Live Long and Prosper: Planning for Retirement from Policing

Regardless of where you are in your law enforcement career, there's no better time than the present to give at least a little bit of thought to the future—a future following your time in policing.

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Newsflash: police officers across America are leaving the ranks in record numbers.

Amid the increasingly pervasive anti-police rhetoric from a small—but loud—segment of the political class and the general public—officers across the country are leaving the profession long before they've reached the end of their career.

In many places, early retirements and sudden resignations among relatively young officers have soared.

According to a survey released by Police Executive Research Forum earlier this year, there was a 45% increase in police officer retirement rate in 2020-21 compared to the previous year.

PERF said in the executive summary of the findings that "in small departments, a small number of retirements may result in a high percentage increase in the retirement rate. But even in the largest agencies, with 500 or more officers, the retirement rate increased by 27%."

One of the respondents to the survey told PERF, "Most of our officers who left did not leave for another department. They left the profession."

With an increasing number of law enforcement officers leaving the profession before they're fully vested in their public pension benefits, now is a good time for officers contemplating retirement to give some thought to what may lie on the horizon.

Looking to Land

About a week and a half after the Wright Brothers invented the thing, I wanted to fly airplanes. I did, indeed, learn how to fly but learned along the way that flying wasn't going to be my profession—one of my instructors once told me, "If you love flying, don't do it for a living."

One of the other things that instructor told me was, "As soon as you take off, start looking for a place to land."

This advice proved helpful to me as a student pilot, but can also be instrumental (pun intended) for any person who embarks on a career in law enforcement.

It's commonly thought that an officer should start to make plans three to five years before their anticipated retirement date. Taking my flight instructor's advice this would mean that even a recruit in the academy should give some thought to the topic.

I'd certainly not advise a person to obsess on the matter or make detailed plans, but it's important to have some sense of awareness that your career can at any time be cut short by injury or some other catastrophe. After all, an airplane losing engine power immediately after takeoff is rare, but it happens—being somewhat prepared for that possibility is an act of simple self-preservation.

Get Serious About Saving

To borrow another analogy from things with wings, birds line their nests with feathers to make them warm and comfortable. The term "feathering your nest" is often applied to humans in a derogatory fashion, but in this case it is meant with earnest respect.

You provide care and comfort to your community for the duration of your police career. You have every right to comfort and care for your own self—and for your family—when you pull the pin and put the badge on the mantel for good.

You will most likely have a reasonable pension from your agency, but will that be sufficient for the quality of life you want to live? Probably not.

Set aside a certain percentage of your income every pay period. It hurts at first, but if you're consistent—especially if you never even see that money because it's automatically directed into savings/investments—you'll quickly build up a nice little pile of the proverbial feathers.

Get a Good Hobby

Police officers tend to enter the profession young and retire young. This means that most retirees—especially in the earliest years after leaving the ranks—are vigorous and able-bodied men and women. Get a hobby—pursue interests outside your police career well before you actually approach retirement.

Take up marathon running or rock climbing. Play golf. Hunt. Fish. Build a shop in your back yard and start hand-crafting furniture.

Whatever you do, don't be "that guy" who shows up at the station a month after retirement because you have nothing much better to do.

Your colleagues love you—they threw a nice party and probably all pitched in to get you that engraved set of magazines that say something like, "Thanks 'so-and-so' for your 25 years of pretty mediocre service"—but if you show up a month later in civilian clothes and want to talk about the past, you're probably in the way.

Get a Second Job

Nearly every ex-cop I know has a job of some description. I know a guy who retired from a big agency on the East Coast and became the head of security for a pretty large school district in his area. I know a gal who had to retire early—she got medicaled out—and quickly became a big-deal muckety-muck of security for a Fortune 500 company. There are thousands of other "security" jobs that don't entail being a "mall cop."

Consider also the very comfortable career of educating and training the next generation of cops. Becoming a college professor takes a lot of advanced preparation—in both time and money—but as long as there are criminal justice programs at institutions of higher learning, there will be a need for seasoned professionals to teach those classes.

Consider as well a vocation having absolutely nothing to do with that you've done for the past couple of decades. A person who can shine in law enforcement can excel at just about anything.

Final Words

In a few short weeks, a good friend of mine will be retiring from law enforcement after more than four decades of serving as a public safety professional. The guy has pretty much done it all, and I couldn't be happier for him—he's healthy and happy and has a lot of great years ahead of him.

I certainly don't know the ins-and-outs of his family financials, but I'm pretty confident that between his pension and whatever he's put aside over the years from his "second job" as a police trainer, he won't have to work another day in his life.

However, I strongly suspect that despite being "retired" he'll still be as busy as ever.

Unfortunately, my buddy's upcoming retirement to a life of leisure—in which one of the primary worries is what to do with his time once he's "tagged out" on whatever game is in season, and what friend or relative is going to get the harvested meat he cannot fit in his sizable fridge—is becoming less and less the norm.

Regardless of where you are in your law enforcement career, there's no better time than the present to give at least a little bit of thought to the future—a future following your time in policing.

Get serious about saving. Get into an outside interest. Get started on a second career.

Most of all, get your head around the fact that although you've devoted most of your adult life to being a law enforcement officer, that's not really who you are—you're a husband, a wife, a father, a mother, a sibling, and a friend to countless individuals.

Get ready to land, wherever that may be.

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