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Helpful Hints: Psychological Aspects of Police Work

Bruce Rodgers

The signs of acute alcohol intoxication can include varying degrees of exhilaration and excitement, loss of inhibition and restraint, bizarre behavior, slurred speech, and lack of coordination. When encountering someone who is intoxicated, officers might remember the last time they were in a similar state. Acknowledging their own feelings, including a sense of power and a glib tongue, will help them relate better to alcohol abusers. Officers should be patient but firm. They should remember that the abusers involved are not their normal selves and probably won’t remember how obnoxious they were. If they are belligerent, officers should ignore this behavior as much as possible unless they are in danger of hurting themselves or others. If officers can keep them talking while they are working, their job will be easier.

When alcohol intoxication has been especially severe, drowsiness, stupor, and possibly unconsciousness may occur. It is important for officers to recognize that unconsciousness may mask other physical disorders that have either resulted from acute alcohol intake or are coincident with it. The former category may include head injuries, pneumonia, fractures, and bleeding from the stomach, while the latter may include such conditions as diabetic coma and the stupor following an epileptic seizure.

In a few cases, even small amounts of alcohol can result in markedly abnormal behavior. This is called pathological intoxication and refers to cases in which an extremely small amount of alcohol, which in most individuals would have only minimal effects, can cause an outburst of markedly irrational, combative, and destructive behavior.

Officers also may encounter alcoholics who have stopped drinking either because of illness or lack of access to alcohol. This cessation may lead to a number of symptoms of which officers should be aware so they can help bring proper medical attention to alcoholics. (These symptoms are unlikely to occur in the person who uses alcohol in response to stressful life events.) The symptoms may not occur until after the person has been arrested and jailed, since confinement automatically bars access to alcohol.

The most common sign of alcohol withdrawal in chronic alcohol abusers is tremulousness (shakes or jitters). Most often visible in the hands, it is usually associated with irritability, nausea, and vomiting. All these symptoms will occur relatively quickly, and, in jail, they are often seen the morning after arrest.

When they stop drinking, most chronic abusers will experience nothing more than severe shakes. Some, however, may demonstrate more serious conditions, such as alcoholic hallucinosis or delirium tremens. In the former, abusers hear accusatory and threatening voices. These may occur even if the abusers otherwise look all right and know where they are and what time it is. The treatment is hospitalization, appropriate medication, adequate diet, and good nursing care.

In delirium tremens, seeing and feeling objects that are not present is more common than hearing voices (auditory hallucinations). Persons may perceive bugs crawling on them or see huge insects. In contrast to alcoholic hallucinosis, delirium tremens is associated with a loss of orientation to time and place. Delirium tremens may also be associated with epileptic seizures, which can be life-threatening. Good treatment requires prompt medical attention in a hospital, with appropriate medication, adequate diet, and good nursing care.

An important part of the police’s past difficulties in handling alcohol abusers has been the neglect of the needs of alcoholics by other agencies, such as hospitals and clinics. However, the attitudes of society toward alcohol abusers have been changing. Most states have passed legislation removing public intoxication from the criminal code and defining it as a medico-social problem. Many hospitals and clinics are creating comprehensive alcohol treatment programs, including detoxification centers, or are affiliated with them.

With the development of these treatment programs, police officers can now bring acutely intoxicated persons to an appropriate facility rather than ignoring them or placing them in the “drunk tank.”

Without the support of these programs, the criminal justice system incurs high costs in handling alcohol abusers. Police officers need to be familiar with these programs as both a referral source and a caregiver.

Law enforcement officers should work closely with community groups; both medical and non-medical, to encourage people who need help to use available programs. There is no question that police cooperation in such a community effort will free officers to attend to more serious crimes than public intoxication and chronic inebriation.

This article is an excerpt from Psychological Aspects of Police Work: An Officer’s Guide to Street Psychology by former police officer and federal agent, Bruce A. Rodgers, PhD.


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