The beat goes on
How older police officers add value and why you’re going to see a lot more of them. Ellen Brook reports.
Up until 13 years ago there were very few frontline police officers in New Zealand who were more than 55 years old.
That was the age of compulsory retirement and, apart from some former traffic safety officers who had transition arrangements after the 1992 merger, many police went on to have other careers or retire with a government super fund pension.
In 2002 the rules changed and since then more than 800 police officers have taken advantage of that and stayed in the job. Most of them have done so because they want to be there. And, if they want to stay on the frontline, they have to pass the PCT, just like every other officer.
At 72, Clem Edmonds (pictured), a Canterbury road policing sergeant, who joined Police in 1969, is the oldest, but not by much. There are 225 constabulary members of Police who are 60 or older.
These men, and a few women, are employed across the range of policing, still making valuable contributions in their chosen careers.
By 2019, the median age of constables is expected to rise to 43. Scrapping the retirement age has played its part in that rise, but low attrition and a wider range of recruitment ages have also contributed. And changes in the way people eat and exercise and their outlook on life make 60 the new 50.
That is also the new reality – one that Police accepted a little later than other sectors – and older workers (defined as being over 55) are definitely here to stay.
The Department of Labour reports there is the same number of older people in the labour force as younger people aged 15-24, with both age groups containing about 400,000 people. By 2020, the department predicts, the older aged labour force will be about 600,000 people, while numbers in all other age groups will increase “modestly, if at all”.
What that means is that by 2020, one in four people in work will be aged 55 or over, with many, for a variety of reasons, working beyond the traditional retirement age of 65.
Is that good for the workforce? In general, yes, according to some recent research. A study by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety found that older workers had lower turnover, more dedication to the workplace and more positive work values. Absenteeism was less frequent, although it could be for longer periods when due to injury or chronic illness.
Other studies have noted that older workers work “slower” and don’t easily make quick decisions. However, that balanced out because they tended to be more accurate in their work and make more correct decisions than faster, younger co-workers.
The Canadian study also reported that there was no consistent relationship between ageing and performance at work. The main reasons for poor work performance among older workers were: lack of recognition and feeling their work wasn’t valued; not getting along with supervisors; high job stress; lack of support. As the study noted, those situations occur with all age groups.
So how does the experience of older police officers stack up in the current policing environment?
Police News spoke to officers 60 and over, many of whom joined Police in the 1970s, so they’ve already experienced plenty of changes. They began policing at a time when they had only their wits and their batons to rely on. Hi-tech equipment and new tools have brought the job into the 21st century and the average police officer is no longer a six-foot-tall male.
Older and wiser?
Inspector Ged Byers (left), 62, manager Interpol and Police Liaison Officer Desk at PNHQ, says there’s no doubt that today’s police are more professional in their conduct and more accountable, but some things haven’t changed. “The basic skill of being able to talk and relate to people is still the most vital skill a police officer can have,” he says.
For Constable Pam Bell, 61, who works in Youth Education Services (YES), one of the most obvious changes is more women in police. When she joined in 1992, she recalls being told, “We don’t have female recruits in Tauranga.” Without even realising it, Pam says, older officers are naturally role models, “not necessarily on the latest way police are trained, but on how a dose of common sense and good old-fashioned manners help whether you are dealing with your boss, a student, a victim or a criminal”.
Another YES constable, Helen Thurston, 60, says policing is about attitude not age.
“It is about earning respect by doing your job well and by being a friendly, approachable person who just gets on with it.”
Life experience also helps when dealing with families, she says. “I can relate to the problems parents have with their children and being older can help defuse certain situations.”
Ged Byers stresses the importance of attitude too. “We can all think of the ‘old hand’ who is nothing more than a grumpy old sod… Maintaining the right attitude to pass on guidance and advice is critical, otherwise, even if you have plenty to offer, no one will listen.”
Ged says he doesn’t look at his colleagues in terms of age; it’s what they do and how they do it that matters.
However, he says, older members do have the added value of being able to provide the knowledge and experience that ensures the history, cultural development and skills of the job are not lost.
“Obviously, rolling around in the mud, the blood and the beer at a time when your hair is falling out and body shape is going south is not what we all want to be doing, perhaps.
But, if you do, then why not? If you can.”
Everyone in Police has a role and older people play their part in that diversity, Ged says.
Senior Constable Graham Gough, 62, who works at the two-person station at Mangawhai, also thinks the public are more likely to trust and speak openly with older officers. “Even the offenders know we are the guys that you can’t bullshit as easily as some of the younger cops.”
There was also a case for mentoring younger officers, “particularly with their driving habits, attending jobs and in their approaches to the public and offenders”.
Senior Sergeant Mike Fulcher, 62, joined the Ministry of Transport (MOT) in 1977 and came across to Police in the 1992 merger. He’s loved his job from day one when he joined to make a difference to people’s lives. That’s still his motivation as District Youth Services Co-ordinator in Counties Manukau, and he finds that his 37 years of experience help when it comes to trying new things.
He worked on the ill-fated Police INCIS computer system. He didn’t really see it as a failure, though, rather as the start of the IT revolution for Police.
The new focus on technology has been one of the biggest changes for all Police staff, especially, says Helen Thurston, keeping up with it, if it’s not part of your day-to-day job.
Ged Byers is philosophical about it. “The job is still bureaucratic in nature once the dust of frontline policing settles.”
Mike Fulcher thinks that some of the new devices have come at the expense of personal interactions. “It has kept a lot of police at their desks. It is hard to respond properly to an email on a miniature keyboard on an iPhone.“
However, cellphone technology has revolutionised field communications, he says.
Graham Gough agrees that technology has made a huge difference, but all police were now faced with ever-increasing demands on their times, “taskings and the never-ending paper fight with court files, disclosure requirements, and centralised custody units far away from outstations”.
Micro-management has removed a level of enjoyment from day-to-day duties, he says, “and constant pressure to enforce traffic rules at the expense of everything else has undermined the independence and enjoyment of the job. To be frank, the fun and close camaraderie have largely been taken out of the job now”.
Above: Frontline officers Constable Chris Jujnovich, 63 (left) based in Wellsford, and Senior Constable Graham Gough, 62, from Mangawhai.
Graham joined Police in 1972 because it sounded exciting and he wanted to help the public feel safe by “locking up the bad guys”. Looking back on his career, he says he learnt the most from his senior peers and supervisors. “The guys that had been there, done that. They knew the ropes, the short cuts in the never-ending paper war… the old NCOs who knew how to type you out of the crap when you screwed up.”
Now it’s his turn. “I do feel that my younger colleagues look to us for advice and hopefully learn something in their approaches to the public.”
In many ways, Graham is lucky to still be in the job at all. He was the victim of two serious assaults with an iron bar, one in 1982 and one in 2004. Both resulted in stitches to the left side of the head.
Sergeant Max Newman, 64, joined the MOT in 1972 after returning home from active service in Vietnam with the New Zealand Army. His hobby was riding motorcycles, so it seemed a good choice to be paid to do that. But apart from that, two army mates had been killed in car crashes after drinking.
“I wanted to do something to try to prevent similar losses.” He was drawn to the idea of protecting the community and the comradeship of working in a team environment with a group of likeminded colleagues.
Max believes the MOT-Police merger was an unqualified success – “two organisations with similar focus joining forces to provide a better service to the community. Death and injury is the same whether as the result of a road crash or crime”.
The amount of drinking and driving on New Zealand roads has certainly tracked down, but, looking back, Max says the biggest changes he has noticed are the changing community and loss of respect for both families and police.
On the plus side, Police now reflects the diverse community it serves.
Age is no barrier to policing, says Max, who is a section leader with the Commercial Vehicle Inspection Unit. “The public prefers to deal with someone who has clearly experienced life and understands different views.”
Chris Jujnovich, 63, a general duties constable in Wellsford, agrees that older officers are valued by the public. He’s not sure that the department feels the same way, even though, as he points out, it’s a win-win for Police.
“Grey hair is our best asset. We make better decisions using our experience. We use other alternatives to solve problems. We communicate better. Young people don’t see us as threatening and interacting with them is so much easier.”
There’s still a view in some quarters that older workers are keeping younger people out of the workforce. The contrary view is that if they leave, young people have to support them, which is not sustainable so it’s better if the oldies keep earning.
Police has had to adapt, but FEO (flexible employment options) policies don’t seem to have kept pace. While many officers over 60 are more than happy with fulltime work, others would at least like to explore part-time or job-sharing preferences, which are generally not available.
Mike Fulcher says there is not enough flexibility at his rank (senior sergeant), which he thinks is a shame. “I imagine that if they looked at it, they would get more value from part-timers than they realise.”
Graham Gough says he would like the option of part-time work.
“Being on call at my age is taking a toll on my health.”
In the old days, older cops were reassigned to office support roles, such as arms officer or lost and found property officer. These days the options are more likely to be work as an authorised officer or other non-sworn positions within Police.
Chris Jujnovich says he accepts that being a frontline officer, no matter what age, means working around the clock and being on call.
“I don’t mind it at the moment,” he says. He’s definitely in favour of Police retaining older members, with the tongue-in-cheek proviso that “we probably need to retire before we get to 85”.
Grey is the new black
A report from Auckland University of Technology (AUT) says New Zealand organisations in general could be better prepared to deal with an ageing workforce.
The report, Managing an Ageing Workforce, was prepared by AUT’s Work Research Institute in conjunction with the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust (EEO).
Trust chief executive Bev Cassidy-MacKenzie said: “The world has changed. Gone are the days when an employee would reach 60 and shuffle off to tend to their garden or play golf, living out their days on a tidy retirement package.
There are multiple reasons why people are working longer and this currently underutilised talent pool has much left to give and to gain from being an active part of the workforce.”
Why being "old" is a good thing
The “old guy” — that’s me. Some younger police officers call us old guys by nicer names – veteran or seasoned; some use less-polite ones – grizzled, crusty or worn-out. No matter what label, we should all be glad we attained it, writes James Born.
Being the old guy — and I use the term generically to mean both male and female — in any police agency means something went right in your career.
Unlike accountants or lawyers, cops have a host of worries the general public cannot fathom, not the least of which is a career-ending injury — or, worse, a violent death.
Unlike in TV shows, an injury in the line of duty is not some call to glory or dramatic moment, but a devastating personal loss. Whether it is the result of a shooting, or a simple traffic accident, the odds of a cop being injured or worse are much greater than most professions. And that doesn’t even take into account the long hours and stress affecting each cop’s heart.
Reaching retirement is a laudable achievement for any law enforcement professional.
When I first started my police career, it was almost accepted that, just prior to retirement, you weren’t expected to do much. Times have changed for the better. Everyone is accountable and has to pull their weight. Some of that weight is hard-fought and well-earned experience in dealing with a number of issues some younger police officers have yet to encounter. For that, they’re lucky to have you (although they may not realise it).
Speaking of weight, fitness is a vital factor in a long career and happy retirement. It doesn’t matter if you’re running marathons or just hitting the gym three times a week, many studies show that any activity can work wonders on your overall fitness, which has a domino effect with your mental health and longevity.
Fitness is one of the most important factors to mood.
Some things are easier as you get older. As you gain experience, it’s simple to think through a case from beginning to end. You know what some of the pitfalls might be, as well as the rewards.
Everyone thinks they’re as smart as they need to be, but it’s only when you’re more than halfway through your career you realise how lucky you were not to have a major mishap as you muddled through the early years.
Some of your co-workers might look at you differently now, and the new guys treat you with a detached respect; a benevolent acceptance that you’re going to be working for a while longer, but that shouldn’t interfere with anything they have planned, other than grabbing your padded desk chair.
They have no idea that you are the face of their future and that the actions you take today can set the bar for their retirement a couple of decades away.
Don’t shy away from being an “old guy”. Own it. Live it. Rejoice in it. Say, “I’m not an old guy — I am the old guy. I’m a grizzled, senior, crusty, veteran who paid his dues and is willing to pay more before I retire.”
No one asked you to be a cop. You chose it. And now it looks like you’ll see it through to the end.
James Born started his police career with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency. He was involved in the Miami drug wars in the 1990s and did undercover work in Florida. He later became a crime writer, with each of his nine novels based on some aspect of his career.