Photo: Mark W. Clark
A platoon of police officers getting into a drunken Christmas Eve brawl inside their station house. Patrolmen passing out in their Crown Vics. Off-duty officers washing away their sorrows in cheap beer and whiskey, or stumbling through a public park after a bender. Such depictions of law enforcement officers battling substance abuse and addictions are common themes in movies and television shows such as "L.A. Confidential," "The Wire," and the recent critical darling "Southland."
As members of law enforcement, we hope the public sees such depictions as "just Hollywood." But in reality, some studies have estimated that substance abuse in law enforcement can be as high as 25%, with alcohol abuse perhaps double that of other professions. One study reported that overall alcoholic intake may not be greater among police officers, but officers have higher incidences of binge drinking. Take a moment to consider that…and where you land, particularly as holiday festivities (and New Year's resolutions) approach.
The emotional effectiveness of police dramatizations in popular media is due in large part to the stresses that are inherent to the job that are not shared with many other occupations. A five-year study conducted by the University of Buffalo in conjunction with the Buffalo (N.Y.) Police Department traced the effects of stress in law enforcement on the mental and physical health of officers. Not surprisingly, the study found connections between the daily stressors of police work and obesity, suicide, sleeplessness, and cancer—particularly esophageal, liver, and lung.
In addition, researchers concluded that life expectancy for law enforcement officers is considerably lower than the national average, and depression and suicide are of higher incidence among officers than in the general population. It is not surprising then that alcohol consumption among police officers may contribute to these deleterious effects.
Roots of a Problem
The causes for increased alcohol abuse in law enforcement vary by individual, but are likely intertwined with the threads that bind together the thin blue line (and make it so compelling on the silver or digital screen). Police officers see and experience some horrible things: molested children; abused and assaulted women; and crime victims leaking guts, brain matter, and blood. They have first-hand experience with evil and chaos.
Officers seldom receive training on how to cope with the emotions that arise after witnessing such human suffering and senseless violence. The unpredictability that makes law enforcement so compelling also requires constant and exhausting alertness. As a result, officers can rely on alcohol to settle themselves down post-shift, whether that be at 10 p.m. or 7 a.m. The nature of shift work often finds officers on their own during this cool down period, an opportune time to imbibe.
Social drinking is also common in law enforcement and police officers, who are generally type A personalities and competitive by nature and training, drink more to "keep up" and show they can "handle their liquor"—oftentimes unaware that, at some point, they cannot. Social drinking becomes more common as officers bond with each other, but this may cause them to grow distant from family members who struggle to understand what their officer family member endures. In this environment, drinking increases, infidelity occurs, family time is reduced, depression rises, and with it, greater self-medication.
We know as officers that the judicial system has little tolerance for the ramifications of alcohol abuse. DUI, domestic violence, and firearms- or assault-related arrests carry particularly heavy price tags. While the concern is a year-round one, perhaps no other time of the year bellies up to the bar and presents itself as a perfect storm for such proceedings more than the holiday season.
The repercussions of a cop-related DUI are myriad and multifold. As binge drinking becomes more common and officers get away with driving drunk, they grow to believe they are above the rules and will get a pass on the odd chance they are ever caught, which removes the remaining checks on moderation. And while most officers get away with drunk driving because of random chance and fellow officer leniency, those who don't can count on getting the kind of media attention the average DUI escapes.
Consider the case of Orange County (Calif.) Dep. Sheriff Alan Waters, who was contacted by fellow deputies after a March 2010 automobile crash. Despite clear indications that he was under the influence, he was released, only to crash again minutes later on the same street into another car injuring a 78-year-old woman. The second crash led to Waters' arrest. He was convicted of 12 felonies and sentenced to 32 months in prison.
Waters is an extreme example of an officer who abused drugs and reportedly alcohol. He even showed up for his court date intoxicated. But he's not the only officer to have seen a DUI offense result in a loss of freedom, home, family, and career.
As far as holiday offerings go, alcohol is truly the gift that keeps on giving, with driving under the influence only part of the problem. There are plenty of alcohol-related issues that can assert themselves away from the steering wheel.
Large-scale incidents involving larger agencies have exponentially greater implications. The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department could speak to the matter—if it wanted to—as a 2010 Christmas party involving its custody personnel dissolved into a full-scale donnybrook between two groups of deputies. (Note: These are not just custody personnel, but sworn peace officers). The same agency has similarly been in the media recently regarding several off-duty shooting incidents involving drunk deputies, some very green, some very seasoned.
And holiday alcohol abuse by officers can manifest itself in other ways. For officers with families, domestic disputes and even domestic violence incidents peak at yuletide. Officers without close families or friends are not immune either. During the holiday season they are at greater risk for depression and may find that alcohol leads them deeper down that dark path.
Tidings of Misery and Grief
Given the professional and personal stressors associated with the holidays, law enforcement officers have a legitimate need to be able to cut loose and let their hair down, so long as they don't let their agencies down, too.
A cop's experience in the aftermath of an alcohol-related transgression is likely to contrast sharply with those of people employed in other professions. On the one hand, officers might enjoy amnesty courtesy of peers who elect to run interference for them. On the other hand, those officers who are charged often pay an exorbitant price. Cops in jail get killed, beaten, and abused far more often than even child molesters, so even a comparatively minor offense such as misdemeanor DUI or DV will bring punishment far beyond what anyone else receives. Neither end is fair or desirable.
One anonymous officer made the case as follows: "As for the people who say, 'Well, they should be held to a higher standard,' does the officer who stresses out and turns to alcohol (which results in a DUI) have the same life experiences as the guy who works on the assembly line at Ford? Should he be held to a higher standard than a so-called role model (like a baseball player or school teacher)?
It's easy to be holier than thou when you have not been put in a no-win situation. How many of us have seen good intentions lead to bad results? How many have seen poor supervision lead to judgment errors? Do we ever let an airplane pilot with so much responsibility fly without any help, after little sleep, and for low pay?"
All the same, often it isn't only the officer who pays a price. Sometimes, it's other motorists. Sometimes, it's a fellow officer. One online MADD-affiliated database, several years stale, has cataloged nearly 300 officer-involved publicly reported DUI collisions, many resulting in fatalities, including fatalities of other officers struck by drunken lawmen.
As the would-be granters of said clemency are often peers, such philosophical postures can put more than the imbiber in an untenable position. Often, this presumed clemency is denied whereupon these inebriated petitioners find themselves facing their department's version of "Let's Make A Deal" and re-evaluating that whole forgiveness thing.
Recognizing the potential for tragedy for officers who abuse alcohol and drugs, many law enforcement agencies have implemented support groups for their personnel. Many of these support groups forego the use of "counselors" in favor of peer mentoring. While these peer support groups can certainly help officers in the aftermath of problems, their greatest value perhaps lies in their ability to prevent problems by deterring officers from ill-considered actions.
• The San Diego Police Department has instituted a Wellness Unit, which allows officers to anonymously seek assistance for their drinking or family problems.
• The Milwaukee Police Department has turned to increased discipline: A first DUI is punishable by a 30- to 60-day suspension. A second offense can be cause for termination.
• The LAPD allows officers arrested for DUI to save their jobs with reduced suspensions if they enter a contract agreeing to abstain from alcohol and see a department psychologist.
• Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department stations often keep an informal list of sworn designated driver volunteers who have agreed to pick up their partners and drive them home.
• Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank allows inebriated officers to anonymously take a cab home, on the department's dime. This plan has "all but eliminated officers in trouble for DUI."
• The Austin Police Department has collaborated with its officer union on a similar taxi program—protecting its personnel from the likely job loss and the mandatory six-month suspension required of Texas officers convicted of DUI.
These are only a few examples of what larger departments are doing to recognize that officers are at greater risk for alcohol abuse and less likely to ask for help. Smaller agencies also may find these helpful, but may find that individual officers' problems can be addressed more directly through intervention, informal counseling, faith, or other avenues, than at larger agencies, with greater officer skepticism of department brass and risk managers.
Apart from these official strategies, a number of private organizations have sprouted up, with the aim of giving officers an anonymous place to seek help. Beyond better-known options like Alcoholics Anonymous and local options like faith-based and other support groups, there are 24-hour hotlines like Safe Call Now (206-459-3020), which allow officers to anonymously seek counseling and options from other officers who have previously battled addiction. Safe Call Now was founded by former California and Washington-state officer Sean Riley, a now sober former addict.
Law enforcement agencies are really good about trying to put their best foot forward during the holidays. Many have open houses and toy drives; others send their personnel out to help deliver toys to the less fortunate. If we are really going to hold our officers to a higher standard and not accept ANY human failings then we need to:
• Give officers specific training in how mental health professionals recommend they can cope with what they see and experience in their unique line of work.
• Help officers get home safely. While agencies shouldn't be forced to operate cab companies, they should consider entering into partnerships to help employees make smart drinking and driving decisions. A little prior planning can prevent lost life and massive payouts.
• Take better care of officers who experience frequent or particular traumatic incidents or who exhibit warning signs.
• Promote supervisors with a track record of caring for their personnel and helping them survive their careers.
That's for the agencies. But for the rest of us sworn personnel, it's our responsibility to exercise self-control, as well as discretion and creativity in policing our peers. Whether we wear a star or shield, we are each one bad decision away from needing the criminal defense attorneys we so often scorn. Especially around the holidays.
Evan Wagner is a Southern California Level 1D reserve deputy sheriff.
Bottles & Badges: http://www.bottlesandbadges.org
Law Enforcement Survival Institute: http://www.lawenforcementsurvivalinstitute.org
Safe Call Now: (206) 459-3020, http://www.safecallnow.org
Cops Alive: http://www.copsalive.com