He’s a cop.”
That particular introduction at a social gathering means I’m about to be awkwardly chastised about the latest anti-law-enforcement falsehood propagated and perpetuated by our irresponsible news media. At best, I can expect a story about how someone received rude treatment or an undeserved traffic citation. Then, there’s always the possibility of running into someone you’ve met in a negative way at work. After a while, it’s easier just not to go to social events or even the neighborhood barbecue. For a very long time, I was a cop who would only socialize with other cops. I tolerated and even liked a few of my wife’s friends, but I only cut loose with my cop buddies and their spouses. My life was cop-centric and no matter how much I knew that wasn’t healthy, I took that well-traveled path for a long time.
Pat Rogers was a famed and highly respected firearms and tactical instructor. He accumulated so many protégés over the decades, he became known as “Uncle Pat.” I never got the opportunity to take a class from him or even shake his hand, but I was privileged to interact with him via social media for the last few years of his life. He was absolutely a gem of a man, teacher and wordsmith. Among the many wisdoms credited to him is “The job doesn’t love you back,” in reference to law enforcement. That is among the most brilliant nuggets I’ve ever received. I wish someone had hammered that into my skull a few decades earlier. There should be a block on this topic in every police academy in the nation.
Who or what?
I’m a cop. That may not even be the way you introduce yourself in public, but that’s what many of us think. Police work is an identity-based profession. “It’s not what I do. It’s who I am.” The problem with that line of thought is that you are also a significant other, son or daughter, parent, sibling and friend. Those things are also identity-based and are permanent, unlike this job. Mere weeks after you cut that retirement party cake, the phone call, texts and emails will dwindle and eventually fade to nothing. What will you have left? Hopefully, you will have family, friends, hobbies and a life outside of police work. In order for that to happen, you must give as much engagement and attention to family, friends and hobbies right now as you do to law enforcement.
A proper work–life balance is paramount to emotional survival. Police work is a wonderful career but a terrible hobby. Find something to do on your off time that you find rewarding or even mindless. Go hiking with your spouse or kid. Go bowling. I took up metal detecting because it takes just enough of my attention to keep me from obsessing about work stuff but not enough that it causes any brain strain. It’s a perfect counterweight for my work–life balance. Find whatever does that for you.
In order to persevere, we must take responsibility for our own happiness, and thereby our own emotional survival. Read Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and their Families by Kevin Gilmartin. It’s a concise, in-depth look at this topic and should be required reading for every new recruit. It didn’t hurt this 25-year veteran, either.
The big takeaway: Take control of your work life. Choose to do whatever work is cast upon you to the best of your abilities and don’t get too wrapped up in what you believe your role should be. I’ve been there and it took a big chunk out of my competence and confidence that I’ll never get back. One of my favorite lines from the book is “Nobody, but nobody, escapes with their professional virginity intact. Everyone gets screwed at least one time.” The more your identity is wrapped up in what you believe your role is, the harder it will be when you inevitably lose it.
Love it and leave it at work
I’m not saying it’s not OK to love your work; just not at the expense of your life. The job isn’t your life. Cop work truly is just a job when it’s all said and done. We’ve all experienced this situation: You go home after doing something truly important. You may have saved a life — or worse, almost saved a life. Your significant other wants your engagement about something that is important to them and probably should be to you as well: home renovations, your child’s schoolwork, family finances or even what their day was like. It really is difficult to care about such “trivial” things, considering your experiences. That said, even the most understanding spouse will eventually succumb to your palpable apathy and, over time, resent you for it. It’s no wonder our divorce rate is so high. The most successful and healthy officers leave work at work and fully engage in home life when they’re at home. This job doesn’t last forever and when it’s gone, the only thing left of your personal life will be the relationships you have with your family and friends. If you want to know what happens upon your retirement when you’ve neglected those relationships, look at the suicide rate among retired cops.
Be planning the next chapter of your life. You will not make enough in retirement to live fat and free for the rest of your life. In most states, you get about 2.5% a year of your highest 30 months. That means 30 years on the job will get you 75% of your salary. How many of us could take a 25% salary cut in stride? You could try to work until you’re 65, but there’s a reason no one does that in our line of work. Career cops die seven to 15 years younger than people in other careers. Have a plan for what you will do after you can’t do the work anymore. Every successfully retired cop I know planned their exfil for several years before they actually pulled the pin. One of my former captains is a nurse. One of our traffic officers did accident reconstruction for insurance companies with some success. Corporations pay big money for polygraphers. Attorneys will always need expert witnesses. Of course, there’s also writing for gun and cop magazines (obviously).
You must maintain your health and fitness. I truly understand how hard it is. Between all that tuchus time in the car, half-eaten drive-thru garbage meals and unbelievable stress, dragging oneself into the gym or out for a run is more than a little difficult. Still, you must keep moving — literally — if you want to survive. You know all of the reasons why fitness is important: stress relief, improved systemic health, better work performance. How about living long enough to tell your grandkids stories about being a cop?
Again, this is an amazing career. Be great at it. But also, be great at living. Do the work knowing that this job doesn’t love you back. Your family and friends do. While you’re at it, go to the next neighborhood barbecue. You might just be surprised how much life there is to live outside the walls of your cop shop.
Warren Wilson is a lieutenant with the Enid Police Department in Oklahoma. He is a former SWAT team leader, current firearms instructor and writer. He has been a full-time law enforcement officer since 1996.