Retirement is a big change for any professional. But in public safety, it seems to hit even harder. Perhaps that’s because so many firefighters, police officers, and corrections officers retire young, with many good working years ahead of them. The transition is also complicated by the fact that public safety work creates tightly knit communities of personnel held together by their sworn oath to protect the community and one another. Simply walking away from that level of intensity can be difficult.
One of Lexipol’s key strengths is our employees’ depth and breadth of experience; many on staff are recently retired from a career in public safety. In fact, our personnel has more than 2,075 combined years of public safety experience. So who better than to provide their thoughts on public safety retirement? Following are four tips for those preparing for retirement from a public safety career.
#1: Be prepared for an identity crisis.
“The empty feeling is what surprised me the most,” says Jennie Pierce, a professional services representative for Lexipol and a former New Mexico State Police Officer. “I truly felt as if I had lost my identity.”
Pierce is hardly alone. Many public safety employees experience a type of identity crisis when they leave the job. “This is a family, your family, one you’ve never been without and never want to be without,” says Shirl Tyner, a Lexipol professional services representative with 25 years of experience as a civilian officer. “You’ll miss your partners, those you have worked beside and counted on, vented to, protected and leaned on, the ones who always had your back. And let’s not forget that adrenaline rush, hearing the dispatcher over the radio and the rush of getting to the call.”
Few people are prepared for such feelings. When Tyner presented a session on retirement at a recent public safety show, she was flooded with people thanking her because they had not considered the emotional repercussions of retirement.
“We retire with these giant egos from being on this rush for 20 to 30 years,” Pierce says. “It takes every ounce of strength you have to fill the void of the lifestyle and camaraderie. For me, it took about a year for the empty hole to close and for me to be okay with my new identity.”
Simply knowing such feelings are normal can help. But there are ways to reduce the emotional toll of public safety retirement. Mark Chamberlain, a training coordinator for Lexipol who retired as Chief Deputy of Corrections for the Garland County (AR) Sheriff’s Office, notes that staying connected with the job is possible. “My biggest surprise was the people I worked with for so long have really kept in touch,” he says. “Not a week goes by when I don’t hear from someone back at the agency or from a fellow retiree. Social media has really helped in that regard.”
Developing outside interests long before retirement is also important. In a recent article, Chief (Ret.) Dan Fish explains that law enforcement officers often believe they must dedicate their entire lives to the job when, in fact, practicing self-care and cultivating outside interests can make them better at their jobs. “I believe having several different interests outside of work before retiring goes a long way in staving off issues of depression or feeling a lack of worthiness now that you’re no longer on the job,” Chamberlain says. Pierce agrees: “You have to make sure you have friends and hobbies outside of the job, or you won’t make it!”
#2: Do your financial homework.
Most public safety personnel retire with some sort of a pension, but it’s a huge mistake to assume retirement won’t bring financial changes. “Even with a pension, retirement requires a clear-eyed look at your finances,” Tyner says. “You may need to see a financial counselor and develop a budget that accounts for expenses such as travel and healthcare.”
Healthcare costs were something for which Chamberlain wished he’d been more prepared. “I knew the cost of health insurance would be a factor, but I did not anticipate how quickly it has risen in the six years since I left my agency, about a 17% increase,” he says. He stresses the importance of running the numbers in advance and educating yourself about your options: “I did a lot of financial comparisons in the months preceding my retirement. Many states offer several different retirement options, mostly concerning beneficiary benefits. I found that a robust life insurance policy, combined with the optimal monetary retirement benefit, worked out very well for me and my family.”
For Pierce, who obtained health insurance through her husband, performing some quick calculations provided stress relief until she found work with Lexipol. “I felt like I wasn’t providing for my family—I can’t just sit here and do nothing!” she says. “Then I figured out I only needed approximately $200 extra a month to make up the difference between my working paycheck and my retirement paycheck. I had a teaching gig doing court-ordered classes a few days a week when needed, so I knew I had the income balanced out. You need to understand your pension and insurance options so you can figure out how to make it on your new fixed income.”
#3: Position yourself to move into satisfying post-retirement employment.
Closely related to financial planning is planning what you’ll do after retirement. Even with a pension, it’s likely you’ll need additional employment to maintain your lifestyle. Perhaps more importantly, traditional retirement activities—classes at the senior center, fishing, time with grandkids—are often not enough for public safety employees retiring from fast-paced careers in their 50s.
One important aspect to consider about working after retirement is what level of involvement you’re looking for. “If you are not careful, retirement can mean a second full-time career,” says Kevin Piper, vice president of Operations for Lexipol, who retired as captain for the city of Montclair, Calif., after 30 years in law enforcement. Of course, you may want a second career. But it’s important the job be fulfilling. “At this point, choose whatever you enjoy and want to do,” Piper says. “Don’t punish yourself in a retirement job. You should wake up each workday looking forward to the work you will be doing.”
Chamberlain points to two options when considering post-retirement employment. “One, do something completely different than what you were doing while working. If you were a police officer, go be an usher at a sports venue or the ranger at a golf course,” he says. “Or two, stay connected to public safety. I worked as a reserve deputy with my former agency for two years after I retired. It was great being a line officer again after having the pressures and stress of being a division commander for a decade. Lexipol has offered me the opportunity to do a little of both. I never dreamed I’d be teaching folks about software or web-based training!”
Another aspect is preparation. Pierce wanted and expected to work after retirement, but she found herself unprepared to move into the private sector. “I don’t have a bachelor’s degree, so I didn’t qualify for many jobs I was interested in,” she says. “I’d been an auto theft detective, so I figured I could do insurance fraud … No dice, not qualified. That was a letdown. I have an associate’s degree, I had an amazing career, I was only 42 years old—and no one wanted me.”
As Pierce experienced, a post-retirement job may require additional education—something best achieved long before you’re retired. “Look at the qualifications of jobs you’re interested in and make sure you prepare before retirement,” she says. “I didn’t look for a job until after I retired. I really should have gone back to school. I understand that now. I didn’t then.”
Piper also stresses the challenge of moving to the private sector. “The number of job opportunities may surprise you,” he says, “but prepare for a shock in how the private sector operates.” He provides the following suggestions:
- Obtain training that relates to the job you anticipate holding in retirement.
- Network with private sector leaders and educators.
- Attend college-level business management courses.
- Work part-time pre-retirement in the field you anticipate working in prior to retirement.
#4: Leave the job better than you found it.
Leaving the job you love is never easy, but the transition can be smoother if you’re confident those who succeed you are prepared to build on the foundation you laid. For public safety leaders, a good place to start is with the agency’s policies. Comprehensive, up-to-date policies that truly reflect your practice provide consistency of operations through leadership changes. If you’re a few years out from retirement and your policies are outdated or incomplete, committing to a full-scale policy review and implementation could make an ideal final project, a way to ensure your influence is felt for years after your departure.
Chamberlain and Piper also stress the need for strong succession planning in public safety. “The transition plan for replacing you should go into effect prior to your departure,” Piper says. “Either train your replacement or ensure there is a transition plan that includes training.”
Chamberlain notes the importance of sharing your knowledge with those who take over after you leave. “Keep your door open! Chances are, whoever replaces you did not have the same experiences you did during the course of your career,” he says. “The last 30 years have brought about more significant changes in public safety than the preceding century. In-car computers, body cameras, homeland security, biological incidents, and direct supervision are all terms that didn’t exist 30 years ago. We have lived through some of the most rapidly evolving stages of public safety in our nation’s history. We need to continue to mentor and support those who come after us. Offer to be a continued resource for your replacement.”
A New Chapter
Although your retirement story will depend on your specific circumstances, needs and goals, one thing is certain: “Retirement is a huge change,” says Pierce. “And you can either effect change or be affected by it.”
Whatever path you choose, remember that life after a public safety career can and should be challenging, fulfilling and rewarding. “You earned this retirement and you deserve to enjoy it,” Tyner says. “So, make it count! You love what you do or you would not be doing it. You were born with a servant’s heart. How can you put that to work in your retirement?”