In August the Public Safety Officer Support Act was signed that recognized that suicide by a Law Enforcement officer could be a line of duty death based on post-traumatic stress by a Law Enforcement officer.
In acknowledgement, that merely confirms that suicide is the leading death of these criminal justice warriors that succumb to their internal battles.
As suicides continue in the law enforcement community, we collectively seek to find answers through an agency’s misunderstanding coupled with a family’s frustration and pain.
These common moments of sadness are perhaps emblematic of a larger problem that many agencies need to chisel out to defeat. We fail to understand the true depth of internal strife caused from the traumatic incidents that have created a memory gridlock in the officer’s mind.
Law Enforcement officers struggle with visions of their past, judgements derived from consistent prevarication on the street, and a seemingly antithetical way they feel about their disapproval of societies wrong doers.
It is difficult enough for many to understand the sheepdogs effortless approach to danger, their ability to thrive in a crisis, to purposely run toward danger, and accept high-risk situations as a way of life.
So, it would be equally confusing for those same scholars to not similarly be perplexed while trying to comprehend the difficulties retirement may impose on these adrenaline warriors.
Why is this not easy? Because these rare breed guardians of society are doing what they love regardless of the mental and physical consequences.
They are in the heart of perilous situations with a complete, well, perhaps perceived, understanding of the possible outcome, yet often are inspired to defend daily high-risk situations.
They are action-based people that carry elevated levels of confidence which is a required commodity to survive in bad situations. They have access to copious amounts of resources, equipment, and valuable data as well as the authority to carry out their suspicions and contacts with less than desirable suspects.
All of which is eliminated upon retirement. They are peacekeepers that build a six sense that drive them to respond to possibilities that seemingly override probabilities, a need to be brave, prepared, hyper-vigilant, and situationally aware without a shut off switch when duty ends, or retirement begins.
We continue to find the need for mental health workers in the law enforcement workplace, to help with terrible situations and guide officers safely back to work following traumatic incidents.
In contrast we still have agencies that merely wash their hands of a potential mental health crisis by merely assuming the officers are alright simply because an unqualified person asked them.
Command personnel may have been promoted to their position but that’s not an automatic qualification to the psychological understanding of a personnel in crisis.
With the contemporary norm of having mental health workers on the payroll, maybe it’s time to implement services to those retiring that extend beyond retirement. These people have given a better portion of their life serving their communities — perhaps we owe them more than a gold watch and a plaque as we send them out to the pretentious greener pasture.
It seems the most important discussions connected to retirement planning is the financial aspect and we bypass anything regarding the mental complications that may exist. An agency should not sidestep the psychosocial section of retiring, especially for a sheepdog that has spent his life protecting, responding, and managing difficult situations.
We are unplugging them from who they are, everything they have become and developed into, and assuming they will be perfectly fine in the new transformation.
There should be an exit interview that includes the perception of losing identity, the realistic approach of finding purpose elsewhere, adjusting to civilian life, discovering practical hobbies, volunteering, lessening their judgment of people, and knowing the steps they will endure.
This process must have follow-ups, communication, departmental updates of interest, and maintaining contact or a way to reach them upon retirement or separation. Agencies believe that when people retire, they don’t want to be disturbed, contacted, and asked a question.
Truthfully, these well trained, vastly experienced officers would likely welcome a call seeking advice or asking them about retirement. The retired officer starts to feel a disconnect in a way they had not expected, and a disenchantment develops toward the agency.
We must fix this process…once again there was another loss recently of an honorable and dedicated guardian that gave his life to an agency and was walking away feeling abandoned, unappreciated, forgotten…the unfortunate result leaves an agency puzzled and questioning why it happened.
We need to fix our systemic problem and stop assuming those retiring will be fine when they walk out that door.
Rodney Stearns is a military veteran, a retired police lieutenant, with a BS in Criminal Justice, and a MS in family studies with an emphasis in mental health. He spent most of his career in the tactical arena as a Commander and currently works with Wisconsin Emergency Management as a homeland security funding resource for law enforcement specialty teams.