It takes courageous leadership to have that first care-fronting conversation.
The Substance Abusing Officer
By: Steve Albrecht
Alcohol has always been a part of the law enforcement culture. Getting through your shift alive and grabbing a cold beer, at home or with your partners and pals at a cop-friendly watering hole, is a tradition that goes back to the start of policing. Of course, too much of a good thing can become a problem.
Some officers move through the stages from liking a drink, to wanting a drink, to needing a drink, thereby putting their careers, relationships, and health at risk. When they say to themselves or others, “I can quit drinking anytime I want to…I have done it lots of times,” then both we and they have a problem.
Cops who abuse alcohol often start with strict boundaries: “I will never, ever drink on duty.” But with time and troubles, personal and professional stressors, or a healthy dose of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from events like military combat deployments, being involved in several critical incidents close together, or having to shoot someone, those barriers can fall away. The rationalizations begin and the excuses flow as fast as the booze they now use before or during work hours to cope and avoid withdrawal symptoms.
And what about cops who become addicted to the most (over) prescribed drug in the U.S.: hydrocodone, AKA Vicodin®? What can start as, “Take one pill every four to six hours for pain,” can become six pills every four hours, to fend off opiate withdrawal. Mixing alcohol and pills is a recipe for personal disaster and agency liability if a cop in your command causes an incident or accident.
Most supervisors have more than a good idea that one of their officers is using drugs or alcohol to excess. Just like there is plenty of denial, lying, hostility, and anger from the abusing officer, there is lots of rationalizing by command staff, who hope they are wrong in their assessments and know they aren’t.
Many supervisors don’t want to make false accusations and ruin an officer’s reputation or career, so they wait for the Big Event: an accident, a medical issue, an off-duty arrest for drunk driving, before they take the hard but necessary intervention steps. The irony in these situations can be sad—we arrest people for being under the influence of narcotics and alcohol daily, but why do we refuse to see the same signs, symptoms, behaviors, odors, and performance issues with our own employees?
It takes courageous leadership to have a “care-fronting” conversation (caring enough to confront) with a substance-abusing employee, but you should not see it as a discipline issue you have to handle alone. You can get help from your city or county personnel director, who can help you follow the correct policies, MOU guidelines, and guide you through any Americans with Disabilities (ADA) or Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) issues. If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider, they can make referrals to Substance Abuse Professionals (SAPs).
The typical intervention process starts with that one tough but necessary conversation, urine or breath testing, and a plan for medical treatment based on the results. A positive drug or alcohol test will be reviewed with the employee by the testing facility’s medical resource officer (MRO), who will discuss the findings and offer help. If they want to keep their jobs (and some choose to resign or retire), employees can start a rehab process that includes aftercare, usually following the AA or NA model for a lifetime of maintenance and sobriety.
Don’t expect substance-abusing officers to thank you for the intervention, because they often see you as trying to ruin their lives and careers. But they may see your efforts as actually saving their lives and careers after they have completed treatment. Cops have come back to work and full productivity and performance after beating substance abuse. But they will need your help to do it.
Steve Albrecht worked for the San Diego Police Department from 1984 to 1999. His books include Contact & Cover (C.C. Thomas); Streetwork; Surviving Street Patrol; and Tactical Perfection for Street Cops (all for Paladin Press). He teaches supervisory and employee performance workshops and can be reached at email@example.com.