Is There A Police Career 7 Year Itch?

For many officers it lasts for only a relatively short period of time - a few years, perhaps - and then the career life cycle moves on. Others may never experience it at all. But for some it creates bitterness lasting far more than just a few years...

A question for you:  Does law enforcement have its own version of the “7 Year Itch?”

The “7 Year Itch” is a term most commonly used as a reference to that time in many relationships – and in particular to a marriage or other committed, long-term bond – where one or both people in it begin to reevaluate their commitment and whether they’ll stay together or not.  It seems to mark a time where romance has given way to routine, what initially attracted two people to each other is no longer as appealing (and may even have become annoying!), and other lifestyle and relationship options are considered by one or both partners.  In short, it’s a dangerous time in the relationship where its continued existence is questioned.

In fact, it does seem most romantic relationships are prone to this danger zone known even if there is disagreement among the experts about when it really begins (7 years?  3 years?  Or is it some other point in the relationship?).  The term “7 Year Itch” itself is not based upon any particularly scientific research… or at least not REAL research, anyway.  The etymology of the phrase indicates it may have come from a study that indicated seven years was about the time in a marriage divorces were statistically most likely to occur, and popularized as the title of a comedic George Axelrod play (and, more famously, 1955 Marilyn Monroe movie) based on the implication of that statistic.   

Anyway, to elaborate on the question we opened this article with:  Is there some reasonably predictable point in time, over the course of a cop’s career, that idealism wanes, disillusion sets in, and the “just happy to be here!” young officer goes missing forever, to be replaced by a jaded doppelganger?  Will the relationship between career and cop inevitably grow stale?

The idea of a police equivalent to the “7 Year Itch” isn’t rally new in theory (although referring to it in exactly that way may be), and has been the subject of some qualitative observation and documentation by academic theoreticians over the years.  We started to think about it a lot more in earnest after I had used the phrase during a training to describe an equivalency in police work we’ve long written and taught about:  that five or ten years down the road from hire, of all those eager and excited young cops that couldn’t wait to get to work each day and hit the street almost all of them will be unrecognizable in attitude, effort, and productivity.  Most will have developed a finely tuned cynicism.  Many will have gone through their first (and maybe even second or third) burnout, and it may have established permanent residence in their psyche.  For others, anger or depression may be daily companions.  Something changes in the heart of a cop a few years into the job, often to the detriment of personal and professional lives, and to the communities counting on engaged police officers to protect them. 

It has been suggested there may be a “life cycle” of a police career, looking similar to the representation in the following manner:

Years 1-2 of the police career… are the ROOKIE YEARS, characterized by the    newness and excitement of the job.

Years 3-7 of the police career… is the transition time from new officer to veteran,             during which the officer is still learning but also becoming “seasoned.”  During    this time the officer is assuming a professional persona and style, and has decided what aspects of law enforcement are most personally appealing and begun to seek opportunities based on that.

Years 5-12 of the police career… is the time cynicism is most likely to take root     and grow.  The officer’s earlier idealism has been whittled away, the former conviction she can “make a difference” is displaced by one that “nothing will ever change,” and very often professional aspirations have been delayed or denied,   there develops a sense of unfairness within the department, and the officer questions both her career choice and self-worth.

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