Aging Officers: A Dilemma Worth Considering

Imagine that you have come home to discover a burglar in your home. Quickly leaving your residence, you call the police with your cell phone. Several minutes later an elderly police officer arrives, gets out of his car and slowly approaches you using a cane to help him walk. As he gets closer you notice he is wearing hearing aids. Not exactly a confidence-builder, but this aging officer asks you if anyone else is in the house or if there are any weapons in the house and where they are located. These questions seem reasonable.

A few moments later, two younger officers arrive and charge towards the house with their guns drawn. The elder officer stops them and tells them to go to the rear entrance of the house. As other officers arrive, the elder officer assigns them to take up positions around the house and near windows. He then gets on his bullhorn and advises the burglar the house is surrounded by police and if the burglar comes out with no weapons and hands in the air, he will not get hurt. The burglar complies. No one is injured and no property is stolen.

When the burglar is taken into custody, a sawed-off shotgun is found inside the house. It belongs to the burglar. Now, this aging officer looks brilliant.

The Problem with Aging

Gross motor skills peak at age 30. It’s all downhill after that; or at least that is what we have been led to believe.

The 5 senses do decline with age. These changes can have a great impact not only on job performance but on satisfaction in the quality of life. Our senses tell us a lot about the world. They pick up information that is changed into nerve signals and carried to the brain where that information becomes a message we can understand. The starting point for the senses is stimulation, and the older a person gets, the more stimulation required for a clear message.

*Hearing and balance begin to decrease as parts of the ear lose functionality. Because the ear also affects balance, as we age balance and hearing become more difficult. High-pitched sounds are usually the first to deteriorate. Generally, this begins around age 50.

*Vision is affected by age. Essentially, it gets harder to respond to changes between light and darkness. The eye lens, which helps focus images, becomes less flexible; often requiring reading glasses. The eye muscle also loses tone, making it a bit harder to see details.

*Taste and Smell are intricately linked. Some smells actually have a certain degree of taste. Proper taste and smell are also safety valves – informing us about the presence of dangerous gas, smoke or even spoiled food. Although there are no definitive studies which suggest these 2 senses deteriorate with age, there is evidence that the number of active taste buds decrease with age.

*Touch includes the ability to feel vibration, pressure, temperature, and pain. These abilities decrease with age.

Clearly, the senses are important to all people but they play a critical skills role with soldiers, law enforcement officers and fire-fighters – for obvious reasons. As these critical skills diminish, the effectiveness in the field would diminish as well, at least for tasks which require these skills.

Is there a way for your agency to detect the decline of these critical skills in aging officers?

The Retirement & Health Care Factor

About 77 million baby boomers begin to enter retirement age in 2011. Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. For the next 19 years, 10,000 will reach age 65 each day. One big problem with this is there are not sufficient funds for them to retire on.

Traditionally, police and fire personnel have had generously defined pension plans that, for the most part, allow them to retire earlier than people in other occupations, with a healthy percentage of their salary. Many retire by age 56. This trend developed based on the belief that people in these professions lived shorter lives due to the danger and stress involved in these occupations, along with a greater risk of injury. Turns out NOT to be the case. There are other professions that are a lot more dangerous.

The average life expectancy for all workers is about 78 years old. Pension studies consistently indicate the longer a worker works, the shorter their expected life span. Social Security has begun to pay out more than it is taking in.

Two additional factors are the dramatic rise in the cost of health care and the global financial meltdown, which wiped out a large percentage of accumulated wealth that was invested in various funds dedicated to retirement. Cities and counties are more susceptible to bankruptcy than they have been. Many current civil servant pension plans are now grossly underfunded. Eventually, these pension plans will have to change because they are not sustainable. Boomers are also more likely to work longer, out of necessity. In one survey, 40% said they will work “until they drop”.

The combination of these influences will create an environment where officers may be forced to work past the current traditional retirement age because they cannot afford not to. The generous pension plans of yesterday will be a thing of the past. At the same time their critical motor skills and senses will be declining. Given these demographics, it would be prudent for law enforcement agencies to begin to prepare for an aging officer workforce.

New Research

Current research suggests that fine motor skills acquired over a lifetime involve many structures in the brain, and after time those structures become “highways”. With an amateur these structures are very active. But as the amateur becomes an expert, less brain activity is required to carry out the process. In other words, although the aging expert experiences the same deterioration in motor skills that the aging non-expert experiences in unrelated tasks; the aging expert retains the skills learned over a lifetime through decades of practice.

This supports the primary principles that Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman put forth in their great book – First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.

Among other things, they assert:

*Talents are not the same as skill or knowledge. Talent is an altogether different phenomenon.

*Every person has a “filter”; a characteristic way of responding to the world around him. We all do. Your filter tells you which stimuli to notice and which to ignore; which to love and which to hate. Everyone’s filter is unique. Your filter is always working. Of all the possibilities of things you could do or feel or think, your filter is constantly telling you the few things you must do, or feel, or think. Your filter, more than your race, sex, age or nationality, IS you. A person’s mental filter is as enduring and unique as their fingerprint.

*Neuroscience research tells us that beyond our mid-teens there is a limit to how much character we can re-carve. This means in terms of mental pathways, no amount of training, coaching or encouragement will enable someone to turn the barren wastelands in their brain into frictionless 4-lane highways. Beyond our mid-teens, we either have it or we don’t; whatever that may be.

*Neuroscience research confirms the filter, and that the recurring patterns of behavior the filter creates are enduring. This filtering process is what creates specific talents. You cannot teach talent. It is already there.

Additionally, new research suggests that aging adults who stay socially active and engaged not only keep their intellectual skills sharp, but their motor skills as well. This has serious implications for aging officers, who possess wisdom and skill sets that younger officers have not yet acquired.

This information leads me to suggest that the aging officer, who possesses all of this talent that has been soaked for several decades in experience – should not be encouraged to retire, be stuck into a community service position or relegated to desk duty. The aging officer’s skill sets and talent should be matched with a real need within their agency or department – where their primary talents and “highways” can be utilized effectively.

The Problem with Qualifications

Theoretically, the decline in an officer’s skills would first be noticed during department or agency annual qualifications. The problem is that most agencies do not require qualifications that would accurately assess these skills. Most agencies do require annual shooting qualifications, but it is highly unlikely the decline in cognitive function, the senses and overall mental health will be discovered during a shooting qualification.

As a Use of Force, firearms, self defense and martial arts instructor I have noticed that as I age my physical abilities are declining. I am not as fast as I used to be and I have lost muscle mass. It takes longer to recover from routine injuries associated with what I do. I have had to adjust my workout routines to accommodate what is happening with my body. For the most part, this means a greater emphasis on stretching and cardiovascular training, and less emphasis on strength training. Conversely, I have also noticed that I am much wiser than I was at a younger age. I do not have to think much about solutions to problems that are presented within my area of expertise. If I do have to engage in a violent encounter my assessment of behavior and choice of action is quicker and surer than it was many years ago. I am also more accurate at assessing and predicting human behavior. There is evidence of the decline in motor skills and the “highways” that are within me.

For over two decades my primary clients were criminal justice professionals. When dealing with these various agencies I always recommended US Supreme Court guidelines in the application of Use of Force. That is, to provide initial comprehensive training followed by 2-year refreshers. As some of the agencies I had initially trained asked me to come back and conduct refresher training I began to notice that during refresher training, some aging officers were struggling and it was clear that their motor skills were deteriorating. I also noticed some of them showing the younger guys how to do the techniques. Herein lays another example of deteriorating motor skills but enduring “highways” of knowledge and experience in aging officers.

Presumably, the standards that accompany use of force training are a result of the potential liability associated with officers using force. However, each agency sets its own qualification standards. In general, there are no universal federal or state standards for agency qualifications.

A quick primer on some terms that are frequently associated with law enforcement qualifications might be helpful.

*A Standard is an exact value established and defined by authority, custom, or common consent to serve as a reference, model, or rule in measuring quantities or qualities, establishing practices or procedures, or evaluating results. Often, standards are published in a document that contains a technical specification or other precise criteria designed to be used consistently as a rule, guideline or definition.

Practical example: To pass my Basic Handgun & Self Defense Course the student must score 100% on the written test and 80% or better on the shooting qualification – defined as hitting the silhouette of a target at 21 feet using a total of 20 bullets.

*A Certification is a statement that meets or will adhere to certain conditions and will undertake or not undertake certain actions. Certification programs provide a means of assuring that an officer has the characteristics or meets the requirements contained in a standard.

Practical example: Upon successful completion of the Basic Handgun & Self Defense Course, the student receives a certificate indicating they have met those standards (in addition to a few others). This certificate allows the student to obtain a permit to carry.

*An Accreditation is a procedure (not a statement) by which an authoritative body formally recognizes that a body or person is competent to carry out specific tasks.

Practical example: At Assault Prevention, in order for an instructor to receive accreditation they need to demonstrate cognitive ability through written examinations and interviews, but they must also demonstrate motor skill competence based on a set of standards for each technique, and possess the ability to teach courses based on a learning theory model. Once these things are demonstrated successfully, the instructor receives accreditation.

If there are no universal national or state standards for agencies to adopt, how do they choose what needs qualification? How often should an officer be required to qualify? Which skills require qualification? What are the standards for those qualifications?

Officer Training

Almost every state has some type of board that governs law enforcement training by statute. In Minnesota, state statutes and administrative rules require the following for a Minnesota Peace Officer. Prior to becoming a licensed officer an individual must attend training that includes:

*History and overview of the criminal justice system.
*Minnesota statute law.
*Constitutional law and criminal procedure.
*Juvenile justice system and procedure.
*Patrol procedures.
*Criminal investigation and testifying.
*Human behavior and crisis intervention.
*Defensive tactics and use of force.
*Cultural awareness and response to crime victims.

Additionally, in order to maintain a licensed peace officer status, the required hours of continuing education are:

*16 hours for a peace officer or a part-time peace officer who has been licensed for at least six months but less than 18 months.
*32 hours for a peace officer or a part-time peace officer who has been licensed for at least 18 months but less than 30 months.
*48 hours for a peace officer or a part-time peace officer who has been licensed for at least 30 months.

The continuing education that is accepted by the Minnesota P.O.S.T. Board must fit into the topical areas indicated above.

Continuing education is different than a qualification. Qualifications are typically used to assess an officer’s abilities. Shooting qualifications are almost universally used within agencies to determine if an officer can still shoot straight. However, shooting qualifications vary widely from basic target shooting to full blown shooting simulations – and everything in between.

So What?

The universal shooting qualification is based on the enormous liability associated with an officer using their firearm. This is a no-brainer. The qualification is supposed to reduce agency and officer liability in the event of a shooting incident. The monetary damages that result from a lawsuit in which death or serious injury is the result of an officer’s actions can be disastrous.

It is next to impossible to collect accurate statistics regarding officer involved shootings because there is no such data base. Based on several studies that are available, there are about 405 officer involved shootings a year, just based on adjusting these figures to the current US population. FBI statistics from 2007 seem to reinforce this number as not being wildly out of proportion – based on the 391 justified killings by police that year. For discussion sake let’s generously round up the number of officer involved shootings to 500 per year.

The point? Shooting qualifications are conducted because of the great liability and risk of monetary damages that some with a lawsuit. Yet, there are 500 of these incidents per year. They are NOT conducted because of the regularity of occurrences. In 2009 there were 57,268 officers assaulted while performing their duties. This figure does not include the number of times police used physical force on someone, just officers that were assaulted. Presumably, the number of officers involved in ANY use of force incident would be much higher. Yet, there are very few agencies that require actual annual qualifications in the application of use of force; both physically and cognitively.

If we take this line of thinking a few steps further, there should be annual qualifications for the skills that make officers effective. These qualifications would include things like cognitive function, overall mental health, use of force application, basic investigative procedures and interpersonal communications. Those things are usually presented as training opportunities or continuing education rather than qualifications.

Proof of the Problem

The Force Science Institute recently released the following findings in regard to their research into current law enforcement training methods.

*The average officer within months of leaving an academy will be able only to describe how a given suspect-control technique should be used but will have “little ability” to actually apply it effectively in “a dynamic encounter with a defiantly resistant subject.”

*At the rate academy and in-service training is typically delivered, it could take the average street cop up to 45 years to receive the number of hours of training and practice in arrest-and-control and officer-safety techniques that a student athlete gets in competitive sports during the usual high school career.

*Many police training programs are not employing modern research-based methods of successfully teaching psychomotor skills, a shortcoming compounded by the fact that current record-keeping fails to capture even the most elementary relevant information about the dynamic nature of real-world assaults on LEOs.

Their bottom-line conclusion: Time and cost concerns are “so restrictive that they significantly compromise the suitability and sufficiency” of current physical force training. Yet, officers are assaulted frequently and use less than lethal force frequently. And, there are no annual qualifications for use of force. Interesting.


There are several issues that converge in this article.

*Aging officers will have to work longer to a greater retirement age.

*As these officers age there will be a decline in their critical skills, yet they will retain valuable knowledge and wisdom that are required for success in the profession.

*Current qualification standards are inadequate. There should be universally accepted qualification standards that accomplish four things.

1. Reduces all use of force liability.

2. Evaluates an officer’s ability to successfully deal with circumstances they will routinely face.

3. Evaluates the skills that make officers effective.

4. Accurately assess and evaluate the cognitive, emotional and physical skills of aging officers.

Agencies would be well-advised to prepare for the inevitable; an aging workforce. Smart employers will develop qualification standards that effectively evaluate an officer’s skills and capitalize upon the aging officer’s talents. By applying these principles and developing new approaches, agencies will – long term – save money and reduce liability. They will reduce liability because their qualifications will actually assess critical skills and talent based on situations officers routinely face. They will save money because, as an added benefit, studies consistently agree that satisfied employees are up to 50% more productive, safe, profitable and loyal than those who are not.


Terry Hipp is a career veteran of the Criminal Justice System. He serves as the CEO and Sr. Director of Training and Education at Assault Prevention LLC, which helps individuals, groups, and organizations proactively plan for successful mitigation of unexpected violence and emergencies, resulting in a sense of control to their daily lives. AssaultPrevention.Info educates people regarding their personal safety through training and research. They help organizations identify and protect their critical assets through a proprietary assessment and based on outcomes, help them develop protection plans for those assets. Additionally, they assess individuals who pose specific threats and based on those outcomes, provide mitigation planning. He may be contacted at Info@AssaultPrevention.Info []


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