Police officers deal with addiction constantly. Drug addicts are responsible for a great deal of crime in the beats they patrol, so officers are quite skilled at dealing with addicts on the streets. Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies are not as adept at dealing with addicts in their own ranks.
But that may be changing. There are positive steps being taken to help law enforcement organizations see that an addicted officer as not a throwaway employee but a valuable human resource who can be treated and redeemed. With the help of strategic partnerships and programs aimed at treating addicted officers, treatment centers are opening their doors to first responders, helping them get better and return to work.
The Addicted Officer
Statistics show that 20% to 25% of working police officers are chemically dependent on either alcohol or drugs.
Addiction tends to manifest itself differently in officers than in the rest of society simply by the nature of law enforcement work and societal expectations. Officers most likely won't resort to petty theft or drug dealing to feed their addictions, but that doesn't mean that their addictions aren't destructive and dangerous to their careers, families, and even their lives.
Friends, family, and co-workers are most likely to see an addicted officer gradually slip into dysfunction and despair. If left unchecked, the addiction will do damage to the officer's career. Co-workers of an addicted officer may say that the officer is moody, lazy, or a pain in the ass.
It's usually not long before command takes notice of the addicted officer, and not in a good way. "Supervisors may see an officer who is a poor performer, late for his or her shift, or who just looks bad in the uniform," says Sgt. Andy Callaghan, director of the Peer Support Program of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5.
Callaghan has 24 years of police experience and believes that addiction among law enforcement officers is closely related to post-traumatic stress disorder. "Many officers who have PTSD turn to alcohol or prescription drugs to self-medicate," says Callaghan.
Off duty, addicted officers' lives will most likely be wrecked. They may spend their days off struggling to keep it together with their families and trying to hang onto their health. But when the weekend is over, it's back to work where they try to keep their careers from falling apart. It's a spin cycle that will end in either loss of job, freedom, or life.
Drug of Choice
Up until a few years ago alcoholism was by far the most common chemical dependency problem faced by officers. Today, the most common monkey on the back of officers is the painkiller.
Officers get injured, and with the injury can come prescribed pain medications to bring relief. And that's where the addiction often starts.
Callaghan has seen a marked increase in officers addicted to painkillers and sleeping medications over the past few years. He says that it is common to have support groups made up of half or more officers in the group addicted to prescription drugs.
Not only has the drug of choice changed for officers, so have the ways the profession looks at addicted brother and sisters.
That means the options available to officers who need help with drug addiction are ever increasing. Thanks to strategic partnerships with law enforcement executive organizations, department bosses are being taught to accept the fact that some officers become addicted and need help.
Sean Riley, founder and executive director of SafeCallNow.org, has seen encouraging signs for addicted officers. His organization lives by the golden law of self-disclosure as the first and best step for an officer who needs help. "Getting the problem out front and dealing with it, is the best hope for an officer to get better and return to full duty," says Riley.
SafeCallNow.org has partnered with the FBI National Academy Associates to help educate its members, police executives who have attended the FBI National Academy, on how best to work with addicted officers seeking treatment. Police executives are learning that an officer's self-disclosure of the problem is a good thing. It's better for officers to seek help before getting into situations that jeopardize their careers or lives. In doing so, federal HIPAA and FMLA laws kick in to guarantee their privacy and their jobs after they get treated and are able to return to work.
So what is a chemically dependent officer to do when faced with a crumbling life, career, and health? The first step is to admit the problem and realize that it's not a sign of weakness but a necessary step to getting better. Once they choose to self-disclose, the officers' primary concern is that they are allowed to keep their treatment private and to keep their job when they're better.
Many officers now realize they don't necessarily need to ask their departments for help. A better option may be to seek help through peer support groups, unions, and employee organizations. These groups may be just enough of a buffer between the addicted officers and their departments to get them comfortable with the idea of seeking help.
Preserving their privacy is the number one concern for most officers seeking help for chemical dependency. And that is the primary mission of SafeCallNow.org, a confidential, comprehensive, 24-hour crisis referral service for public safety employees, all emergency services personnel, and their family members nationwide.
Safe Call Now is not connected with a specific treatment facility. It offers a trained counselor and fellow public safety employee for the officer to talk to. They assess the situation and assist the officer in getting help.
Having someone to call can be a lifeline for an officer in crisis. Addicted officers can hit a wall where they don't know what to do and don't want to be found out by their departments. Safe Call Now is completely confidential; no one on the other end of the line will ask for a name or department. According to Safe Call Now's founder and executive director Riley, the officer's identity is not important; identifying the crisis and getting help is the only important thing.
One treatment option for the chemically dependent officer is the First Responders Addiction Treatment (FRAT) Program sponsored by Livengrin Foundation in Bensalem, Pa. The FRAT program is finely tuned for first responders seeking chemical dependency help.
Keith Mason, spokesman for Livengrin, says the FRAT program offers help from counselors who have a personal experience in law enforcement and with addiction. Many of the FRAT counselors such as Andy Callaghan are working police officers who are able to understand the unique circumstances faced by an addicted officer. The program offers inpatient and outpatient treatment as well as peer support groups to fit any level of care needed. It is one of the few programs aimed specifically at first responders.
Safe Call Now and Livengrin are financed by donations and through training conferences. Safe Call Now does not get paid for referrals to treatment centers and finds that treatment is usually paid through the officer's insurance carrier. According to Mason, intervention services through Livengrin's FRAT program are available free of charge. They do not want to turn away any officer because he or she can't afford to get into the program.
Thankfully, officers needing help with chemical dependency, PTSD, or mental health crises now have resources to help them get better. There are fellow officers who have survived addiction and are offering their time and experience to help officers end their dependency. These peer counselors and treatment centers can also help the treated officer return to work and maintain a healthy career, family, and life.
Mark W. Clark is a 27-year veteran police sergeant. He has served as public information officer, training officer, and as supervisor for various detective and patrol squads.
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