The Thin Gray Line is Becoming a Reality: Caring for the Old Dawgs

Recently, I attended a management seminar on the inclusion of Generation X and Y in our departments. One chief brought up an issue that struck home with many of us older folk. His point was we are constantly trying to find ways to include these groups in our departments, but what are we doing for our older officers? His concerns were for the officer who has put in the 25 years on the street and now sees that the light at the end of the tunnel just might be an oncoming train. It is an issue that we should give as much weight to as the inclusion of Generation X and Y.

The aging segment of our departments presents us with a variety of challenges. The changes in our physical ability to do the tasks at hand are one of the first concerns we must face. As we get older our muscle mass decreases or retires to our waistline, bone density drops, maximum strength and aerobic capacity decline, and our visual and hearing acuity are reduced. We also get the unwanted benefits of increases in the areas of heart disease, hypertension, arthritis and diabetes. All these must be considered as we work on ways to keep our officers safe and provide quality services. Another area we will face a loss is the huge experience drain when they leave. In my agency, we are facing a situation where retirements and promotions are going to leave us with a significant lack of patrol experience. At the end of next year, about 50% of our patrol force will have less than three years of experience. While I genuinely like young officers and their enthusiasm, it is going to cause us some sleepless nights.

In order to combat some of these issues it is important that we develop some positive methods in including our older officers in decisions affecting them. We must recognize their contributions. This is difficult, because for years, we have been geared towards promotion as a sign of success Developing some benefits for years of service and consistent good performance can be as simple as a reserved parking space or as complicated as a longevity pay increase. Since this group wants to feel valued and still contribute, one way is to train them to become mentors for the younger officers. It will help to transfer knowledge that might be lost and keep them included in the department. Communication is vital to this group, so we must be clear in our expectations of how we feel they must participate in the department. It may be difficult to explain to the officer who was always on the go, but because of issues beyond their control cannot perform at the same high level they always did. A chief provided this anecdotal evidence to us: he has an officer who we all wished was on our departments. He is smart, likable, and had a way with the community. The problem is he has developed a night vision problem that affects his firearms skills. To quote the chief, “He couldn’t hit a lake at night if he fell out of the boat with his gun in his hand.” Naturally the officer loves working nights. Communicating to this veteran that you are about to upset his life by transferring him to days, restricting his overtime, or retiring him is not going to be easy. You must also send the signal to your older employees that you are willing to discuss job/assignment changes that benefit both of you as long as they are consistent with department goals. Hand in hand with this goes the concept that all employees are expected to contribute to the department”s goals. While it is tempting to create “retirement jobs,” it sends the wrong message.

Having reached this point, if all else fails, you can still be a valuable resource by helping them plan their retirement. Retirement is one of the biggest life changes you can make. Even when you are looking forward to retirement, it is scary and can bring misgivings. I am sure we all have a cop that would rather face down the Dalton Gang at high noon than plan retirement. If you can help them devise a plan for their retirement, the chances of it being successful are much better. Another debt that we owe these officers is help during the transition to what is hopefully a quiet civilian life. Officers who have retired often face stress, depression, and anxiety as they face a world unfamiliar to them. A retired lieutenant from the Danvers, MA Police Department had a line he used while teaching. He said, “If you always do what you always did, then you will always get what you always got.” It describes the routine of doing the same thing and being comfortable with it, much like the putting on the uniform always gave you a sense of belonging. When you leave the station at the end of your last shift sans uniform and badge, you are ALONE in the world for the first time since you graduated from the academy. Hopefully we will have made the transition go easier. These old dawgs deserve our support for a job well done.

Article written by/or information provided by tcamos

Updated: March 31st, 2006 11:47 AM PDT

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