Who are you without the badge?
Cops often let the job define them, but establishing an identity outside policing is essential for planning for law enforcement retirement
I recently finished watching the final season of one of my favorite police procedurals: Bosch. I started watching the show a couple of years ago on the recommendation of a well-respected law enforcement officer and trainer. I was instantly hooked and found myself binge-watching.
Bosch shows the grittiness of the job and the political games being played by administrators and elected officials. Detective Harry Bosch is one of those super-dedicated Hollywood cops who will stop at nothing for justice, the kind prone to burnout, brooding and an overly cynical point of view. Despite the not-always-realistic drama, however, we can glean several things from this show.
In the final episode, Bosch, a seasoned LAPD detective, has finally had it with the bureaucracy, hypocrisy and lack of justice for victims. He resigns from the force to become a private detective. As Bosch hands Chief Irving his badge and says he is done, Irving bluntly asks him, “Who are you going to be without a badge?”
“I’m going to find out,” Bosch responds.
While that makes for good television drama, it makes for a poor retirement plan.
So, I ask all of you, who are you without your badge? I want you to start thinking about this right now, no matter where you are in your career. Whether you’re new to law enforcement or a seasoned veteran, who are you without your badge? Who have you become? Who do you see in the mirror? Who are you?
Beyond the Job
Think back to when you first decided to become a cop. Think about the friends in your life, the people around you, the hobbies, the things you did for fun. What has changed? I suspect many of you have a different set of friends – most of whom are probably law enforcement officers – and you do things and talk about things that are job-related.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having work friendships and talking shop. The issue is when that is all you have – when your whole life centers around the job. When the job has permeated every aspect of your life, you have given up hobbies, given up pre-law enforcement friendships and essentially changed who you are. If all you have is your job, if your job is the only thing that defines you, who are you without the job?
When you meet someone new, they usually ask what you do for a living. That makes sense because two-thirds of our lives are spent working; our identities are wrapped up in work. Society ingrains in us the idea that a person is what they do. But we have the power to not let the job define and control us, to have other things that define us as well.
Think about that for a moment. I’m not talking about the same played out concept of “work-life balance.” There is always so much lip service given to work-life balance, and unfortunately too often, that’s what it is – lip service. Too many agencies invest nothing in their people, cancel days off, have mandatory 12-hour shifts, mandatory overtime, and then “show they care” with a three-minute video on wellness. But even if you work at a great agency invested in your wellness, you’re going to have to be the captain of your own ship. You have to know your limitations and your struggles and plan vacations, develop healthy outlets like working out, and maintain healthy habits such as eating right and practicing mindfulness.
But going beyond that, you need to regain your identity as a human being who is defined not only by their job, but by their interests, their relationships and their values. If all you have is the job, at the end of the day, at the end of your career, what do you do then?
So often, officers don’t think about this until it is too late. They retire after 20 or 25 years and don’t know what to do or who they are. Sadly, we lose some to suicide, especially in the first one to three years after retirement. They have given so much to their job, they have nothing left for themselves. They never processed the stress and trauma of the job and now it all comes full force at them with no buffers – no Code 3, no caffeine, no adrenaline rush. All their relationships were work-related and now gone. They are alone. They are without an identity, and sadly some feel without a purpose.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Reconnect with Yourself
Whether you are new, mid-career or coming to the end of your career, now is the time to start reconnecting with yourself. This is a good time to start evaluating who you are.
Start by diversifying your friendships. You don’t have to give up friendships, but you should start thinking about reconnecting with civilian friends you lost connections with or try to meet some new civilian friends. Why civilian friends? Because you are forced to talk about other things than police work. Outside friends means outside interests in the things they do for work and play.
Civilian friends may help to lower your stress levels by freeing you and your family from law enforcement shop talk. They can also help you build an identity outside law enforcement. You won’t always be a cop, and many officers take on a second career after leaving the force. Remember what we discussed early on about who you are? That you are more than your badge, your job? Being able to explore other careers, other hobbies, other people will all create more options for you.
For you newly minted officers out there, think about your career path and what you want out of your career. If one day you wake up and say, “I don’t want to be a cop anymore,” what will be your second career? I know that is a gut punch but don’t be overconfident about thinking you’ll be a cop for 20 or 25 years. In today’s climate, that is less and less likely. Besides the reality of injuries, the political landscape and the public itself may guide you away from a policing career. Not to mention, even after 25 years many officers still can, want and even need to work.
Always have a plan B and C. Take advantage of your agency’s educational assistance to earn a bachelor or master’s degree. Recently I’ve noticed some law enforcement officers going back to school and earning counseling degrees to help their fellow brothers and sisters. They earn the degree while on the job, pick up a little part-time counseling, and then have a full-time gig when they pull the pin on retirement. Others pursue hobbies that have turned into careers, such as carpentry, plumbing and other trades. Still others teach college courses or instruct at the academy. The point: Start thinking about your future because your future starts today, not when you retire.
For the seasoned officers and those closer to pulling the pin, there is still time to get your ducks in a row. You should be looking at career options after policing because we all know that three to four weeks post-retirement, golfing, tennis, fishing and putzing around the house will get old. There will be no more running code, no late-night caffeine rush, no hanging out after work.
Like it or not, we are all creatures of habit. We don’t like change imposed on us. So, create the change yourself. Volunteer at your church, pick up a part-time gig, or do what my good friend’s father does – volunteer for Toys for Tots. You need to stay busy.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, no matter where you’re at in your career, start talking about your stress and dealing with your “highlight reels” now – not when you retire. You don’t want to be dealing with that burden on your shoulders by yourself. Retirement is supposed to be relaxing, not traumatic.
So, start by reassessing what you enjoy and what makes you satisfied. What would you like to learn more about? If you hadn’t become a cop, what would you have done for a career? It is never too late to pick up a new career, new interests, new friends and a new outlook on life. Just remember to allow yourself to make mistakes, be open to new challenges and reconnect with the person you were before you became a cop.