Where did all the old cops go?

The seasoned officer is an endangered species, and the decisions that displaced gray hair catalyzed the brain drain threatening the future of policing in the U.S.


The salty silverback is a staple of cop pop culture. He’s Murphy in “Fort Apache: The Bronx,” showing the young ’un how to disarm a frequent flier before de-escalation was a buzz word.

He’s Art Mullen in “Justified,” keeping a lid on an office full of deputies with impulse control issues, and he’s John Cooper in “Southland,” teaching the rookie everything he knows about surviving the greatest show on earth. He's the icon, Sergeant Esterhaus in “Hill Street Blues,” admonishing the troops to be careful out there.

The elder officer personifies sound judgment and a hard-won perspective in a chaotic career field, a composed presence showing newer officers that they don’t have to learn their jobs by making every mistake in person. In real life, the seasoned officer is an endangered species, and the decisions that displaced gray hair catalyzed the brain drain threatening the future of policing in the U.S.

The elder officer personifies sound judgment and a hard-won perspective in a chaotic career field, a composed presence showing newer officers that they don’t have to learn their jobs by making every mistake in person.
The elder officer personifies sound judgment and a hard-won perspective in a chaotic career field, a composed presence showing newer officers that they don’t have to learn their jobs by making every mistake in person. (Getty Images)

Calls to run government agencies like businesses began in earnest in the 1980s, leading to changes in the way budgets are administered, and positions are evaluated. Let’s look at the damage just two of those changes have wrought.

CIVILIANIZING POSITIONS

In the “old days” (and still on TV), there were positions available for patrol officers as they aged out of chasing 20-year-olds over fences. Investigations is a staple, but there were also skilled lateral moves: the “desk sergeant,” courts officers and evidence management, just for starters. Administrators reevaluated these positions with an eye to cost, and in many places redefined them to exclude law enforcement officers, reserving sworn positions only for those imminently in need of a gun.

Still more positions once staffed by sworn officers – photographers, artists, forensics and evidence collections – are now commonly occupied by civilian personnel. Cold cases are pursued by part-time retirees. Burglary and nuisance reports are taken by nonsworn community service officers; they’re cheap. So is private security at a courthouse screening station, if you don’t mind the liability that comes with training measured in days rather than months. A new proposal for traffic enforcement by civilians instead of LEOs shows up in every news cycle.

Civilianizing traditional law enforcement roles and collateral duties looks like progress but it comes with a price unseen on a balance sheet: experienced officers who face increasing pressure to remain in patrol positions leave for a different career field, or retire at the first opportunity. Once that was a problem only in the smallest agencies. It’s not anymore.

RETIREMENT CHANGES

Policing was traditionally a path to a modest middle-class living, with good benefits and a solid retirement. Retirement was the brass ring that made up for low pay, harsh conditions and a shortened life expectancy. It was also the golden handcuffs that kept officers tethered to the job when times were hard and other career fields beckoned. It was a lifeline for a class of workers who are often excluded from participating in Social Security.

That changed around the 2003 recession.

Cities, counties and states slashed retirement benefits, increased retirement ages, and in some cases, abolished their pensions entirely. New hires were enrolled in stock-based defined contribution retirement accounts instead. The promised benefits of this change were twofold: they cost the employers less, and they’re portable, freeing officers from the commitment of 20 or 30 years to keep their retirement contributions.

The promise was a mirage, and not just for the officers. The promised savings to hiring agencies were devoured by the costs of constant hiring and training. Some employers began backtracking on retirement changes or setting up new systems to try to stem the hemorrhage of institutional knowledge and attract new talent for the future.

The changes aren’t coming fast enough to reverse the exodus. Young officers see decades of physically and psychologically draining work ahead of them and move on after a few years, taking their portable retirement accounts with them. Older officers started retiring at the first opportunity. Fewer applicants competed to replace them.

The result in many places is a department without a viable ratio of experienced officers to new ones. In one example, a California officer told me that most of the FTOs in his medium-sized department have less than five years of experience, some of them as little as three. 

When that happens, new officers are robbed of the benefit of observing, training with and working alongside older, more experienced officers who have seen all the things, done a lot of them, and developed perspective about which battles to pick, how to go about them most effectively, and which ones to leave for “Officer Time” to handle.

Decision-making, patience and calm under stress take time and experience to develop. Malcolm Gladwell’s "10,000-hour" rule of mastery would suggest that five years of full-time policing is the baseline beginning of expertise, depending on the types of calls and investigations an officer has handled.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH RUNNING POLICING LIKE A BUSINESS?

That’s a question with a simple answer. A business exists to exchange a service or produce a good, in order to make a profit. Policing, on the contrary, is a public good, not a business: everyone needs it, anyone can use it, and its existence improves society whether they partake directly or not. Like all public goods, the introduction of profit motive into policing isn’t just counterproductive but can also incentivise corruption.

Decision makers miscalculated the downstream effects of the places they chose to cut costs.

In the case of police retirements and reclassifications, they were looking so intently at one business principle that they forgot another: relative value is calculated in part by looking at the potential costs of replacing what you already have. Cities and states undervalued police experience and institutional knowledge, and now they are chasing the replacement for what has been lost, without success.

GOOD JUDGMENT AND BAD JUDGMENT

“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”

Will Rogers said that (or maybe Mark Twain), and he was a wise man, probably because he made plenty of bad decisions on the way to good judgment.

Everybody makes mistakes; it’s just that the stakes are higher when cops make them. That makes a deep well of institutional knowledge in the form of officers with decades on the job one of the most valuable resources a new officer has access to, yet fewer and fewer new officers can have it.

When I worked with high school students in mountain towns haunted by wildfire, every teenage boy who wasn’t headed straight to university wanted to be a firefighter. Hotshots and smokejumpers were heroes every summer, and who doesn’t want to be a hero?

I always nodded and told them to spend their off-season in college every year studying Fire Science, because their bodies wouldn’t let them do hero stuff forever. They should position themselves to be arson investigators and trainers when that day comes. If they wanted to be police officers instead, I wouldn’t know any longer how to advise for the day when old injuries sneak up and silver creeps into their hair.

The positions for those officers have been demolished and it’s ultimately communities and younger officers who are paying the price for that void.

Police1 readers respond

  • Veteran officers CAN retire and come back to work part-time in some cases. But many times retirement systems make it impossible because of having to cover health insurance premiums. It’s as if they don’t want veteran officers mentoring new officers and that is a loss.
  • It starts at the top. After years on the job, officers have seen how well their commanders treat officers and "have their backs" when the going gets tough. A lack of support from management and city government officials takes a toll over time, and officers can't wait to get out at the earliest opportunity. When politicians stop catering to the loudest voices in the community and back their officers to a reasonable degree, the resulting improvement in morale will help with retention. In other words, if they make officers "feel valued" instead of sacrificing them to appease extremists, the "old guys" will be willing to stick around a little longer. Poor treatment from command and politicians frankly makes cops feel like they are not welcome or wanted. I know how silly that may sound, but it's true. I don't know if we will ever get past this era of knee-jerk reactions to cell phone videos and throwing our officers under the bus just because something "looks bad" instead of taking the time to thoroughly investigate. But unless officers are assured that their "bosses" will back them when they're right, officers will continue to head for the exits as soon as they can.

  • Allow agencies to rehire retired officers in civilian positions. There is a wealth of experience, training and education going to waste. Instead, retirees sit home or find jobs that do not utilize everything they have to offer.

  • I think in California, we should re-activate POST certificates for former officers and allow them to take the re-qualification course for 3 weeks, then they can be reinstated to help these agencies raise the younger ones into master patrolmen/women. This could be an emergency response request by the state. Retired/separated former officers get no respect, and new recruits get disrespected. Allow them to be human beings and not robots. More training should be conducted inside the community so the citizens can know who they really are. My training sergeant used to tell me, "You need 3 things to do this job, common sense, a working knowledge of the law and guts!" It's just that simple.

  • Absolutely phenomenal article that is totally accurate! Our department exactly.

  • One scene tells it all: A city being destroyed by arsonists and looters, police stations destroyed and taken over by rioters, innocent citizens being assaulted or killed, property totally destroyed, officers being spit on while standing defenseless in a skirmish line and the city’s police officers were ordered to STAND DOWN and watch everything they took an oath to do: “protect life and property” become a hollow promise to the city they serve. Only those officers know the overwhelming psychological pain it causes. I would not last a week on the streets if I went back to work today.

  • Ironically you could replace police officers with reporters to describe journalism today. The bean counters flushed the award-winning veterans during the 2008 recession. When was the last time you saw a silver hair female or male on the evening news? I covered wars and terrorism overseas and exposed bribery schemes here at home. The police are the last line of defense in a democracy. The alternative is anarchy.

  • Every professional benefits from the amassed life experience of their seasoned co-workers. This unusually accelerated loss of our seasoned veterans adversely impacts the informal yet crucial day-to-day mentoring demonstrated and offered to the upcoming generations, who continue to protect our loved ones and even us as retirees. Fantastic article and insights from others.

  • I worked for an excellent department but yes, changes were made there too. Retirement changed for new officers, benefits such as healthcare became expensive, and seniority positions lessened. I retired mainly because my spouse's job relocated. We moved to a new state and I looked for employment in law enforcement but nobody wants someone in their 50s. I currently work for a county in a completely new field and am quite happy. Many of my law enforcement co-workers have now retired too. It pains me to see what the younger officers are going through these days on the job and on social media. I believe keeping up the benefits and pay for officers is important. Officers put their lives on the line every day and now it seems they have a target on their back. They have to make split-second sometimes life-threatening decisions and if something goes wrong they are now persecuted, jailed and sued. Twenty years and poof, your pension and career are gone. Ridiculous. We need to better protect our officers before we don't have anymore.

  • Our problems in law enforcement and society at large become much worse when the Supremacy Clause become a footnote and states and municipalities started passing laws and ordinances that conflicted with the Constitution and US Code. Suddenly we created a society that says, "So what, I'm going to do what I want to," regardless of what the law says. Thus the breakdown began and law enforcement lost all ability to effectively police communities. Coupled with a lack of personal responsibility from citizens and it's no wonder older officers are leaving. How do you address the exodus? You can't. We've lost that fight. As a platoon commander with 28 years on I have two sergeants with about 10 years on the Job and 22 officers all with two years or less. I can't wait to get out. I love the people I work with but the stupidity that rains down upon us is unrelenting. Everything from a change from UCR to the incredibly cumbersome NIBRS and mandated in-service training on topics that have nothing to do with serving the public or saving lives is crushing the spirit of the profession.

  • As a 41-year veteran still working the street, I am an extreme exception. There are no seasoned people on the street, period. How do you stop it? Unfortunately, it's too late, they are already gone. A product of "Defund" and "Reform" that society is left with.

  • Excellent article! You nailed it right! In the old days, the new recruits have to patrol with someone with a lot of experience (no exception). Now it is the blind leading the blind. 

  • Hanging on to veteran cops, at least those who still remain, will cost jurisdictions a lot more money going forward. The same will apply to getting new recruits. Unfortunately, the damage has been done by the defund crowd and whoever their favorite politicians are. They make those who would normally enter this great profession question whether or not it would be worth it. Like in the 70s and 80s, no one wanted the job. In the 90s you would compete against several hundred for a couple of spots.

  • I want to thank you for this very well-written article. It hit home for me on several points! I'm about to enter my 22nd year of policing...and I'm getting tired. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE my job, but sometimes I don't LIKE it; only a cop would understand that statement. For the life of me, I couldn't imagine having chosen another profession. I am sure every generation feels that things have changed and only have gotten worse, but truly we are in a scary place. When I grew up in NYC you didn't have to like the cops, but you still obeyed them if you still didn't respect them. All that is gone, children have been taught to blindly distrust us. The irony that leaves such a rancid taste in my mouth is that people aren't been taught to fend for themselves either. People have found it easier to complain and blame others, find comfort in being a victim and not finding constructive solutions for themselves. All that subjective put aside we have a very short amount of time left to train up who we can to replace us. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for experience and "road wisdom' that can only come with time on the beat. Today's professional officers might and should likely have more book smarts (psychology, sociology, crisis management, etc., and this is so that they emotionally/mentally survive out there); but there still is no substitute for good ole fashion street smarts. Most departments are trying to survive the socio-political haze that's been created. When I first started I didn't care about pensions and after-career health care...now that is all we can focus on because it is being threatened. Be it budget cuts, defunding, lawsuits, or politics, we are at a critical mass where our leaders need to hit the pause button and say "Where are we going from here?" Remember the quote about knowing history so we don't repeat it...well we have never been here before but it's certainly in the wrong direction. Unless something is done (grassroots, locally, or an inspired political figure) we are in for some troubling times before things get better...and I pray they do.

  • I retired recently after a 40-year career. The next most experienced officer in my unit had 22 years, most had under 10, and we're a state agency that prides itself in keeping top-notch people for a full career. I enjoyed my time, but old injuries and wanting to be able to spend more time with my family were catching up with me. However, there was one set of actions by the agency that encouraged me to leave and is creating a lot of heartburn within the agency, I'm hearing many officers talk about leaving soon because of it. We got a new academy director, who was young and knew all of the buzzwords and plays politics well, he also wasn't respected by line officers when he was one. He quit scheduling FTOs with more experienced officers because "they didn't know the newest approaches." He also decided that the training officers weren't to be trusted to evaluate the people that they trained, he does it himself based on the trainees' diaries. I talked with a recent academy graduate and he feels totally unprepared to work on his own. He doesn't know what he handles right or wrong. He's got all of the buzzword training, but no concept of how to put it into action. And he knows that he just wasted a year of training. He also told me that he was told not to listen to the more experienced officers because we had outdated ideas of how to do the job. In his case, he knows that our experience can help him survive and thrive, and he's asking for that. Not every veteran officer should be followed, there are a few who should have left long before they did. However, most of us are quite capable. Our bodies may no longer be capable of doing much of what we once did, but usually the most important part, the mind, is still functioning quite well. Though there are many things that we need to continue to learn (for many of us the big weakness is computers), we can mentor the young and new officers, and we can help them become effective, and often they can teach us new skills and give us new ideas. Even for those of us who have retired, many would be glad to spend time advising, mentoring and helping. We don't have to still be street officers to be useful.

  • Veteran police officers are a well-experienced and worldly group of people. They became that way partially from the decades of police experience under their belts. I am now a member of this seasoned group since I have 30 years on with my small city police agency. My observations suggest that veteran officers have evaluated the evidence (we are good at that), taken a reading of the toxic political climate in our country with regard to policing, and most have decided that the risks associated with this endeavor far outweigh any benefits or rewards. Most of us realize that we are all just one bad incident away from criminal prosecution and/or a financially devastating civil lawsuit. Government agencies have been weaponized against individual police officers. The laws, court rulings and popular (but wrong) public opinions have created a situation in which every contact or incident is judged based on its outcome without any analysis of the amount of control that the involved officer had over that outcome. Literally, the officer is now being held 100% responsible for the actions of the violent suspect. Add to that the lies, fabrications and false narratives that gas lighting and fake news propaganda that the social control organizations feed to the public, and the truth about what really happened in the incident becomes completely lost.

    If our society really wanted to retain veteran officers, not to mention attract new, high-quality recruits, then the following things must happen:

    1. Reinstate qualified immunity for police officers. If the officer acted reasonably under the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at that time then the officer should be protected from criminal and civil liability.

    2. Hold criminals accountable for their unlawful behavior. Stop this criminal justice reform nonsense. Violent, repeat and pervasive criminal suspects belong in prison and need to stay there for long periods of time. The classic criminologists from centuries past figured it out, and their wisdom applies today. Punishment for crime must be swift, severe and certain. Deterrence will follow. No more excuses for criminals. Our "system" is a joke and the criminals that receive the cream puff treatment are laughing their way to the next crime scene.

    3. Respect for the police should be taught to every child from an early age and reinforced in school. Adults should model respectful behavior toward the police. When so many people in our crumbling society believe it is acceptable to shout insults at the police, make rude hand gestures at us, resist lawful arrest, riot and loot, and even violently attack, ambush and murder the police then very few people want to join our ranks, and most of the veterans are leaving.

    At this point, most veteran officers have realized that the police profession is no longer the same job they signed up for so many decades ago. The days of fastening on the invisible cape and jumping into the next call are over. For many this job has become toxic and self-destructive. The police officer has become the disposable ablation shield for our sickened society. We have involuntarily been assigned the role of scapegoat because society refuses to hold violent criminals accountable for their criminal behavior. Until this all changes the mass exodus from and the sparse recruitment into policing will continue. They have intentionally destroyed the immune system of our civilization, and the death of the organism is sure to follow. Don't panic. Get armed. Get trained. Get prepared. Be vigilant...And good luck!

  • Allowing retired cops to become cops again, bypassing the complete academy where they teach you to run up the street, use hybrid martial arts, etc, is a great way of keeping staffing and experience in the agency. Even if a cop retired 15 years ago, if they can still walk and talk, give them a legal update (90 hours) and put them back to work!

  • Being a police officer was a career reserved for the most honorable and deserving few. For so many of us, it was a moral calling and the stuff of a childhood hero's dreams come true. I worked around the finest, bravest and compassionate people in the world, not always flawless, but dedicated! I certainly understand the cost associated with running a good department, but the cost associated with the failure of a bad department is indisputable. Believing you can replace a 25-30-year LEO veteran with a new hire rookie is just plain foolish. When departments (and society) give you more reasons to leave than stay and serve, then it's an easy decision. It rarely was ever about the money, after all, no one ever signed on to get rich.

  • I greatly respect and appreciate the other comments on this article. My small contribution to the discussion is that I think officers should be given sabbaticals after a number of years on the job. Time away really gives a person a refreshed perspective. Ask any retiree how they felt about a year later. I know I missed the job but when I retired I was ready…and burned out. A sabbatical could even be tied to additional training such as a semester of college in a related course. The retirement system also must be addressed in order to retain and recruit. A real pension is needed, not a 401k subject to volatility.

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