One man’s odyssey as a rookie cop – at age 50

Mark Johnson was a United Way executive but wanted a more hands-on job. He quickly came to realize that he had more to learn than to teach.

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At first, Mark Johnson worried his career switch was a blunder, but in the end, he says, being a cop was the best job he ever had.

This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization, which is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Read more stories and share yours at

After more than two decades as a United Way executive who raised in excess of $100 million for local nonprofit agencies, it seemed that, despite all those charitable dollars and services delivered, the social problems we were trying to mitigate were only proliferating.

I needed a more tangible, hands-on way to make a difference. So I traded the boardrooms of philanthropy for a badge, a gun, 13 bucks an hour, and the mean streets of Mobile, Ala., to become the oldest rookie in the local police department. I was 50.

I downsized my ambitions for giving back from a community-wide scale to just one neighborhood, often one block of one neighborhood, or even one family or person at a time. Few jobs are more hands-on than policing, and few jobs make a more tangible difference than those that protect individuals unable to do so themselves.

I was (dangerously, naively) confident that my life experience and professional knowledge of social ills and solutions would enlighten and reform law enforcement. But I quickly came to understand that I had more to learn than to teach. And the learning came from the unlikeliest of teachers: fellow officers less than half my age, battered women and their tormentors, career criminals of all stripes.

I began to doubt my motives and fitness for this line of work, and to worry that I’d made a colossal career blunder. I revised my aspirations from “capable and compassionate cop” to “minimally competent cop.” It was like entering a parallel universe.

I spent six years as a uniformed patrol officer. The first few years were marked by the shock of mayhem and tragedy. Then came the more gradual winnowing of old certainties and convictions. But somewhere around the midpoint of my time as a cop, things changed.

I went from uniformed street patrol to plainclothes detective, but it was more than just the new assignment. Maybe it was the heartfelt thanks expressed to me by victims for whom I was able to find a measure of justice. Or it could’ve been the guys, straight and sober today, who took me up on a promise (made as I transported them to jail) to take them to a 12-step meeting when they got out. Or perhaps it was the close encounters with evil, including one with an escaped cop killer.

Most likely it was the cumulative effect of these kinds of experiences that led me, very slowly, to understand the prevalence of suffering, and the necessary commitment of both mercy and justice to mitigate it.

My “encore” career, 12 years as a cop, was the best job I ever had. As improbable as it all was, it has led with seeming inevitability to yet another encore, as a writer. My story was picked up by a small California publisher early last year. “Apprehensions & Convictions: Adventures of a 50-Year-Old Rookie Cop” hit bookstores in February.

I can’t even imagine what comes next.

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