Planning and education can be key to building a second career
by Ken Belden
Yes, Virginia, there is a … Wait. Wrong story. Yes, there is life after retirement from law enforcement. My police career started off like so many others from my era. Many of us came with military experience, as did I. I knew I wanted to be a police officer at 18 years of age and the military was the best way to get started. After being discharged four years later, I tackled school to get an associate degree in police science (now known as administration of justice) and entered what I thought was a lifelong career, thinking I had all the education I would need.
Fast-forward 20 years. My wife, Dora, had fast-tracked her own academic pursuits and was a couple of classes away from her B.A. when she let me know I had no more excuses and should get back into educational mode. Of course, I did. And to make things more interesting, I developed another interest a few years earlier, spurred on by attending post-trauma stress reduction training for supervisors, taught by the well-known police psychologist Dr. Larry Blum. Even though I was already heavily involved in firearms training, I wanted a better understanding of the psychological aspect of our police culture and began taking any kind of related training. This included training in peer support, critical stress management, officer-involved shootings and crisis intervention training from the local sheriffs’ department. After going through these courses and several actual critical incidents, I realized the initial idea of eventually helping police officers may be too tough a nut to crack. I was approaching retirement and realized I wanted to get into something other than law enforcement-related post-retirement endeavors. I embarked on another segment of this journey by pursuing my master’s degree in social work, realizing the global approach opened different doors.
My school program allowed for different experiences outside the law enforcement venue. Actually, university staff purposely took me out of my comfort zone the first year of field placement by assigning me to the county psychiatric hospital — very educational and enlightening. The second year of field placement had me in a more conventional therapy mode, both in clinic and school settings — also enlightening.
My thesis research allowed me to interact with a variety of people outside my normal circles. It was because of this that the City of Ventura contacted me about a part-time position in a newly created homeless outreach program. So, armed with a diploma, I turned in my paperwork for retirement a couple of months later. When the beginning of the new year started, so did I. I didn’t have a clue about how to approach the position, but was given the latitude to figure it out by contacting as many individuals and resource agencies as I had time for.
This work also allowed me to interact with Ventura County folks, and as my city position faded away due to the recession, I became a contractor for homeless services working part-time in a program for the next nine-plus years. Again, it was an incredible experience that I evolved in, being allowed to focus on homeless veterans, which meant establishing relationships with a whole other group of professionals. I still maintained contact with local law enforcement, which included presenting at the Sheriff’s CIT academies on homelessness. After becoming licensed as a clinical social worker, I started putting in a few hours a week as clinical consultant for a veteran transitional home administered by the Turning Point. Unfortunately, both my supervisor and I had our contracts abruptly end as the County was awarded a major grant for a program that did not include us.
Being unable to just stop working, I sought a similar position somewhere in the same county, where I maintained the relationships I built up over the years. Nothing I felt was up my alley arose, so I accepted a full-time position with Behavioral Health in a specialized unit dealing with severely mentally ill persons. This brings us up to date, as I reached the end of my second year there.
So here I am, accepting the reality of having to sign up for Medicare but feeling like I have numerous productive years in me. And here I am coming full circle, wanting to use my cumulative experience to focus on serving first responders, including veterans. So, I will continue to be open to any opportunity that comes my way that will allow me to do just that. After all, there is life after retirement.
My travels to get to where I am came with a lot of 20/20 hindsight and self-blame. Like so many other officers, retirement was always far off in the distance … Translation: I did not prepare well for it. Education was the key for me. I developed interests along my career path and decided to go in that direction without being sure where that was. I was reasonably sure it wasn’t in the security or similar arena, not that that’s a bad thing. I felt I was done with police work. I did take an oral for a lieutenant’s exam after I decided to put in my retirement papers — not for the position, but to assist the panel in making a decision. I know, not too smart on my behalf, but my switch was already thrown; I was done.
So you need a plan of some type for life after retirement. Mine involved a higher education, which I wholeheartedly recommend. The biggest mistake I made was not starting with it earlier. It may have provided different outlooks. Others may find their retirement plans actually involve retirement, with hunting, fishing, traveling, taking up a hobby or a myriad of other activities. Whatever keeps you going and the old brain healthy.
Ken Belden, LCSW, retired as a sergeant from the City of San Fernando Police Department in California.