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Navigating pension reform: The future of law enforcement compensation

As pension reforms raise the retirement age, police officers encounter greater physical demands — here are strategies for agencies to address these challenges


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This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it — creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

By Captain Andrew Holt

For over a decade, law enforcement organizations across the country have been preparing for the impacts of public employee pension reform. Historically, police pensions symbolized appreciation and provided a tangible reward for officers who dedicated their lives to ensuring public safety, often at great personal risk. The promise was clear: demonstrate courage and retire young and comfortably. However, several states are now navigating significant changes to the pension landscape, including raising the minimum retirement age to the mid to late fifties and reducing the maximum financial benefits for retirees. California, Illinois and Texas are among the states currently grappling with various stages of these pension reform challenges.

Reformers are addressing the pressing concerns of financial sustainability, yet altering retirement formulas for police has set in motion a cascade of multifaceted challenges and implications for first responders. While this article acknowledges the health and financial impacts that will unfold in the aftermath of pension reform, it does not intend to be condemnatory, as such criticism has been discussed extensively. Instead, this serves as a gentle reminder that as post-pension reform becomes the norm, we are approaching a time when officers in their mid to late fifties will constitute a significant portion of our workforce. Unlike today, where it is uncommon for employees to extend their careers by seven years due to personal circumstances such as divorce or funding their children’s education, this will be the new standard. We will see a force of fifty-something police officers, some of whom may be limping toward service retirements at a stage in life when their predecessors were pursuing new passions.

Solutions to the challenges posed by pension reform won’t be straightforward. Succession planning today often depends on administrative teams comprised of veteran employees tasked with laying the groundwork for a future they won’t personally benefit from—a metaphorical planting of trees under which they will never sit. The easier option for current police leaders might be to simply navigate around the “giant mattress” obstructing the road, kicking up dust and leaving only well wishes for those who must deal with the ensuing congestion. However, it has never been more crucial to invest in the future of employees and the organization by embracing this challenge as their own and actively seeking solutions.

This discussion on pension reform is intended to provide context as we explore potential solutions. While some strategies might be straightforward, this article does not offer a step-by-step guide on how to remove the proverbial mattress from the road. Instead, it serves as a reminder of our responsibility to confront today’s challenges to forge a clearer, less obstructed path for the future.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Recent pension reform in California was conceived with the commendable goal of rectifying underfunding issues and ensuring long-term sustainability. However, it inadvertently overlooked critical considerations that law enforcement agencies now face in sustaining traditional services. Detractors of these changes argue that the focus was too narrowly placed on financial aspects, neglecting fundamental factors such as the physical challenges officers encounter in their mid-fifties. These oversights could have significant implications for the ability of law enforcement to maintain the level of service and safety historically provided.

Exploring the activity and survivability of police officers highlights the physical demands of policing, which contribute to elevated mortality rates and shorter retirements. Texas’s SB321, while not mandating a deferral of retirement eligibility to later years, changes the nature of retirement funding. It shifts the burden onto the employee by requiring them to invest in an IRA-like fund, a move aimed at addressing financial sustainability but potentially compounding the physical and financial challenges faced by officers. [1]

Illinois’ 2019 pension reforms, which were recently upheld by the state’s Supreme Court, involve the consolidation of police and fire pension funds. This approach protects the investments of those already employed while significantly reducing benefits for new employees. [2] Whether through direct increases in retirement age, as seen in California, or indirectly by reducing benefits — thereby encouraging police officers to work longer — the financial impacts are only part of the issue. These reforms address fiscal sustainability but also raise concerns about the long-term well-being and morale of the workforce, potentially affecting the delivery of essential public safety services.

The life expectancy of police officers, at around 66 years, is significantly lower than the U.S. average. [3] This statistic underscores the challenges posed by pension reform initiatives that extend retirement ages. Officers may find themselves physically unable to maintain necessary performance levels, raising concerns about the efficacy and safety of an aging workforce. Additionally, intertwined with issues of longevity is the necessity of keeping older officers engaged, as studies have identified a discernible “disengagement stage” in the later phases of one’s career. [4] Stress-related illnesses and mental health challenges further compound these issues, potentially leading to declines in job satisfaction and increased absenteeism. This complex situation highlights the need for thoughtful consideration of the physical and psychological impacts of extending working years for law enforcement personnel.

The concerns regarding health and disengagement among police officers are likely to further strain the workers’ compensation system, potentially leading to an upsurge in claims and disability retirements. The possibility of increased stress retirements and the potential for fraudulent claims add layers of complexity to an already taxed workers’ compensation system. According to 2023 reporting by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there has been a rising trend in non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses within professions categorized as “Justice, Public Order and Safety Activities.” [5] Various factors could be contributing to this increase, though it’s unlikely that recent pension reforms have had a significant impact yet, as they haven’t been in effect long enough to influence current statistics significantly. However, there remains a looming concern that occupational injuries may continue to rise at extraordinary levels as post-reform employees age, particularly as they approach their fifties. This issue highlights the need for proactive measures to address the potential long-term consequences of extending working years under new pension reforms.

Previous studies have shown that medical spending increases by over 100% between the ages of forty-five and sixty-four. [6] This increase suggests that every additional year after fifty is likely to exacerbate a systematic and predictable pattern of more injuries and associated costs. Furthermore, this pattern does not account for the potential surge in post-reform claims for ailments such as hernias, cancer, and back injuries, where age may be a factor. These conditions are often considered presumptive for public safety employees in some states, meaning they are generally accepted as work-related due to the nature of the job.

As a result, any cost savings achieved through pension reform could be offset by excess costs related to medical care, overtime, civil suits, and higher insurance premiums. These expenses will ultimately be the responsibility of individual public safety organizations, potentially negating the financial benefits intended by pension reforms. This underscores the need for a more holistic approach to reform that considers not only the financial sustainability of pension systems but also the long-term health and welfare of the employees affected.

Promotional paradox

It doesn’t end there. Decreased compensation limits are likely to have a direct impact on succession planning, specifically promotional opportunities for higher-ranking executive positions.

California stands out with one of the country’s largest public employee pension systems, CAL-PERS. The system boasted compensation limits set at $330,000 a year for pre-reform employees; an attractive benefit for an “at will” leader looking to guide their organization and be well compensated into retirement. This is in stark contrast to employees hired after the state’s California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act in 2013, who have their retirement compensation capped at $175,250 per year. [7] An employee hired after 2013, in the latter stages of their career would have likely maxed out retirement benefits years ago as a large percentage of California police agencies offer compensation packages that could easily reach caps at either the officer or sergeant rank.

Although one should be skeptical of anyone promoting for the sole purpose of making more money, the financial incentive of increasing one’s retirement income has always been the silver lining of incurring the added responsibility and liability that comes with executive leadership. As one Northern California Fire Services Executive Manager stated, “I think we will see a decline in qualified candidates applying for executive positions. A couple of years of higher pay isn’t worth the stress, especially if you become an at-will employee.” Simply put, when you are in the golden years of your career, the proverbial carrot of more money does not ease the burden like it used to, especially when you maxed out your retirement income years ago and your final walk-out will bring an instant fifty percent pay cut.

Some agencies may offer higher salaries to potential candidates to compensate for the reduced retirement benefits, a strategy likely to be more feasible for wealthier agencies. This could deepen existing inequalities in policing, similar to disparities seen in college sports where well-funded universities can attract top recruits by offering lucrative financial packages. This comparison draws on the Supreme Court decision in National Collegiate Athletic Assn. v. Alston, which allowed student-athletes to earn from their name, image, and likeness (NIL), potentially exacerbating the gap between rich and poor institutions. [8]

In the realm of law enforcement, wealthier police organizations with greater revenue and stability are better positioned to recruit top leadership candidates through higher pay or alternative compensation packages. Conversely, less affluent communities might struggle to afford the quality leadership necessary to address challenges like instability and higher crime rates, which are often concentrated in disadvantaged, economically distressed areas. [9] This disparity could hinder effective policing and community safety in areas that need it the most, underscoring the need for balanced reforms that consider the wide-ranging impacts on all communities.

Charting our course

In the absence of a sudden financial windfall, it is unlikely that future pension reform initiatives will restore states to their former pension thresholds. Consequently, agencies must seek sustainable and realistic solutions elsewhere. One basic strategy could involve creating roles specifically tailored for older officers, such as community engagement divisions or court liaison positions, which would keep them engaged but out of the more physically demanding patrol duties.

More advanced solutions could include strategic investments in technology aimed at reducing the physical demands of policing and enhancing officer wellness. This could involve the use of assistive devices, advanced communications tools, or health monitoring systems that help maintain the physical and mental health of the force.

Moreover, finding new financial strategies to reward tenured staff and reduce inequities is essential. This might include additional layers of deferred compensation, performance bonuses, or other benefits that recognize the value and experience of long-serving officers. Our success in these endeavors will depend on our ability to effectively integrate technology in enhancing engagement and wellness initiatives, ensuring that our workforce remains capable, motivated, and healthy.

While some nostalgic employees may view the integration of technology in policing with skepticism, fearing that it could replace human officers with AI robots and transform police chiefs into IT specialists focused on maintaining systems, the true potential of technology in law enforcement lies elsewhere. Rather than replacing personnel, the goal should be to complement and enhance the strengths of human officers by automating mundane, taxing, and repetitive tasks.

Technologies like surveillance systems and drones provide excellent examples of how to create alternative service options for older employees. These tools can allow them to contribute significantly in less physically demanding roles such as investigations, crime analysis, traffic enforcement, search and rescue, and suspect apprehension. By leveraging technology in these areas, agencies can maintain the invaluable human element of policing while significantly reducing the physical strain on officers, thereby extending their careers and enhancing their contributions to community safety. This approach not only preserves the roles of experienced officers but also ensures that policing remains a dynamic and human-centered profession.

Technology-driven wellness initiatives could indeed serve as a crucial element in addressing the complex health-related concerns of law enforcement personnel, such as illness, accidents, suicides, and stress-related diseases. While the concept of jet-propelled, bio-mechatronic, bullet-repellent exoskeletons remains a fixture of science fiction, the technology currently available still holds significant promise for improving officer wellness.

Forward-thinking agencies are already investing in robust wellness programs that focus on health, nutrition, meditation and on-duty workout routines. These initiatives aim to enhance physical and mental well-being, which is crucial in a profession that demands high levels of physical readiness and emotional resilience.

Moreover, some agencies are forming partnerships with third-party health organizations to leverage advancements in medical technology. These collaborations may involve cardiometabolic screening, advanced detection of cardiovascular biomarkers and cardiopulmonary exercise testing. Such technologies help to identify early indicators of disease in first responders, enabling preventative measures that can lead to longer, healthier careers.

Addressing the critical issues of cardiac health for police officers

Agencies are making significant strides in wellness by incorporating advanced diagnostic technologies like blood testing and metabolic assessments to customize dietary plans and address chemical imbalances, such as testosterone deficiencies. These initiatives demonstrate how tailored health interventions can enhance officer wellness by directly addressing individual health needs.

To emulate these successful programs, organizations should consider adopting or expanding similar strategies and partnerships to enhance their health initiatives or establish new wellness programs. While implementing these options might initially seem overwhelming and costly, starting small can lead to significant benefits. For example, a mid-sized agency in California began its wellness journey with just a few treadmills. This modest start laid the foundation for subsequent expansion into a comprehensive partnership with a local healthcare facility and a cryotherapy clinic.

This gradual approach not only made the wellness program more manageable and affordable but also demonstrated its effectiveness. Employees, even those who were initially reluctant to engage in traditional workout routines, reported benefits from cryotherapy, such as reduced inflammation, joint pain, and stress. This shows that diverse wellness options can cater to different preferences and needs, making them more inclusive and effective. Agencies looking to improve the health and well-being of their employees might consider similar phased approaches, starting with simple, low-cost interventions and expanding as results and resources permit.

Minimizing inequality

Pension reform has the potential to exacerbate inequality among police organizations, as agencies with the financial resources to invest in technology and wellness products are better positioned to navigate associated challenges. Fortunately, there are resources and grants available for organizations looking to enhance their wellness programs. Many agencies are already benefiting from officer wellness and mental health grant programs that allow for a broad range of uses, providing opportunities to expand their resources. Some have utilized these funds to purchase fitness equipment and employee counseling services, both of which can contribute to healthier employees, a reduction in job-related injuries, and an increase in morale. Research supports this approach, showing that a focus on fitness increases cardiovascular health, strength, endurance, and flexibility, and is associated with a lower prevalence of depression, chronic diseases, and other health conditions. [10]

In addition to addressing the health-related challenges posed by pension reform, cities that are able should demonstrate flexibility in their financial strategies to enhance the appeal of executive leadership positions. Achieving this goal requires a departure from traditional fiscal conservatism, with consideration given to implementing higher salary structures for executive roles. Advocates for this change should emphasize the tangible costs associated with suboptimal leadership and attrition, highlighting the long-term benefits of investing in capable and experienced leaders. Furthermore, organizations may exercise creativity by exploring alternative compensation packages to attract and retain top talent.

Deferred compensation is one tool organizations can use to bridge the gap between the salaries of executives post-pension reform and what their predecessors earned. Strategies might include graduated employer contributions to deferred annuities or retirement savings plans, such as 457 and 401(k) plans, which offer valuable tax benefits and demonstrate a commitment to the overall well-being and financial security of executive leadership. It is acknowledged that this is easier said than done. In this industry, not all things are created equal, and an organization’s ability to weather financial challenges is heavily influenced by the revenue generated by the community it serves. Fortunately, there are multiple viable options to consider.


While implementing modern technology, quality wellness programs and increasing financial incentives for executives are not exhaustive solutions to the identified challenges, the objective is to encourage a commitment to addressing these issues creatively and collaboratively. Consider the analogy of a mattress in the roadway: the more hands on the mattress, the easier it is to move. If you have ideas, share them. This journey requires ongoing collaboration, dialogue, innovation, and a steadfast dedication to the wellbeing of our officers and the resilience of our profession.

Although California may be an outlier in the aggressiveness of its reforms, others should take notice — if their pension plans are in deficit, similar proposals may emerge. These could include lowering benefits, increasing retirement ages, and introducing new challenges for police leadership. Preparing now for these alternatives means that when they become law, agencies will already be equipped to handle the associated budgetary, health, and wellness issues.


1. Gilroy L, Gassenberger S, Christensen Z. Landmark Texas Pension Reform Law Tackles Funding Issues, Secures Employees’ Retirement Benefits. Reason Foundation. June 19, 2021. Accessed February 3, 2024.

2. Vinicky A. Illinois Supreme Court Upholds Law Consolidating Police, Firefighter Pensions. WTTW News. January 19, 2024.

3. Violanti JM, et al. Life expectancy in police officers: A comparison with the US general population. Int J Emerg Ment Health. 2013;15(4):217.

4. McElroy JC, Morrow PC, Wardlow TR. A career stage analysis of police officer work commitment. J Crim Justice. 1999;27(6):507-516.

5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. State Occupational Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities. October 18, 2022.

6. PGPF - Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Medical Spending Grows with Age. September 3, 2019.

7. Ostrander R. 2023 Compensation Limits for Classic and PEPRA Members. CALPERS, Sacramento, CA.

8. Moore T. Nick Saban, Kirby Smart Agree On This: The Epidemic Of NIL Deals Is Worse Than Turnovers. Forbes Magazine. July 20, 2022.

9. Heller SB, Jacob BA, Ludwig J. Family income, neighborhood poverty, and crime. In: Controlling crime: Strategies and tradeoffs. University of Chicago Press; 2010:419-459.

10. American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. 10th ed. Wolters Kluwer; 2018.

About the author

Captain Andrew Holt holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from California State University at Northridge and is a 2024 graduate of California POST’s Command College program. Andrew has been in law enforcement since 2004, holding specialized assignments which include several years as a gang violence and narcotics detective. His management experience includes professional standards, personnel and training and more. He currently oversees field operations for the Union City Police Department in the San Francisco, Bay Area.