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How to Build a Retirement Game Plan

By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

On September 1, 2017, Sergeant Keith Graves turned in his badge after 29 years of policing in the San Francisco Bay area. It was a date he had been anticipating and planning around for decades. “Every officer knows the date they will retire—even a rookie knows,” he said. “Still, I watched a lot of friends retire and the date would come closer and closer and many of them just didn’t make any plans for retirement.”

Graves was determined not to fall into the same trap. Five years before his retirement date, he decided to start his own business―a limited liability company, Graves & Associates, specializing in drug enforcement training, consulting, and expert testimony. “I had been teaching for various professional associations and the academy for so many years and I decided I wanted to start my own business teaching, consulting and testifying in court,” he said. So he started building the pieces of his business.

“I started teaching the same classes that I taught for other organizations, but under my own company. I also developed new courses that people were interested in and found agencies to host those courses around the country. This led to training and consulting in the private sector in the U.S. and overseas,” he said. In addition, he also started writing articles and blog posts about drug enforcement and prevention. This helped build awareness and led to calls from attorneys asking him to testify in criminal proceedings as well as civil court.

[Related: Tips to Reduce the Stress of Testifying in Court]

Graves also decided he needed to go back to school. He earned a master’s degree in criminal justice from American Military University, and this too was part of his long-term vision. “I got my master’s for two reasons,” he said. “One, it helps me with my business regarding court testimony because lawyers like seeing education on your resume—it shows you’re well-balanced. The other reason is that I knew at some point I wouldn’t want to travel so much and with a master’s degree I could teach criminal justice courses.”

[Related: Do Cops Need a College Education?]

The 2016 California Narcotics Officer of the Year further sought to maximize the time he had left on the force, by taking advantage of professional development opportunities and pursuing assignments that would be relevant to his post-retirement career. “I sent myself to as many instructor schools as possible and took on assignments that could help me with my future goal of teaching,” Graves said. “For example, I had already done narcotics twice, but I did it a third time because I wanted more experience for when I retired.”

Don’t Be Surprised: Start Early

Of course, while Graves looked for years toward his 2017 retirement date, some officers don’t have the luxury of such advance planning. Being an officer is dangerous and injuries can force people to retire earlier than expected. “You know there’s a good chance you’re going to get hurt in this job, that shouldn’t be a surprise,” he said, urging officers to consider that possibility at every stage in their careers.

[Related: Tips for Planning Your Retirement]

“My advice to young officers just starting out is that you need to think constantly about what you’re going to do for the next chapter of your life,” Graves said. “If you get hurt tomorrow and can’t be a cop anymore, what can you evolve into? Even if you make it 30 years, what will you evolve into? You must always have a game plan in place at all times,” he said.

Evaluate Your Mental Health before Retirement

During the course of their careers, officers are exposed to horrific and gruesome scenes. The stress from these events can have long-lasting effects on officers’ mental health and wellness, potentially impeding their transition to another career.

[Related: Why Your Off-Duty Life is Important for Stress Management]

Trauma doesn’t suddenly go away when an officer retires. “I can still picture every dead kid I saw and exactly how that scene played out, and I know I’m not able to just magically turn that off and walk away,” Graves said. So before he retired, Graves saw a therapist who specialized in treating police officers. “I did it solely as a tune-up, and it turns out I’m doing okay, but the therapist gave me some good tools to help me process leaving the agency and dealing with the traumas I experienced.”

[Related: What First Responders Should Seek in Mental Health Clinicians]

“Seeing a therapist before I retired was the best thing I ever did and I highly recommend it,” Graves said. “It’s so important to realize that you’re normal, that there’s nothing wrong with you, but you’ve just had to deal with traumatic situations for three decades and you need tools to help you process and overcome that.”

[Related: Teaching Officers about Stress Management]

Careful planning for retirement can help mitigate the stress that accompanies a major life transition―and this includes professional and personal considerations. Thinking strategically about your next steps, as Graves did, can help ensure that life after you hang up your badge will be as rewarding as your time in the agency.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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