Years 10-20+ of the police career… is a time sometimes called “realism” in the life cycle of a police career, in that officers have been able to reconcile their earlier idealism with a more realistic outlook: “I cannot change the world, but I can make an impact in my little corner of it”; “Crime is a constant and will never go away, but I can do my part to bring those who’d do wrong to justice”; My career may not have gone the way I’d wanted or planned, but it’s been a pretty good one and I’m proud of what I do. I can commit to doing the best I can in the role I fill.”
Of course, sometimes the realism an officer experiences is merely coming to grips with the frustrations and shortcomings of the job in all their many forms, letting go of bitterness, and learning how to work effectively within the limits of the system. Disappointments remain, and cynicism may still be present, but the officer has assumed a more philosophical mien.
Years 20 to End of Career… are sometimes called the retirement years. Of course, in this period officers may have many years ahead of them before retirement but the point is really threefold: 1) Many can retire, whether they choose to or not, by virtue of their years on the job, 2) it is a time many (but certainly not all) officers begin to slow down their productivity, so much so that some acquire the label “ROAD (Retired On Active Duty) Officer,” and 3) many officers begin to consider their legacy in law enforcement and start working toward building and solidifying it. They may seek promotion, opportunities to mentor, a representational role among their peers, or other ways to accomplish this.
The “7 Year Itch” we are speaking of falls within either the 3-7 or 5-12 year spans listed above (the times are not cut in stone, therefore the overlap). 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; they may burn out fast and stay stuck, never truly realizing their potential or giving their agencies, colleagues, and community their most honest effort.
And some just hang it up for good, leaving the profession and never looking back.
Even if the duration is of the "7 Year Itch" is relatively short, it can still do long-term damage to a career - and to officers' personal lives. For your peace of mind, finding ways to identify, know, and combat this period of professional restlessness and dissatisfaction can be critical.
So we return to the question we opened with: Does law enforcement really have its own version of a “7 Year Itch”? And then we’ll add this one: What, if anything, can a law enforcement officer do to stave it off, or at least minimize its effects?
We welcome your thoughts and insights.
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About The Authors:
Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.
Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.
Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.
Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.