Author: Jessica Terrizzi
Published: Aug 20 2022
Last Edit: Aug 20 2022
(7 min read)
Retirement from the force has several implications for police officer well-being, and, in recent years, there has been a drastic increase in the number of officers retiring. In fact, The Police Executive Research Forum (2021) reports that, between 2020 and 2021, there was a 45% rise in retirement rates among police officers. Due to the constant stress they experience throughout their careers and because of the early age at which police tend to retire (typically around 50), officers experience retirement differently compared to retirees from other professions. Although retirement is a great opportunity for police officers to find other meaningful ways to spend their time, it can also be a daunting and intimidating transition. Retirement means that officers go from working a high stress and time-consuming job, to having a significant, and possibly uncomfortable, amount of free time. Also, being a police officer becomes part of one’s identity, making it difficult to leave this behind when retiring. From my observations, police officers feel a strong connection to their departments, making retirement a complicated process. This may have to do with the culture of law enforcement, and the fact that police officers tend to spend much of their time with other police officers, leaving them feeling left out once they retire.
When officers retire, all of the emotions and experiences that they had pushed down throughout their careers may begin to affect them (Kirschman et al., 2014). Some reports suggest that, because of these emotions and experiences that went unaddressed, there is a higher rate of suicide in retired officers; however, evidence suggests that retired officers are less likely to die by suicide than those who are active duty (Violanti et al., 2012; Violanti et al., 2011). Interestingly, though, Violanti et al. (1998) found that there is an increase in suicide rates right before retirement, and therefore, speculate that there is a period of high distress during this time. These unaddressed experiences and emotions may also manifest in physical ways, as Branl and Smith (2012) report that retired police officers demonstrate poorer health outcomes than those in other occupations. In fact, Kevin Gilmartin, a police psychologist, points out the long-term effects that a career in law enforcement can have on an officer, as well as their family. Gilmartin (2002) states that, “the veteran officer retiring after twenty or more years of service may not even vaguely resemble the positive, committed, and motivated recruit who began the journey. The scars, both physically and emotionally, are all too often clearly visible” (pg. 5). This quote emphasizes the importance of teaching officers how to achieve optimal well-being while they are active duty, instead of waiting until they reach retirement. This is supported by Smith et al. (2021) who suggest that police officers should be exposed to wellness resources both during their careers, and during their retirement.
To further understand the effect that retirement can have on an officer, Carney et al. (2022) interviewed 20 officers about their experiences. It was consequently discovered that there are four components to the well-being of retired police officers: financial well-being, social network, family well-being, and emotional well-being.
Officers within this study discussed some concerns regarding their financial stability, but this differed depending on individual factors such as divorce. Gilmartin (2002) also mentions financial well-being and implies that it is important for officers to understand their finances throughout their careers to ensure a sense of control over this during retirement.
Social network is defined as a factor of well-being in this context, as some of the officers endorsed feelings of loneliness and isolation. Cameron and Griffiths (2016) also found, through interviewing retired officers, that isolation was an issue for this population due to being disconnected from their department.
Officers discussed rediscovering their roles within their families and figuring out how to spend their spare time with their loved ones. Kirschman et al. (2014) also points out that family is a crucial factor in officer retirement, considering the early age at which officers tend to retire. For example, officers’ significant others may still be actively engaged in their career, leaving the officer struggling to find their own purpose.
Lastly, emotional well-being was a prevalent theme in Carney’s et al. (2022) study, which encompasses the several emotions identified by officers after retirement. Some officers indicated feeling distressed and sad about the transition, or angry at having to retire earlier than they wanted. Many positive emotions were expressed as well, though, such as relief and excitement at the opportunity to spend time with loved ones, and to engage in hobbies.
Carney’s et al. (2022) findings emphasize the importance of providing retired officers with access to resources associated with wellness. It seems that, through engaging with these resources, officers can ensure that their needs are being met in all domains. To illustrate, evidence suggests that by promoting resilience within active-duty officers, potentially through wellness programs, police officers may have a better experience when they retire. As stated by Parnaby and Broll (2020), resilience plays a strong role in the life satisfaction of retired police officers. Additionally, when officers are in the process of retiring, there are a variety of ways for them to lessen their stress, and to rediscover aspects of the job that provided them with fulfillment. This is important because, in general, psychological health is positively influenced by engaging in meaningful, or enjoyable, activities. Kirschman et al. (2014) suggest that officers accomplish this through activities such as mentoring younger officers, participating in the local citizen’s academy, engaging with the police officer’s association, or joining a peer support group. A participant in Carney’s et al. (2019) study echoes this, and states that it is crucial for officers to have a plan when it comes to retiring. This can mean gradually preparing oneself for retirement, finding a new job, or preparing a meaningful activity to participate in upon retirement. If interested in reading more about this, Kinnaird (2019) offers a comprehensive list of recommendations here, as well as a valuable perspective on police officer retirement.
Violanti et al. (1998) found that there is an increase in suicide rates right before retirement, and therefore, speculate that there is a period of high distress during this time.
Retirement for police officers is an overall positive experience, as they are given a break from the anxiety and stress of a career in law enforcement. Despite having some potential residual effects from the career, officers can use this time spend time engaging in activities that they enjoy and prioritizing their loved ones. To improve officer experiences with retirement even more, it is suggested that they are given access to wellness related resources from the start of their careers. Ultimately, by allowing officers to practice these skills during their time on the force, and by raising awareness regarding wellness, police officer wellbeing can be improved throughout their careers, and after retirement.
Jessica Terrizzi, M.A.
Ph.D Student in Counseling Psychology
Jess is a 4th year doctoral student at the University of Akron. She has a strong interest in law enforcement due to her family’s extensive background in policework. Through experiences with family and friends who are in this field, Jess has recognized a need for applying psychology to law enforcement through both research and the development of wellness programs. Jess also has an interest in researching both masculinity and trauma, and plans on working with police officers in the clinical setting.
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