I wasn’t one of those kids who always knew I’d be a cop, but it was an idea that floated around in the back of my mind. I grew up watching TV reruns of California motorcycle cops, police pursuits with good ol’ boys and inept deputies, patrol drama series, and reality shows with cameras riding along with actual officers. I mean hey, it all looked pretty cool! But I didn’t pursue that right away. In college, I first majored in Math and Computer Science with the idea I’d study Electrical Engineering and become an audio engineer or music producer. During my third semester of Calculus, I began to question my choices–and that was also the same semester I took Criminal Justice 101 as an elective course. With that formal look into the police profession, suddenly all the desire and purpose of a law enforcement career made sense, and I was hooked! I was going to become a cop.
I earned degrees in Criminal Justice and Sociology, graduating in 2000 and entering the profession as a Police/Fire Dispatcher and then a civilian Court Services Officer for my county’s juvenile detention center. I met and married my wife while we were both still in college, so she was along for every step of my law enforcement journey. Becoming a police officer at that time was extremely competitive, often with several dozen candidates showing up on testing days for only a handful of job openings. High performance on written and physical testing was required, in order to secure a top spot on eligibility lists and be selected for interviewing. I spent months preparing and experienced many rounds of applying, testing, and undergoing background checks for several local agencies–and definitely experienced a few hurdles along the way. I finally accepted my first sworn officer position for the police department at a state university about an hour from my hometown. It was December 2001 when I was hired, and April 2002 when I graduated from the police academy and entered field training… securing a felony arrest on my very first patrol shift. I was a cop!
My university agency was fairly small, with less than 30 officers–but it introduced me to the profession, as well as several surrounding agencies and fellow officers who taught me a lot about managing people and situations. In 2005, I was working in a General Investigations assignment when I first experienced the loss of a brother in blue. My officemate, another Detective who was assigned to a regional State Police drug task force, was killed in an on-duty car crash while driving home from a late narcotics detail. I served on the Honor Guard at his funeral, and weeks later I was chosen to take his place in the drug unit. While still employed by the University Police, I would be assigned full time to a State Police enforcement group with officers from several other agencies. Here I was, a midwestern kid who didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and had never touched an illegal drug. Yet I became an undercover narcotics agent and a successful dope cop.
A couple years into my narcotics assignment, a retired officer from another agency was visiting my office as a representative from a multi-state intelligence cohort that my agency was a part of. As I was passing by in the hallway, he briefly greeted me and obviously recognized my “drug cop” status–rough looking street clothes, nasty goatee, pierced ear. He commented that early in his time as a police officer, he spent four years in a drug unit like mine and it was the best time of his career. “Don’t take this for granted” is what he essentially told me, although I don’t recall if he said those actual words. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was 100% correct. Those years of working big cases and making lifelong connections were pivotal, both in and out of law enforcement. Not only did I learn the basics of working state and federal drug investigations, but I also enjoyed great teamwork with my fellow agents, awesome mentors and leadership opportunities within our task force, and multi-jurisdictional engagement with a variety of agencies and organizational styles. Those experiences have positively impacted the remainder of my career, and fueled my desire to further develop my craft and be a great cop.
Quick sidebar: My law enforcement career had its ups and downs, but I knew (in my own mind anyway, at that time) that I was doing the job I was meant to do. And I never, ever, never, ever, ever, NEVER planned to do anything else. I hope I’m not being unclear! I intended to work a 25- to 30-year police career, and then ride off into the proverbial sunset with my government pension. Simple plan, right? Occasionally I’d hear of a fellow officer leaving law enforcement for a job in the private sector, and I’d think, “well that’s weird – why would they do that?” And then I’d shrug and go back to looking for my next arrest. Funny how things come back around… but more on that later.
In 2011, I left the university agency (and my external drug unit assignment) after being hired at a larger municipal agency in the area. Although I was 33 years old and an experienced officer with almost 10 years under my belt, I was required to complete that new agency’s full 15-week FTO program. It was intense and stressful at times, and I felt like a rookie all over again. However since I was coming from several years off the street working narcotics, the formal re-entry into patrol was a blessing. It prepared me well for that new agency, and the unique demands of city policing… a radically different dynamic, compared to my prior university atmosphere. I was a city cop.
For several more years I did well in city work, but the burden was higher and the teamwork was more conflicted. In hindsight, I can now see that the mental and physical challenges of the job were beginning to mount. After a few years on patrol, I was chosen for that department’s internal narcotics unit and went back to drug work – but was quickly faced with disconnected unit leadership and a toxic, competitive atmosphere between detectives that essentially pitted us against one another. It was not a good match for my work style (nor anyone’s for that matter), and I did not perform well under that regime. A year later I returned to midnight shift patrol, which is where I spent the majority of my career at that agency. On my own time, I enrolled in graduate school and in 2016 completed my Master’s degree in Public Administration as I planned for a future in leadership ranks. Although my agency paid for the degree (through tuition reimbursement benefits in our labor contract), the degree meant little to my commanders and did not seem to help my career–an obvious disappointment at the time. However, I was still involved in several enjoyable activities in addition to my patrol shift: serving as our union’s treasurer, a use of force instructor, a shift-level crime scene technician, and Honor Guard officer. But other opportunities and promotions I’d pursued had not gone my way, and the job was losing its luster. Because of new state pension rules I still had 15-16 years until I’d be eligible to collect a pension, and midnight shift at almost age 40 was not the same as age 23 when I first started. I was reaching a point where my opportunities seemed more and more limited, but I knew I still had an internal drive that was seeking to achieve more. And then one evening, I was sitting at home with my wife (who was always a big supporter of my career) and we were talking about my career options – and it dropped on me like a ton of bricks. “Maybe it’s time for me to think about doing something else,” I said out loud, barely believing what I had just admitted to myself… I might not always be a cop.
At that point I had over 15 years on the job. While not everything had always gone my way, I’d had a great career overall. Almost half of my sworn years had been in investigations, with most of that in undercover narcotics. I’d worked for highly regarded units and agencies in my area, and I had devoted the necessary time and effort to earn a graduate degree. I realized that I ought to be marketable to the outside world, but I had little idea what that looked like. But I had enough insight to realize that networking and relationships were among the most valuable skills I’d been able to utilize as a police officer – so I put those efforts in motion to learn more about my next career steps. My networking took several different shapes:
- A good friend of mine had medically retired from law enforcement several years prior, and became a private investigator and polygraph examiner. He walked me through his journey, and also introduced me to a corporate security leader who he’d met during his professional pathway.
- That corporate security leader met with me several times, to offer mentoring and advice on the private sector. Some of his guidance ended up being crucial to my eventual success in the corporate interview process, and selecting the best role to match my skills and goals.
- A family friend with prior experience in corporate HR helped me convert my police resume into a corporate version, with descriptions of my transferable skills and experience relevant to the business world.
- I had lunch with a retired police commander who I greatly respected, a business consultant in the area who I knew well, and conversations with others who were a part of the private sector–all with the goal of gaining wisdom from those who had perspectives different from my own.
That discovery process was crucial in helping me learn about the types of relevant roles out there, and how to find them. I mostly used keyword searches on Indeed.com and career pages of companies that interested me, and I’m sure there are other useful methods as well. For some of the roles I came across, I’d run the description or specific questions back through one of my contacts to get their perspective and advice. This repeating cycle began the process of mentally breaking me out of something I call the “government bubble” I had been operating within. Let me explain: In law enforcement, all my known options for career success were within that inside-the-box realm of policing. If an agency ran out of opportunities, changing departments was an option, which I did. But that move was a big decision, and had to be used sparingly since being an “agency hopper” never looked good. Beyond that, I had no realistic concept of opportunities and successes that I could have in the corporate world, or anywhere outside the borders of policing. That was the government bubble I was stuck in, which I believe is also common in the military and other public service arenas where lateral movement and development pathways are extremely limited. It was quite liberating once I finally started to see beyond those invisible walls! In addition to learning about companies and open roles in my area, I began the necessary financial research to find out what would happen to my police pension contributions, and how I could roll them penalty-free into private investments to keep them growing. (I should note that even with “giving up” my government pension after 16 years of progress, my existing funds plus additional future retirement contributions will have no negative impact long-term. And in fact, I’ll likely end up better off financially by the time I retire!) After a variety of applications and interviews throughout 2017, I landed a fantastic role as an Internal Audit investigator with a nationally-known insurance company. It was official… I was no longer a cop.
The professional adventure was hardly over, and was actually just beginning in many ways. Like others in the private sector who come from law enforcement backgrounds, I initially limited myself to coplike roles: Corporate Security and Investigations. I naturally assumed (incorrectly, I might add) that there wasn’t much else I could do. That wasn’t a bad move, as I had indeed been a successful investigator and still loved that work. My first Internal Audit role interacted with many other internal business areas in my company, so it was a great natural fit that allowed quick learning about the many other functions of the company and industry. It seemed revolutionary to me that I was using skills I’d developed while investigating and interviewing drug dealers, to now investigate and interview business people in corporate inquiries. I was amazed! But my career outlook was still limited.
I didn’t yet understand the wide scope of opportunities that were available outside of the investigations realm. Those self-imposed knowledge limitations (i.e. traces of the “government bubble” still lingering from law enforcement) followed me at first, until I began to expand my network, meet with professional mentors, and catch glimpses of other roles where I could apply my unique skills. Working with my leaders and mentors on development goals, I eventually joined teams involved in regulatory business audits, then moved to an area focused on business modernization (i.e. working with others who build and implement new company software), soon followed by a shift into the IT department on a UX technology project management team. With every move to a new position, my knowledge has grown and future doors just keep opening up. And I’m sure that trend will continue.
My career transition from “Cop to Corporate” has been outstanding, and there are a few notable factors that contributed to this positive outcome:
- First, the decision came quickly but I was mentally ready to leave law enforcement. I was blessed to be able to do that on my own terms. Not from desperation or duress, but by discovering a new career pathway if it existed. And I recognized my job didn’t need to involve a squad car or handcuffs in order to be exciting.
- Throughout my police career, I constantly sought out new opportunities and learning whenever I could. My diverse skill set was a huge asset later on, in terms of making me marketable and relevant to the business world. And I’ve continued that spirit of lifelong learning, which is recognized and appreciated by others who will see that “drive” in you.
- Once I made the decision to start looking, I didn’t act solely on my own or apply for hundreds of jobs (i.e. the “shotgun approach”) and hope to get lucky. I studied resources and pulled in people who knew more than me, had experiences that I didn’t have, and had already done what I was trying to do. Humility was a key factor, as well as the willingness to learn that I’ve already mentioned.
- My wife was always a strong supporter of my law enforcement endeavors, and remained by my side as a partner while we learned about my private sector opportunities. That family support reduced a lot of stress that I would have felt if I had been blazing this unknown path on my own.
- We were in a stable financial situation, having worked for many years to become debt-free and think about retirement savings beyond just my government pension. Even though I was the primary income-earner for my household, our financial freedom from debt reduced stress immensely and allowed me to hunt for jobs without a sense of income desperation… while still giving me the opportunity to understand the pay I needed and wanted, based on our established budget and what my skills were worth.
- My public administration Master’s degree and law enforcement accomplishments, once thought (by me) to only have value in a police career, ended up being highly regarded and significant factors for being hired into my first corporate role. Again, it goes back to the future benefits of learning and discovery that will pay dividends beyond what you first think.
- I am a man of faith, and I knew God had me on a certain path for a certain reason. How did I know it was really time to leave law enforcement? Because my eyes were opened to the long-term outlook, and not limited to just my current situation, assignment, or shift bid. There were times when I pursued police roles that I simply knew I was perfect for… only to have the door slammed in my face. And if I did manage to force the door open, there was a brick wall behind it! Those rejections hurt my pride at the time, but God knew I needed those obvious signs to respond to the new direction intended for me.
Let me offer a few final thoughts and recommendations. During my police career, I avoided all forms of social media for privacy purposes–which I’m sure many cops fully understand. As I started the corporate career search, a family member (at the company where I now work) said I needed to establish a LinkedIn profile. I resisted the idea initially, and wait… I have to put my photo on there too?!? But it was great advice, and LinkedIn became an amazing source of connections and networking with thousands of others who are like me. I’ve become involved in the Cop-to-Corporate network and similar groups, including great opportunities to tell my law enforcement story and help guide those who are considering similar career paths.
For anyone reading this who may be considering their departure from law enforcement–whether traditional timing, or “early” like me–I also want to address the issue of identity that comes with law enforcement. Some fear that after they leave the job, their purpose is gone and all those hard years of policing will be meaningless. There’s a detailed drawing I’ve seen of a uniformed officer sadly walking away from a squad car, drooping his head low, with his duty belt left hanging on the side mirror. Um… NO. My experience has not at all been like that, and quite the opposite! Your JOB is not your identity, but the SKILLS and EXPERIENCE you offer are what bring value to any professional role you may have. I don’t consider my law enforcement career to be something I left behind, but rather the foundation of the remainder of my working years. Problem solving, critical thinking, objective decision making, remaining cool under pressure… those are crucial for ANY role or business, and I have them thanks to my police career. One manager in my company even chose me for a technical role because of my past experiences. He later said to me, “I needed someone with a problem-solving mindset, and I knew I could teach you the technical skills required for the job.” I was blown away to hear that! And this may be hard to believe because of negativity that swirls around modern policing, but there is still a definite “cool factor” associated with my being a cop. My coworkers think it’s interesting, and every so often I have a good story or useful insight to offer in the right context.
Whatever your professional situation is today, you are not stuck there forever. There are endless career opportunities out there to explore; however, remember that nothing worthwhile is going to fall into your lap. And on the opposite side of the job searching process, the “shotgun approach” of applying for anything and everything is not likely to result in lasting success either. Finding the right role will require focus, research, connecting with others, and seeking new knowledge and relevant skills. Sure, there will be disappointments and rejections along the way. But I’ve found those situations will often provide useful insights and revised opportunities on areas where you can improve. As a skilled police officer, you really can do almost anything you want to do. And there are lots of us former cops now in the corporate world, to support and share our experiences along the way.