, but I was certainly never going to retire. As I got older, the thought of retirement became more intriguing, but as the actual date got close it became somewhat scary. What is it that frightens us about retirement? Separation from the group, a loss of identity, knowledge that we’ll miss the action, and general anxiety about the future.

One day we’re in this incredibly stable job with friends, enemies, and a mission — the next day we’re one of “them,” just another citizen. I’m very fortunate because I’ll still be part of the profession. I’ll be training and writing, I’ll continue to carry a gun every where I go, I’ll still get to hang out with other crimefighters and hear their stories and tell a few of my own.

No matter what your thoughts are about your own retirement, just make sure you have a plan.

Meet with your pension reps, human resources, and any other people essential to your retirement income and benefits as early as possible. I discovered that retirement is more complicated that I had anticipated, and I’m glad that I had the extra time to look into various options. Announce your retirement date at least a month or so in advance. This gives you, your family, and your co-workers time to get used to the idea of your departure from the organization. It also gives the agency time to plan for your replacement. Don’t retire in anger or frustration; if it all possible, leave on your own terms. Try to resolve any issues you have with the agency or individual co-workers, make peace, try to forgive those who may have wronged you, and certainly forgive yourself for any mistakes you’ve made over the years. Every retiring veteran is watched by those rookies who wonder what it must be like to retire; make a deliberate effort to be a role model for them and for everyone else in the agency. Finally, enjoy the celebration, be proud of what you’ve accomplished, and look toward the future. You’ve earned it!

I ended my last call on the street with mud on my boots, grass stains on my pants, both of my pistols still dirty from time in the range (don’t worry, they got cleaned the minute I got home) and a big smile on my face.

A couple of hours later, when I reluctantly pulled into the police department parking lot I sat in the cockpit of that black and white a long time. I ran my hand over the radio console, the overhead light controls, the siren buttons, the computer screen, the steering wheel. I canted the rear view mirror toward me and looked at my reflection…there she was, a cop. A veteran police officer, a sergeant, a crimefighter. The same girl who had decided in junior high (circa 1973) that being a police officer was the career for her.

We all joke about retirement and how on our last day we’ll just leave that squad car parked in the middle of the street, still running, while we run away as fast as we can, but that’s not really true. When the moment came for me to get out that car for the final time, it took an amazing effort to make myself to do it. I walked slowly into the station, trying not to make eye contact with people lest I burst into tears like a little girl. I hung around a long time, just soaking up the atmosphere, making myself remember every little detail.

Then I changed out of my uniform, packed up my gear, and headed home. To a new life as a full time trainer, writer, wife and mom; but I’ll always be a cop... always.

About the author

Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy's website at www.femaleforces.com.

Contact Betsy Smith and Follow Betsy on Twitter

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