Alcohol and drug abuse among law enforcement officers is a problem no one really talks about, but it represents the perfect storm: people working rotating shifts under extreme stress, an air of secrecy, and access to large amounts of illicit drugs. In the past, addiction issues were routinely ignored until they became a problem, then they were eliminated. Today, many departments realize the need for prevention, testing, and treatment.
Problems in Law Enforcement
Law enforcement is typically seen as a noble profession, full of well-meaning public servants that uphold an oath to keep the public safe. But just like any other profession, there are some systemic problems that civilians don’t usually see or discuss. It is specifically the problems of drug abuse and addiction that cannot be solved unless we talk about them.
Alcohol abuse has historically been a problem in law enforcement. Officers have higher rates of binge drinking and consume alcohol at a higher rate than the general public. The number of officers who admit to having consumed alcohol while on duty is approximately 25%. Even in training, alcohol abuse in law enforcement exceeds that of other professions with 33.9% of law enforcement students reporting excessive alcohol use, compared to 26% of other students.
Drug abuse and addiction among law enforcement officers is higher than in the general population, approximately between 20-25%. In 2010, approximately 698 law enforcement officers nationwide were involved in drug-related professional misconduct. In recent years, painkillers and other drugs have joined alcohol on the list of most abused substances in law enforcement.
Reasons for Drug Abuse Among Law Enforcement
Addiction is a mental illness with serious consequences. Although we do not know the exact causes of addiction, there are several factors that come into play. Genetics is a big influence in addictive personalities, and like drug abuse habits, law enforcement careers also tend to run in families. Many officers joined the police force because it was their legacy, and they brought their genetic predispositions to addiction with them.
A lot of things have changed in law enforcement over the decades, and the abuse problems have become more complicated. Some people join the force with existing addictions or drug abuse habits. Today that is primarily because they are coming from the military, where chemical escapes from stressful situations were established as a survival mechanism, in many cases due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Others develop addictions while they are on the job for a number of different reasons, or an intensity of the same factors people in the general population face. The more we learn about addiction, the more causes we can identify. Here are a few causes of substance abuse in law enforcement:
Unhealthy Sleep Cycles
It is not uncommon in law enforcement officers to work changing shifts. Officers often work a rotation of shifts from day to night or take on overtime shifts that alter their sleep habits. Law enforcement personnel commonly work a side job to help supplement their income. An officer who is assigned to a night shift will often have another job he works during the day, leaving little time for healthy sleep.
Sleep deprivation can easily lead to drug abuse. In most cases, the drugs are used responsibly at first to regulate sleep cycles. Stimulants help people stay awake when they need to, especially when they are on the job. When you’ve been working for several hours straight without proper sleep, sometimes it is hard to relax and fall asleep. Overstimulation can cause you to miss your window of opportunity for sleep, forcing you to push even harder to stay awake through the next shift. Eventually, using drugs to regulate sleep cycles becomes an endless cycle of stimulants to stay awake and depressants to go to sleep until your brain cannot function on its own.
If you have any habit of drug abuse or alcoholism, sleep deprivation will make it impossible for you to break that cycle. Even when you want to quit using, when you start to feel tired your reflex will be to use drugs to regulate your mood or energy level. When we are tired and cannot sleep, we naturally reach out for comfort, and if drugs have been your comfort and escape in the past, that’s what you’re most likely to do.
Stress on the Job
A lot of jobs are stressful, but law enforcement involves a unique combination of danger and stress. In addition, many officers are exposed to injury, tragedy, death and other unpleasant situations on a regular basis. It is not unusual for an officer to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on the job.
Stress is one of the key indicators of drug abuse and addiction. Without a healthy means of reducing stress, many people end up turning to drugs or alcohol for escape. Law enforcement is one of those jobs where alcohol is traditionally used as an escape from stress in addition to a bonding activity.
Some parts of police work are confidential as well, which means officers cannot go home and tell their families the sort of stressful situations they encounter. It can be difficult to maintain healthy relationships when you cannot be open and honest with the people in your life. They get to see the results of your stress, the anger and anxiety, but they don’t understand the full picture because you cannot share details. In addition to on the job stress, failing relationships can cause officers to turn to drugs to escape reality.
Access to Drugs
Law enforcement involves dealing with street drugs and the people who produce, use and distribute them. In certain areas of law enforcement, seizing large quantities of drugs is a regular occurrence. When drugs are encountered, they are vouchered and held as evidence, but this is not a perfect system. Even though there is a strict procedure for documenting the chain of custody for evidence, it is not unusual for drugs to disappear once they are in police custody.
Certain types of law enforcement professionals are also in contact with drug dealers on a regular basis as part of their job. Whether they are gathering information about drug shipments or working undercover to get inside a distribution operation, these officers have easy access to drugs. It is not difficult to imagine an undercover officer going a little too far to ingratiate himself with drug dealers, developing an addiction, and then using his professional contacts to get drugs for himself or his friends. Addiction is stronger than even the toughest law enforcement officer, and it can cause people to do things that are completely against their character.
Reluctance to Ask for Help
When it is your job to lock up the bad guys who use drugs, it can be hard to admit that you have a drug problem yourself. There is a lot of image and bravado that goes into being a law enforcement officer, and that pride helps you do your job. It is not easy to put yourself in dangerous situations every day to serve others. To succeed in law enforcement, these people have to create a tough exterior and try to live up to the hype.
Everyone is human, and susceptible to addiction. In a stressful job like law enforcement, the risk of addiction can be greater than in other professions. It is almost impossible for anyone, no matter how tough they are, to overcome addiction without help. Asking for help, and admitting you have a problem, is a humbling step that many law enforcement officers find very difficult to take.
Aside from pride, there are logistics to be concerned about. Like anyone, law enforcement officers are afraid to admit they have a drug problem for fear of losing their jobs. You cannot be expected to arrest people for breaking the law when you are breaking the law yourself. And then there are the possible consequences for drug offenses. If charged with a crime, these officers could face the same consequences as the people they have arrested. They could find themselves incarcerated with the very criminals they sent to prison. There is a lot at stake for law enforcement personnel who are addicted to drugs.
Types of Drugs Law Enforcement Tend to Abuse
For many years, alcohol was the number one substance of choice among law enforcement. It was socially acceptable and part of the police culture. Not enough was understood about the effects of so-called “social drinking” to keep officers safe from addiction. The dangers of binge drinking have only become well-known in recent years, while binge drinking is more prominent among officers than the general public.
If you realize that drug abuse among law enforcement officers is a problem, you might also surmise that illicit drugs are amid the typical substances abused. Many officers have regular contact with people who are using or selling marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. It makes sense that with extended exposure to these substances and the people who use them, an officer might cross the line one day. While confiscating a large stash of marijuana, an officer might figure that no one will miss a small amount. If he gets away with that, his pilfering habit might escalate with his substance abuse. Who can blame him for stealing from the criminals?
Substance abuse issues in law enforcement also follow trends in the rest of the population. Law enforcement can be a physically demanding job. In order to catch, handcuff, and arrest bad people, the police need to be stronger and faster. In many cases, the physical conditioning of an officer is his greatest protection when he needs to subdue a suspect. Performance enhancing substances can appear to hold the key to success in these hand to hand struggles, but they are also habit forming. Steroids are among the top substances abused in law enforcement. An estimated one in four law enforcement officers use steroids.
Painkiller abuse is another result of the physically strenuous law enforcement profession. Officers routinely suffer injuries on the job, many of which are orthopedic in nature. Strained muscles and twisted joints are likely to occur from foot chases and physical take-downs of subjects. Prescription painkillers are highly addictive and easily accessible. Any officer knows that these drugs are available on the street without a prescription, and they know where to find them. What often starts out as a legitimate use of medication for an injury turns into drug abuse because of the addictive nature of the medication, and the ease with which more can be obtained.
Identifying Addiction in Law Enforcement
Because of the fraternal nature of law enforcement, addiction problems have been allowed to continue without treatment. Although many of these behaviors are against the law, officers do not confront each other and those who protect and serve are allowed to continue to break the law. This code of silence is meant to protect their fellow officers, but in fact it hurts them.
Addiction is not something that just goes away one day; it usually gets worse when it is ignored. The potential consequences of substance abuse by law enforcement personnel are serious, ranging from angry outbursts to suicide. In most cases, several lives are at risk as a substance abuse problem escalates.
The first step in solving this problem is to recognize it. Here are some signs that a law enforcement officer could have a substance abuse problem:
- Higher accident rate. Any job that involves vehicles and weapons is going have some accidents. If someone is involved in more accidents than usual, or more than her fellow officers, there could be a bigger problem.
- Lack of focus. If an officer’s paperwork is consistently incomplete or he is not following up on his assignments, he could have a substance abuse problem. Addiction takes over a person’s brain and creates an inability to focus because his attention is on how to get his next fix, and how to cover his trail.
- Attitude changes. Someone suffering from addiction can become irritable or perpetually grumpy. He may become difficult to work with or begin to disobey orders.
- Increased medical leave. When someone who is seldom sick starts taking a lot of sick time, there could be cause for concern. Also, excessive doctor visits for a small injury or even faking an injury to see a doctor could be signs of drug-seeking behaviors.
- Unusually aggressive behavior. Law enforcement may involve a certain amount of aggressive behavior, but when someone consistently pushes those limits, she could be involved in substance abuse. Unusually or excessively combative behavior can be the result of addiction.
- Poor grooming. Often people suffering from addiction will let their personal appearance decline. They may not pay attention to hair cutting and grooming, ironing their clothes, shaving, or washing their face. Evidence of poor personal hygiene could be a sign of substance abuse.
- Withdrawal symptoms. Anything from tremors to vomiting could indicate a drug problem. Most addicts don’t experience withdrawal because they maintain a certain level of drugs in their system at all times. Someone displaying withdrawal symptoms will probably be looking for more drugs to take the edge off.
Ignoring or hiding any of these sign of possible drug abuse will only make the problem worse. It is important to talk about these issues and identify the problem to begin healing. Law enforcement is a tight-knit community where your buddies have your back. You should be able to talk to one of those buddies if you suspect he has a problem.
Approaching the problem of drug abuse without being confrontational is the key. People suffering from addiction are walking a tightrope to keep their lives together while being a slave to a substance. They need to know that someone truly cares about their situation and can help guide them to safety.
Treatment for Drug Abuse in Law Enforcement
More law enforcement agencies are becoming sensitive to the needs of people who have succumbed to addiction, and they are replacing the timeworn response of getting rid of that officer with a new reaction: helping treat the addiction. Systems only change as fast as the people in them, however, so understanding how to help is important.
It is crucial to be able to talk about substance abuse issues in law enforcement with compassion. Addiction is a disease that can afflict anyone for any number of reasons. No one is too tough or too strong to get caught up in the drug abuse cycle; addiction is not a sign of weakness or failure.
Just like you wouldn’t abandon a wounded colleague, you cannot ignore a drug abuse problem. Find a way to talk to the officer you suspect has a problem and offer to bring him to the peer support unit for help. Peer support units can identify the problem and suggest an appropriate strategy, including treatments and protecting your colleague’s confidentiality, career, and family.
If you or someone you know is in law enforcement and possibly suffering from addiction, contact 12 Keys today. We can help you understand addiction and how it effects officers differently from the general population. We can answer your questions about how to approach the topic of addiction with someone who is strong and proud of his work, yet probably ashamed of his current behavior. We can help you break through to stop the abuse and begin the healing.
At 12 Keys we offer a safe, comfortable recovery environment for all of our clients, even those who feel a special need for anonymity. The specific stresses of law enforcement, the daily work environment, and the traumas witnessed increase your risk of drug and alcohol abuse. We understand these issues at 12 Keys and use our experience to individualize recovery programs to meet your specific needs.
Recovery does not stop when the program is over. Our approach to recovery at 12 Keys includes follow-up services to help you reintegrate to your life, family, and job. You will learn strategies for facing those difficult situations on the job without relapsing into substance abuse to calm your nerves, or to dull your emotions. Call 12 Keys today to begin your journey to a healthy, happy, substance-free life.