One day, Tom Barry was tracking down suspects in home break-ins. The next, his career and identity as a police officer were over, well before he was ready.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around leaving. I started when I was 20. Basically, it’s your whole life – the people you work with are your extended family. It’s hard to think, ‘gee, this whole thing is going to be over.’”
Barry served more than 39 years as a police officer, first with the RCMP, then Esquimalt’s former department and finally as the last officer to hold a corporal’s rank with Victoria police. As his 60th birthday approached, that clause in every municipal officer’s contract came calling: It was time to retire.
Barry was worried. “You really think, ‘Well, what am I going to do?’ (Policing) is such a big part of your life. Knowing it was going to end was a big deal.”
Little research has been done to explore the effect retirement has on Canadian police officers – the latest is from the 1970s. But this spring, VicPD’s head of human resources, Insp. Les Sylven, completed a report on just such a topic. It will make VicPD one of the few police agencies in Canada to implement a project that prepares officers for retirement before their last day and follows up with them after (such programs are popular in the United States and United Kingdom).
“I found nothing in researching Canadian police departments for pre-retirement programs, so (this is) kind of new,” said Sylven, who worked with Royal Roads University to survey retired and soon-to-be retiring VicPD officers for the report. “And I looked at this big bulge that’s coming and was thinking, ‘OK now’s the time to act.’”
That “bulge” is the expected retirement of 70 VicPD officers within five years (2015-20). With nearly one-third of the 243-member department projected to leave at that time, “that presents considerable challenges for us to recruit that number of officers … and also the leadership vacuum that creates, because those are all our senior officers.”
Up to this point, VicPD, like many other police departments, have focused on educating their soon-to-retire officers on post-career finances. The psychological effects of retirement also need to also be addressed, said Sgt. Bill Trudeau, vice-president of the Victoria police union.
“Les has taken this a lot further now,” Trudeau said. “He’s offering people other things, transitional things, which you should be ready for when you leave and the opportunities that are waiting for you out there.”
Police agencies work hard to ingrain the police identity in officers throughout their careers, Trudeau said. “Then suddenly, guess what? You’re not a cop anymore. Your identity’s gone. The police department says, you know, thanks for the 30 years. Take it easy.”
Easing into retirement with part-time work as an officer isn’t an option either, Sylven said. That can make retirement jarring for officers.
“Just like policing is a career that is very different from many other, retiring from policing is very different, too, because of the abruptness. You could be putting the handcuffs on somebody Friday afternoon and Saturday you’re retired. You’re a civilian.”
He clarified some officers don’t struggle with retirement. After decades in a high-stress job with irregular shift work, some can’t wait to hand in their badges. But the anxieties many face prompted Sylven to implement the new program.
This fall, VicPD will start sessions with its near-retirees to help explain the transition from policing to retirement. The program will point out work and volunteer options for ex-cops (many go on to work in security or become government investigators). It will explain that retirement can cause a major strain on marriages and can be the end of close relationships with still-serving officers. And it will help thank the officers for their work, Sylven said.
“We can repay that debt by helping them make that transition.”
Six months after his last shift, Barry said he’s made that transition, though it wasn’t easy to slow down his pace.
“I kind of struggled with it a bit. Most policemen are A-type personalities; they want to get things done.”
He added a program like the one Sylven is developing would have been a huge help to him.
“All they do is set up financial courses or seminars. Well, that’s fine and dandy, but the mental issues of what have to deal with, there’s absolutely nothing on that.”
Barry has his plate full now. He stays busy working out, walking the dog with his wife, biking and volunteering with the Cops for Cancer’s Tour de Rock, working with the Capital Regional District’s bylaw enforcement – and caring for his new granddaughter.