My Tribe

In three weeks time I will have been retired from law enforcement for seven years. Seven! Even as I look at the calendar I am unsure how time passed so quickly. But a quick trip into Portland and the sight of another twelve-year-old behind the wheel of a black and white confirms the awful truth. I am officially a dinosaur.

If you’ve followed some of my prior blog posts you already know how much I struggled after leaving my police life behind. The first few weeks were grand. It felt like a vacation. The phone wasn’t ringing constantly, no frantic emails to return, no emergency trips into Portland in the dead of night. It was truly great. But then, after those first few weeks had passed, I noticed something. The phone wasn’t ringing. There were no emails. Nobody needed me. It was as if I’d become obsolete overnight. Worse was the realization that I had lost that decades long connection to my police family. It might be hard for some of you reading this to imagine the feeling of no longer belonging, especially if you’re still approaching retirement from your current occupation. But trust me, it’s an unnerving experience.

I’ve known for some time that my fellow mystery/thriller writers are a welcoming and supportive group of folks. That awareness began in New England, quickly spreading to faraway places like Ireland and Australia. Fellow crime scribes abound. But it wasn’t until a week ago that I realized exactly where I belong.

I was in Tennessee attending my first Killer Nashville mystery writers’ conference. If you are a mystery writer, or hoping to be, this is a can’t miss conference. Similar in size to the New England Crime Bake, Killer Nashville draws writers from far and wide, each of whom are more than willing to share their knowledge, both of writing and the business of writing. I took part in several panels and book signings, but more importantly I got to spend time with old friends and made some new.

On Saturday night the awards banquet was held. A classy event with a fabulous band, great food, some heartfelt speeches, and the presentation of Killer Nashville’s annual awards. As the evening unfolded I had occasion to really observe the people seated at my table, former journalists, musicians, and a cop. While our our prior occupations ran the gamut, each of us shares a love of storytelling and a passion for the written word. Amid the laughter, gaiety, and playful irreverence was the unwavering support and appreciation displayed for their fellow writers. As I watched them interact with one another it occurred to me that these were exactly the same people I had surrounded myself with when I still wore a badge. People from all walks of life, with widely varying backgrounds and experiences, united by a remarkable passion for their chosen career. I realized, with certainty, that I had once again found my tribe.

Still Adapting

Hello all you loyal followers of Murder Books. Bruce Robert Coffin here wishing you a joyous summer.

This month I thought I’d discuss the struggle of moving from one career to a completely different endeavor. In my case that is the ongoing transition from police work to novel writing. I used the word ongoing because it has finally occurred to me that this is a slow process.

As anyone who has ever worn the badge can attest, those old routines and mindsets die hard, if ever. So deeply engrained into my psyche was the necessity of keeping a charged cellphone on the nightstand each night as I crawled into bed, ringer on of course, that shutting it off now seems verboten. Like I’m committing a mortal sin by killing the ringtone. I think “Thou shall not kill the ringtone” was actually contained within the pages of my department’s SOP. This was one of the realities of my job, the twenty-four seven nature of detective work. It was never a question of whether or not the phone ring after I’d called it a night, it usually did. The only question was what time the call would come and would said call necessitate me driving into work.

As a novel writer, I don’t receive many urgent late night communications. Most everything these days can wait until morning, or at least until my 3A.M. muse slaps me upside the head and orders me to get back to the work in progress.

But authoring full time doesn’t let me off the hook from all of my programming. Nope, I still back the vehicle into wherever I’m parking, in case there’s need to respond quickly. I still pick the table or booth that affords me a view of the room with my back to the wall. I still carry things in my left hand, keeping my gun hand free. Still unfasten the seatbelt as I turn into the driveway, allowing for quick exit. Whenever I’m in public I still watch for furtive actions on the part of everyone around me. Hell, I still write about police work. The cop’s sense never goes away, and for safety’s sake I guess I wouldn’t want it to.

I still remember sitting on the beach in Saint Martin, with some fellow law dawgs, watching as three wolves descended on an unsuspecting couple. The middle-aged man and woman were seated on lawn chairs and mesmerized by the brilliant turquoise-colored Caribbean. The woman had stowed her pocketbook and shopping bags behind her chair, in full view to all who passed by, including the three wolves. By now you’re probably wondering how we knew they were wolves. For one they had nothing with them. No towels. No suits. No chairs. No Jimmy Buffet tee-shirts. No adult beverages, although they hardly looked old enough to legally consume anyway. What they did possess were running sneakers on their feet, bodies that looked extremely fleet of foot, and clothes that identify them as locals, not tourists. As we watched they surrounded their mark, moving ever closer to the couple, while trying unsuccessfully to look disinterested. It was obvious to us that they had done this many times before. Finally, before the curtain fell on this little drama, we walked over and let the couple know what was about to go down. Turns out they were on the same cruise ship. They thanked us and the woman moved her valuables around to the front where they could both keep and eye on them. Eventually, the three wolves moved on. One at a time, still trying to look as if they belonged, they rose and wandered away, each one fixing us with a look of contempt. I tell you this story because it’s what every cop does. None of us, regardless of our “after cop life” career, can ever completely shut off that part of us.

So while I may spend my days writing, or traveling to libraries, bookstores, conferences, and colleges to talk about writing, my inner cop still lives. And he still struggles with shutting off the ringtone.

Write on!

Giving Up the Badge by Bruce Robert Coffin

Retiring from police work was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Quite a statement, right? But it’s true. Ask any cop who has left the job after twenty or thirty years in search of a “normal” life and they will likely tell you that it was much harder than they ever imagined.

Most departments try to prepare officers for the financial realities of retirement by conducting briefings with retired cops who have moved into non-law enforcement careers, and holding training sessions put on by state retirement employees. And the financial reality is this, unless you worked a ridiculous amount of overtime – i.e., spent the last several decades away from your family – you’re going to need a job, most likely one that includes benefits like health care coverage. But financial realities aside, the real challenge in retiring from law enforcement is psychological, and on that point, in my opinion, we do a pretty poor job preparing officers.

I have discussed this very issue with enough retired cops to know that it is a real problem. They all wish they had been better prepared for the mental adjustment. I had never experienced any issues with depression, suddenly I found myself floundering, on the outside looking in. Retirement wasn’t what I had envisioned. Oh, I had plenty of free time. That wasn’t a problem. The problem was I felt obsolete, unneeded. No longer was my phone ringing twenty-four hours a day with calls from someone who needed me to supervise a case, put out a fire, give advice or guidance. No longer did have to crawl out of bed each night and drive to Portland half-awake to start a new investigation. No one was calling. Those things I retired to get away from were the very things I missed. I began to wonder if maybe I’d made a grave mistake.

My life became a roller coaster of emotion. The good days were full of all the things I enjoyed, spending time with my wife and family, working out, golfing, hiking, fishing, writing. The bad days, usually accompanied by foul weather, I often found it hard to even get out of bed. At first I told myself that I was just catching up on lost sleep. It was okay to sleep-in, I’d earned it. But the reality was I felt like I no longer mattered. My police family had moved on without me. I had hopped off the big blue bus and was no longer sure who I was. My purpose in life, once so clear, had become a mystery. And to think that I retired of my own volition. What about those who don’t? Imagine being forced out of your police family, as many cops are, due to a mental or physical impediment.

I am lucky that I had the support of friends and family to get me through the most difficult period, which in my case was the first twelve to eighteen months. I try and reach out to fellow officers as they enter into their own retirement, giving them a heads-up about the feelings they may experience as they transition from their former life to the new. My purpose in reaching out is to lend an ear, and to validate what they may end up feeling. I tell them that there is life after police work, they just have to keep busy until the transition occurs.

Like most first responders, cops tend to be their own worst enemies. We are so used to assisting those in need that we are often the last to seek help from others. Most departments have employee assistance programs, critical incident debriefings, and peer support groups for active members. Perhaps the time has come for police departments to focus on those preparing to retire too.

I am one of the fortunate ones who found something I love to do after I left law enforcement. Unfortunately, there are too many still looking.

Have you experienced something similar? Do you know others who have?

Cop Habits Die Hard

BRIAN THIEM: After an hour of mingling with the 50 or so people at a neighborhood party on New Year’s Day, I made my way through the buffet table and located a place to sit with my overflowing plate of goodies. It was a comfy chair in a corner of the living room with my back to not only one wall but two. My friends joked that they were saving this seat especially for me so no one could sneak up behind me, and should a member of ISIS appear among the partygoers, I’d spot him. Old habits die hard.

Its’ been 13 years since I’ve carried a badge and gun for a living, but when I go out to dinner with friends, I still quickly grab the seat where I can best view the crowd and, if possible, the doors. When I enter a convenience store, I still pause at the doorway andBrian OPD 1980 scan the shoppers. I check the faces and demeanor of the clerks behind the cash registers for signs of distress. I know the chances of a take-over robbery occurring at the restaurant where I’m eating or a stick-up going down at the store I’m entering are slight, but old habit die hard.

When my wife and I first started dating 18 years ago, she was perplexed (to say the least) when I continually guided her to my left side as we walked down a street and offered up my left arm or hand for her to hold. As a young soldier in the Army, I learned to carry things in my left hand to keep my right hand free for saluting. That habit was reinforced when I joined the police department—always keep your gun hand free. Today, I still do the same because old habits die hard.

I still stand to the side of doors when knocking or ringing a doorbell. I doubt the person I’m visiting will empty an assault rifle’s magazine through the door if I’m standing in front of it, but old habits die hard.

When I pull up to a traffic light, I still stop a car length behind the car in front of me. Cops are trained not to let themselves get boxed in. If an emergency call comes over the radio or we spot a felony-want vehicle driving toward us, we want an escape route. And we certainly don’t want to be bumper-to-bumper with the car in front of us if we suddenly realize it matches the description of one used in a string of armed robberies. Old habits die hard.

When I started in police work, very few of us wore seatbelts when on patrol. The fear of being trapped in our cars if a bad guy suddenly appeared and started shooting at us was greater than dying in a crash. Halfway through my career, our department mandated the use of seatbelts during normal operations (a good decision), even though the lawOakland police car provided a law enforcement exception to the seatbelt laws. But we began unbuckling our seatbelts as we approached a scene, so that upon arrival, it was one less thing to do if we needed to hastily exit our cars. That habit continued well into retirement, whether I was pulling into the grocery store or my driveway. But thanks to my new car’s nagging admonishment when my seatbelt is undone, I no longer release it a block before my destination.

Today, my retired brothers and sisters in blue and I can laugh at some of our old cop habits, but we know that these habits may have allowed us to survive the streets and make it to retirement, so many will remain with us forever.

I’d love to hear from others out there—either former cops or friends of cops—about other cop habits they notice in people who had once carried a badge and gun for a living.