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Avoiding “Cop Think:” How to Diversify Your Identity for Life After Law Enforcement

Updated: Jan 24, 2021

After leaving law enforcement to the private sector 15 years ago, I had the opportunity to speak to, counsel, and coach hundreds of law enforcement professionals thinking about life after law enforcement.  The requests to speak about this subject was so overwhelming I decided the best way to share the insights I’ve learned over the years with as many people possible was to blog about it.  I started a free blog Cop to Corporate with the sole purpose to provide a forum for LEO’s to find relevant information to help with their decision to leave law enforcement.

There isn’t a lot of content available for this subject and after writing a blog for Pinkerton on the transition from law enforcement to the private sector, I’ve received hundreds of comments and requests for more information.

The current climate in policing is definitely challenging.  Only a few years ago, LEO’s only thought of leaving their police departments after serving 20+ years and retiring with a pension. There are more and more police professionals that want to leave their jobs now (mid-career) and don’t know where to start.  Cop to Corporate has a lot of info I’ve gathered over the years to help LEO’s with their decision to stay or go.  Many cops make rash and emotional decisions to quit, and you don’t want to get to that point.

One area that I’ve noticed to be a big problem for current LEO’s is “Cop Think.”  One anonymous commenter on one of my blogs who went by moniker “F” said he had two personalities:  “COP-Me,” and “Me-Me.”  F has since left law enforcement where it was dominated by his “COP-Me” personality, and now that he’s in the private sector, he’s discovered his “Me-Me” again.  For those of you not in law enforcement, it may be a little difficult to understand this.  But for all you cops, and spouses or significant others of cops, you know exactly what “COP-Me” is.  When I left to the private sector, it took me over a year to rediscover “Me-Me” again, or at least parts of it. Once you served in law enforcement, parts of your cop experience will always be in your DNA.

There’s no way to be an effective law enforcement officer unless you continuously train.  With the majority of police training, you’re constantly on the defensive looking for threats and are in a perpetual state of heightened awareness.  I’m not sure if this philosophy has changed as I’ve been out of law enforcement for years, but I still remember being trained in Cooper’s Color Code Stages of Situational Awareness:

  1. White Unprepared “switched-off”

  2. YellowAlert, and aware but calm and relaxed

  3. OrangeHeightened level of awareness

  4. Red The fight is on and you’re taking immediate action and recognizing an attack

When you put that uniform on, not only are you obligated to protect and serve, you’re also a target.  Nowadays, it seems more and more violent acts are deliberately committed to those wearing the badge.  Having this heightened awareness is very hard to turn off.  I know that I lived most of my 12 years in law enforcement between Yellow and Orange.  This takes a toll on you mentally and physically, and also a toll on those close to you.  This is why many who wear the badge only associate with others in uniform.  The police academy trainers constantly remind recruits how important it is to have friends and associations outside of the police, but we all know how hard that is to accomplish.  Cops feel comfortable amongst other cops.  We share similar stories and identities with those who serve, but feel uncomfortable mingling with civilians.

A real world example is I’ve been out of law enforcement for over 15 years, and although very sociable professionally, I’m fairly anti-social personally and like to keep to myself.  This drives my wife nuts and I’m working on it.  I recently, and begrudgingly went to a Bunco event with my wife in our neighborhood where the hubbies were invited.  I met people from the neighborhood that didn’t know me who asked if I was new to the neighborhood.  Of course, big Mike who is a neighbor of mine and former cop (actually my FTO back in the day) smirked and knew what was coming out of my mouth.  I told them that I’ve been living in the neighborhood, and in the same house for over 23 years and moved in when they were probably still in elementary school. People were shocked when learning how long I lived in the same neighborhood without knowing me. Obviously during these social events, my law enforcement background eventually comes up through the few people that knew I was a cop.  It’s almost like a novelty for non-cops to have a cop (even a former cop – doesn’t seem to matter) in their midst for a social event.  For you cops out there, you know what came next – the questions about Ferguson, and Baltimore, and all the other controversies about law enforcement.  Little stuff like the ticket they got for speeding, or why cops have such bad attitudes.  In no time I was sucked into a debate, whether I liked it or not, about police brutality, the police reform that’s needed, political opinions on what should be done, etc.  All while I just wanted to eat some appetizers, have a drink and get through the night without any drama.  One more thing that drives my wife nuts:  I unconsciously unbuckle my seatbelt before parking my car when arriving to any destination.  It doesn’t matter where, could be at church, the kids soccer games, etc.  I can at least park my car on occasions head-in, and will eat in restaurant with my back facing the entrance.  This is hard to adapt to but over time, it’s possible :-).


For many cops, their sole identity is being a “cop.”  It’s such a cool and exciting job.  Remember when you graduated from the police academy?  You gazed at your shiny police badge in amazement and thought about how you’re going to change the world and make it a safer place?  You were so proud of what you’ve accomplished knowing that many washed out of the police academy, and you had the right stuff to graduate. That altruistic mindset can quickly erode over time though, but remember how optimistic you were?  If you want to successfully transition to the private sector, you’re going to have to reach back to those altruistic days and try to diversify your identity.  It’s all about your “mindset.”  The most successful LEO’s that transition were able to assimilate and adapt to a new non-LEO culture and ditch their “COP-ME,” cop-think mindset.

This is hard to do but achievable.  You’re not going to be able to change overnight and need a plan to help get you there.  Many LEO’s that unexpectedly lose their law enforcement jobs whether through a medical issue, got fired or laid off, or just quit due to stress find themselves in a dire situation if the only thing they have ever done and identified with was law enforcement.  Unless they are able to get another job as s cop somewhere, there aren’t many jobs where you can fit in and make the same amount of money, and benefits, and especially in the same geographical location.

No cop gets into law enforcement with the goal to screw up and get fired.  It happens though.  Some deserve to get fired (and go to jail) for criminal and egregious acts.  There are some cops that fall within career purgatory for doing something that got them fired (administrative actions) which is disputable and non-criminal.  These cops have a lot to offer but are seen as damaged goods and have a difficult time finding a new career, especially if they can only identify with being a cop (see my blog on the Power of Second Chances).

If you’re out of a job suddenly and all you’ve known for years is being a cop, then you’re going to struggle.  You need a plan to prepare yourself and diversify your mindset.  First thing, start hanging around with non-cops.  As hard as this may be, this is the best way to diversify your mindset.  When you hang out with non-cops, have a rule that there will be no talking about your job, period.  There are many other subjects to talk about and we all know how cool your job as a cop is, but refrain from doing this.  I recall years ago taking a lunch break in our police break room, and one of my fellow patrol officers was eating his lunch watching the TV show COPS.  I turned it to a sport station saying, are you friggen kidding me?

Depending on what you want to do after law enforcement in the private sector, you should be spending time in that area.  Whether it’s real estate, or security technology, there are many associations, groups, and social media to engage in to get you thinking about life after law enforcement.  You control your destiny and preparing ahead of time before you leave law enforcement (whether planned or unplanned) is like having an insurance policy which will give you peace of mind.  Having the peace of mind knowing you’ve prepared for life after law enforcement is a wonderful feeling.

Best of luck!

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