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I stopped another officer for drunk driving

No other police stress “Ask the Shrink” column that I wrote for Patrol Log Magazine(Sept., 1993) generated as much controversy and antagonism as this one. It is still relevant five years later. Unfortunately little has changed in the way many departments handle alcohol abuse and/or alcohol dependence with their officers when they run afoul of the law themselves. Police aren’t imune to the ravages of alcoholism. The lack of progressive policies still puts conscientious police officers in a tough spot when they stop other police officers for drunk driving.

The question is “what should I do if I stop another officer for drunk driving?”

Damned if you do, without a doubt. But also quite possibly, if the officer in question has a serious problem, you may be damned if you don’t too.This may not be the biggest aspect of police stress for you, but any conflict between doing what you know is right from one perspective, and just as surely know doing the opposite is right from another perspective, will cause stress. What officer wants to be responsible for ruining another officer’s career, costing him (or her) thousands of dollars in legal fees, and having the entire town read his name in the paper. All of these things and more could happen if you arrest another office for drunk driving. Is it any wonder that it rarely happens?

But, what do I mean “damned if you don’t?” This more more complex. You won’t change your mind after reading this article. But consider this: you may not be doing another officer a favor but cutting him too much slack on a drunk driving stop. Police officers are obviously not immune to the devasting effects of alcoholism. Every time an officer is cut loose from a drunk driving stop, an opportunity is missed to steer that officer towards the road to recovery. Police counseling for alcoholism is available, and many officers have been helped by it. There are even AA groups for law enforcement.

Many officers report that a close call with the law or a near accident was the turning point for them. Sometimes it takes a dramatic wake-up call for alcoholics to break through their own denial and get some help. Unfortunately, arresting another officer for drunk driving as the law, department policies, and public opinion now stands represents a punishment over and above what the law intends. Priests, politicians, doctors, judges and movie stars can all be arrested for drunk driving and their careers are barely effected. But police officers can loose everything.

There’s no way to determine how many intoxicated officers are stopped and sent on their way, or assured a safe drive home. The official line has always been that officers use professional judgement and are always fair and impartial in who they determine to be legally impaired when they stop a suspected drunk driver. But how many officers do you know who have ever been arrested for drunk driving? If we took a survey, the numbers would be so low as to suggest that police officers are singularly immune to alcoholism.

I would venture a guess that more police officers die early because of alcoholism than any other single preventable cause. Their deaths are occassionally dramatic in car accidents, but more typically they come from the side effects of alcoholism, from the toll it takes on the body,mind, spirit and family.

Putting the law aside, from a mental health perspective, arrest or a more enlightened equivalent, is the appropriate action to take with all drunk drivers no matter who they are. But knowledge of the judicial system and understanding what society does to officers who are arrested prevents officers from arresting other officers even though they are concerned about the other officer’s drinking.

Even my writing this column caused some officers to accuse me of saying that “we’re all a bunch of drunks.”

I would have felt just as guilty if I arrested another officer for drunk driving and then saw his career go down the drain as any officer would!

Ideally there should be a non-punitive mechanism for handling officers you stop for drunk driving. This could involve the higher-ups as long as there was protection for the officer from disciplinary action, or it could by-pass the chain of command an be handled by a stress officer who could do an evaluation and make approriate referrals for treatment. Everyone DWI you stop isn’t an alcoholic of course, and the same holds true for officers. But you shouldn’t be put in the position of having to make that decision at 2:00AM on some rainy night, and besides, you aren’t expected to be an expert on alcoholism. In my plan, there would be no citation and no public record as long as the officer followed through on your “referral”. You would, without feeling guilty, make arrangements to assure the officer’s safety that night and you would know that you did your bit to help another officer.

Since there isn’t an official way to handle an intoxicated officer who you stop, what can you do besides making sure he gets home in one piece? The time for intervention isn’t that night, but probably the next day. It involves a face-to-face that hopefully won’t turn confrontational. This at least gives you a chance to break the vicious cycle of alcoholic behavior, of their going from one crisis to another in utter denial. If your department has a stress officer (and congratulations if it does, it’s more progressive and caring than those that don’t), you can take him (again, or her) along with you. Or, you can take a recovering alcoholic who is active in AA, or you may be one yourself and you could take someone from one of your AA groups.

The police (and correction) professions have too much alcoholism. Booze is, after all, a quick, if dangerous and ultimately ineffective, way to cope with stress. And you certainly have enough of that.

You wouldn’t hesitate to put your own life in jeopardy to help another officer! All I’m suggesting here is taking the risk of alienating an officer. No bullets are flying, but alcohol can kill him just as easily as taking one in the heart.

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