Cops, Cocktails, and Consequences

Last month, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that mandatory drug and alcohol testing for Chicago Police lieutenants and captains would be conducted whenever they discharge their weapons. Moreover, the supervisors face random alcohol testing, according to a new policy recently ratified at a joint City Council committee meeting. If their breathalyzer tests range from .02 to .04 they will be relieved of duty on that watch. The following day they will be re-tested, and thereafter, randomly tested over the next six months. If after that probationary period they have not had any further incidents, their record will be expunged.

Some fear this tactic is over-reaching, perhaps even draconian in its approach, since Chicago police officers are not arrested for DUI violations at any higher rate than the general driving public. What may have been the catalyst for the new policy are recent incidents involving officers who have had too much to drink. The most notorious episode in that city occurred in 2006, when an off-duty officer was captured by a surveillance camera inside a local bar. In a video tape seen across the nation, the officer was recorded beating a female bartender; he was arrested for the incident, convicted, sentenced to probation, and fired for his behavior. Consequences.

Incidents such as the one described above are not unique to big-city cops, they occur everywhere. What makes them fodder for the news is that cops are involved. We rarely see news about someone who may have had too much to drink, and who works as an accountant, tree surgeon, or perhaps a store clerk. Think about it... when was the last time you were watching the news and saw a report such as, "A carpenter was arrested for DUI last night as he was driving down Main Street?" Incidents like that rarely make headlines, and when they do, the offender's occupation is irrelevant.

Cops are a different story; the public has higher expectations of us. They expect us to be one notch above everyone else. Our behavior and character are assumed to be above reproach. If you think about the responsibility entrusted in each of us, those high expectations seem warranted. The problem is we are a products of society; we mirror our fellow citizens, which means we have the same problems and foibles as do our neighbors. Problems with alcohol affect us, just as they do every other occupation.

Researchers would like to quantify our consumption, but thus far have been unable to do so. However, a recent study of Australian cops examined officers at two points in their early career. First, before they hit the street; then, after they had been on duty for a year. Surprisingly, female cops developed alcohol problems, not the males, as one might suspect. What do we make of this study? My guess is that the group being studied had other dynamics, maybe personal problems, that impacted their behavior.

In 2008, Police Quarterly conducted a study that involved 1,328 full-time Mississippi officers. The method used was a questionnaire, which utilized the World Health Organization's Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. The twenty-seven questions would help determine the officers' usage and risk. And although there has not been a national study in the United States to determine use of alcohol by law enforcement, the article states that it is theorized to be twice that of the general population. The end result of this exercise: there was no difference in alcohol use by the study group and the public.

Much of the perception the public has regarding cops and booze is media-driven. A cop caught driving drunk, or involved in an accident while over the legal limit, is a great lead story on the ten o'clock news. It doesn't mean that all cops are boozers, or that we drink and drive, it simply means that every once in a while, we fail; we succumb to temptation and make a mistake. But if each time an incident occurs and is reported on the nightly news, it takes on the aura of a problem with enormous proportions. In the late 1970s, heavy drinking - choir practice - as it was popularized by the author, Joseph Wambaugh, in his book, "The Choirboys", used to be a right of passage. Old-timers and rookies would meet after their shift to discuss the night's events and tell war stories. It was good; it established a brotherhood among the officers.

The climate today is much different. Drinking is taboo; choir practice is frowned upon. Police departments and agencies have strict policies in force that leave little tolerance, if any, for anyone suspected of having alcohol in their system. The zero tolerance policy is clear - ignore it at your own risk. The only problem, however, is that life goes on. The things that drove some of us to drown our sorrows in booze still exist. Adultery, divorce, layoffs, salaries, problems with children... still plague many of us, but hopefully we've learned to turn down a different road looking for solutions.

Police chaplains, employee assistance programs, confidential rehab, debt counseling, etc., are the paths we need to follow. No one has ever found answers at the bottom of a bottle. The only thing you'll find there is the bottom, and that's not a good place to be. Enjoy a drink now and then. Celebrate with friends and family on holidays and special occasions. But know when to draw the line. There are no more safe havens on the job for drinkers, and no one will help you hide your problem. Know your department's alcohol policy. If you do have a problem, get help. No good can come from alcohol abuse. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to be on top of your game each time you report for duty. Don't take any chances - you're too important to all of us.

Stay safe, brothers and sisters.