POLICE RETIREMENT – THE FINAL TRAUMA
A retired police officer died in his home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 62, a military veteran, and had served 26 years as a police officer, retiring in 1998. It was learned that he lived alone and could find no one that could stay at the hospital that day with him, a requirement, for routine surgery on his foot. He had also lost much of his retirement savings in the recent stock crash and had recently been robbed and assaulted, considered a humiliation by many cops. An officer at the nearby station had agreed to take him and drop him off and then return to pick him up, but the retiree was afraid the officer wouldn’t be able to stay through the procedure. He was afraid to ask.
“Police are control freaks,” said one mourner. “We are. We think we have control over our lives, but we don’t. I think Eddie felt he was losing control over his.” It was noted that active police officers “spend inordinate amounts of time together, protecting each others lives while protecting others, and then go out and spend time with each other again.” Focusing on retirees, the police chaplain noted, “We need to reach out to each other. We need to reach out to our retirees like Ed. … Ed died alone. But Ed was never alone. God was always by his side.”
The rate of suicides for retirees is no doubt higher than it should be, yet departments do little to prevent this. Why? The attitude is one of “Out of sight, out of mind.” The retiree is no longer the police agency’s problem once they retire.
The result is that officers are lost, with minimal or shallow plans on what to do–for many, security management jobs become unsatisfying, great promises made by potential employers before retirement go unfulfilled, and hunting and fishing every day become impossible. Visits to the old office seem to lose their luster, and the “family” seems to be withdrawing. Anxiety hits unexpectedly, often due to the change of pace and the decades of unresolved trauma.
The retiree may have spousal problems, drink, fall into depression–and commit suicide.
We must convince departments that it is to THEIR benefit to have pre-retirement programs. Unions that continue to collect dues from retirees must be convinced of their obligation to serve them following retirement.
The benefits are in having acting employees who can look ahead and see the joys of police retirement as exemplified by living models, not by bitter shells. Active officers need to be shown the advantages of saving and cashing in sick leave and vacation upon retirement, maintaining good mental and physical health, and following the steps to prepare early for a wise and healthy retirement.
Retirement preparation shouldn’t be a simple eight hours of paper-completion before throwing the officer out the front door. It should include the elements of Badge of Life’s “Emotional Self-Care (ESC) Training“–all as part of ensuring a healthy workforce for a department, whether retiring or not!
Few departments recognize the tremendous impact retirement in general has on an officer. From practically the first day in the academy, a cadet can tell you roughly when they will retire. At varying times during their careers, they will maintain a focus on that approximate date, which will become more and more concrete as they grow closer to it.
It has been suggested, however, that one of the most vulnerable time for a police officer is that period nearing retirement and the first year or two after. Before actual retirement comes uncertainty—the uniform will be hung up for the last time. More pressing on the officer may be financial fears, depending on pension arrangements and individual debts. The possibilities of employment because of age and disability (in a real world) may be lessened. Far too many departments still stubbornly refuse to recognize–at all–the role of emotional trauma on police officers and make the disability and eventual departure a living nightmare.
Officers cling to the belief, in part based on truth, that they are part of a big “family” during their careers. When they retire, they suddenly lose that “family.” In time, they become a nuisance when they show up at their old office to join in coffee breaks. They are relegated to “retiree groups” that render some camaraderie but can never equal the strong feeling of “family” they once felt wearing the badge.
Far too many take with them, into retirement, the years and decades of unresolved trauma and, suddenly alone, begin to suffer the symptoms of postraumatic stress disorder or similar anxiety symptoms. Lost and confused, they attempt to stifle such feelings, not understanding these feelings are appearing “now.”
Some drink. Others lose relationships or engage in reckless behaviors. Some isolate and slide into depression. Average life expectancies are low, for retired officers. A number, as the figures show, choose to simply end it early.
What is that telling us? That we have successfully put a band aid on their wounds–until we could sweep them away, forgotten.
WHAT ARE THE ACTUAL RETIREE SUICIDE NUMBERS?
Far too much misinformation has been spread about the number and rate of police retiree suicides. In reality, the figures are unknown and considerable research needs to be done. They move, disperse into the community, lose touch with their departments, and as they reach advanced ages they often pass on and news of their passing escapes notice beyond the local area. No one can say with certainty how many police retirees are even out there. There are conflicting studies and opinions on this subject. Researchers like Violanti believe that “police officers continue to experience the residual of trauma after separating from police service.” This is clear, but considerable research would be needed to come to any kind of valid conclusion in this area–it would be difficult, at best. One detailed article on this can be found at Police Retiree Suicides.
THE VALUE OF THE RETIREE
There must be an investment in the welfare of retirees as well as active duty officers, including mental health presentations. There are a variety of ways this can be done–through the department, the union, benevolent associations, clubs, etc. There is no reason we can think of that departments should be unwilling to share their mental health/suicide prevention programs and information with retirees (so that they can then share them with one another).
The great advantage of using Retirees for academy and squad presentations on suicide prevention and mental health is that they are unhindered by peer pressure and the “Code.” They don’t face the problem described by one academy instructor who said he was reluctant to really share of himself and his most helpful (i.e., vulnerable) experiences out of fear he might be working some day with members of the audience.
Beyond the mere telling of “stories,” it is our experience that the retiree has immeasurable value because, after preparation, he/she can talk about what police work really is and explain trauma at a level that active officers are reluctant to do. The retiree is no longer “part of the system.” The retiree talks with one goal in mind–the best interest of his audience, be it one or many.
PEER SUPPORT AND POLICE RETIREES: Additionally, if a department has a peer support officer program in effect, it seems only logical and of minimal expense to also share that program’s criteria so that retiree organizations can establish a “contact system” or “telephone tree” by which word can be passed or contacts made in the event a retiree is in distress or knows of one to whom aid might be given.
Police retirees–a forgotten treasure.