Alcohol Abuse within the Police Force

Alcohol abuse in the disciplined forces is common in federal and state departments across the country. But due to the sensitivity of the information it has been difficult for the public to scrutinize and estimate the impact it has on the police force. The police are custodians of law and order, they interact with citizens everyday and are expected to root out any vices within. Their sobriety is therefore paramount to the effective discharge of duties. This paper will look at the extent of alcohol abuse in both the federal and state police departments and recommend what can be done to improve the situation.

Alcohol is a recreational substance that that has been around the world for many centuries. Historically, alcohol has been used for medicinal and religious purposes. However, it also has a long history of recreational use (Goodwin, 2000, p. 19). Excessive and uncontrolled indulging may make one dependent on alcohol, easily making him or her alcoholic. Alcohol abuse therefore can be defined as the consumption of alcohol to levels that are deemed as being problematic (Ammerman, Ott, Tarter, 1999, p 31). At this level, one becomes dependent on alcohol and cannot easily do without it. The resulting alcoholism condition affects people in their daily lives irrespective of career, age, ethnicity, and even gender.

Law enforcers, especially the police, are associated with combating the illegal use of alcohol and other hard drugs. The police, whose role is to maintain law and order, are charged with the responsibility of ensuring people only indulge in alcohol within the legally permitted levels. However, one fact that is normally overlooked is that the police are human beings too and they do abuse alcohol themselves.

There have been reported cases of drunken police officers mishandling prisoners, recklessly handling firearms and driving dangerously. A number have been charged for involvement in serious accidents that have killed or injured civilians or fellow colleagues. These are not isolated incidents, rather common occurrences that have regularly implicated police officers. The victims of alcoholism include judges, physicians and most importantly the police (Goodwin, 2000, p 46).

According to the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, the rate of abuse of alcohol in the police force is double that of the general population (Violanti, 1999, p 1). The bulletin estimates that one out of ten American police officers consumes alcohol. These figures only serve to prove that the problem is prevalent in the force across the United States and the earlier it is addressed, the safer the society is going to be.

There are approximately 623,000 sworn police officers in the United States (Violanti, 2010, p1). The officers abuse alcohol for various reasons. The stressful and demanding nature of their work often makes police officers prone to alcohol abuse. Work and non -work related issues also increase the vulnerability of the policemen to abuse alcohol. Maladaptive behaviors like alcohol and drug abuse in the police may be caused by stress (Violanti, 2010, p1). Besides, family issues like failing marriages and finance are another cause of police officers indulging in alcohol abuse.

This study will analyze most of the literature and figures from documented studies, articles, books, and bulletins on alcohol abuse among the policemen in the United States. It is aimed at identifying the various aspects that characterize alcohol abuse in the police force in both federal and state departments and how the problem can be dealt with. Among the various aspects that will be tackled are causes, resultant problems, gender, race, and length of service. The analysis will focus on both federal and state police agencies.

Literature Review
Prevalence of Alcohol Abuse in the Police
A look at the general alcohol consumption prevalence rate in the American population may shed light about the extent of police involvement. The CDC in 2008 approximated that 50 of adults in the country were regular drinkers. The percentage of infrequent drinkers in the US at the time was 14. 60 of men were current regular drinkers compared to 42 of women who were regular current drinkers (CDC, 2008, p 19). The CDC further points out that consumption of alcohol has been on the decline in the past few decades in the US. The same cannot be said about law enforcement in the country. It has either remained constant or increased.

Alcohol abuse in law enforcement has always been there. Alcohol abuse in the police force is wide spread not only in the United States, but other countries as well. The problem of excessive drinking in the police has been perennial but it is now showing signs of escalation (Dietrich  Smith, 1986) (as quoted by Bonifacio, 1991 P, 163). Many studies done on active police officers have proved this hypothesis and the figures obtained easily back this argument. The incidence of alcoholism in law enforcement is higher than any other occupational group (IACPBOR, 1980, 1). Police officers abuse alcohol more than any other occupational group in the US. According to Violanti (2010), 25 of all police officers in the United States have been found to be alcohol dependent. That translates to over 150,000 police officers hooked to alcohol. In a 1979 article, police sergeant Ronald C. Van Raalte of Illinois revealed that 67 of his officers had admitted to drinking while on duty (Sudetic, 1995, p 1) (New York Times May 29, 1995). Earlier in 1973, Danielle Hitz who was researching at School of Public Health of the University of California at Berkeley reported that more police officers died of liver cirrhosis than other group of people in the general population (Sudetic, 1995, p 1) (As quoted in the New York Times May 29, 1995). It is a high number that only confirms the assumptions that police officers are highly dependent on alcohol. The numbers are not limited to a particular department they rather seem to confirm a wide existing trend.

Causes of Abuse of Alcohol in the Police Force
There are numerous causes of alcoholism and alcohol abuse in people regardless of their occupation, age, race, or gender. Generally, alcohol is not the cause of social problems rather it is on the other hand the result of the problems (Alexander, 2010 p.1). The broad categories into which alcohol abusers fall are biological, genetical and environmental, psychological and culture (Swierzewski  Emmite, 2008, p. 1). Mental as well as social problems can also lead one to abuse alcohol. Work, marriage, finances and biological defects which fall in the above categories can all lead to dependence on alcohol, making one abuse it. Alcohol abuse in the police has primarily been blamed on the nature of their work.

It is assumed that despite policemen and women being provided for with everything they need, their work is generally stressing hence most of them find relief in alcohol. The American institute of stress has ranked police work as being among the top ten most stressing jobs in the US (Forst Dempsey, 2010, p.174). Stress in the police force exists both on the individual and organizational levels (FBI, 1999).  Failure of psychological coping to individual or organizational stress finally leads to alcohol abuse by the police officers (Bonfacio, p. 164).

Individually, family issues not related to police work like divorce may raise stress levels of officers. The officers find it hard to confide to colleagues about their struggles and choose to stay with their personal problems. Maybe it is because of the ego of being seen as tough and perfect.  A good number does not seek assistance due to fear of stigmatization. Alcohol is considered part of the police culture and most of the affected officers immerse themselves in it as an escapist move.

Organizational level stress in the police has everything to do with the work that the officers are involved in. Shift work, job stress, the need to suppress emotions in the line of duty, and social isolation are some of the conditions in organizational level that contribute to alcohol abuse among officers (IACPBOR, 1980, 1). Like in the military, police officers frequently suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Order. It is understandably as a result of the complication arising from police work. About one third of all police officers exposed to diverse work related traumatic events suffer form the condition. PTSO, coupled with family and financial issues, puts many officers under extreme pressure. Most of them fail to seek assistance and engage in substance abuse, especially alcohol, to relieve the stress (Dowling, M.D., Genet, B.S.  Moynihan, C.S.W., 2005, p.1).

Drinking Subculture
According to Bonfacio (1991), alcohol is entrenched in the police culture. The drinking subculture in the police is normally meant to prove ones masculinity. Because the force is a community, acceptance is necessary. Though involuntarily, a substantial number of officers engage in alcohol to be accepted into the group (Kroes1976 Cabin, 1980  Captain Anonymous 1983) (as quoted in Bonfacio, 1991, p. 164). The above can be summed up as peer pressure which can be found in all groups of socialization. Continued engagement in drinking for acceptance finally makes one to be hooked up. Reversal of the situation is not easy and it needs effort and dedication to cast away that problem.

Gender of Police Officers Abusing Alcohol
Generally, men are known to drink more than women. A research carried out by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2004 concluded that alcohol use, dependence and abuse were higher in males than in females. The rate of meeting the criteria for alcohol dependence in males was twice that of females at 10.5 and 5.1 respectively (NSDUH, 2004, p. 1). It further said that males accounted for more than half of the cases that seek treatment for alcohol related conditions. The same study by the National Survey on Drug use and Health (2004), found out that 61 of females aged 12 or older and 70 of males aged 12 or older had used alcohol in the previous year. Additionally 12 of females and 17 of males aged 12 years or older had used drugs (NSDUH, 2004, p. 2).  Men were more likely to be dependent on or abusing alcohol in the ages 18 or older. In the ages 18-25 years, males exhibited a dependence rate of 26.3 compared to the females 15 (NSDUH, 2004, p 2). Among the employed, categorized to be 18-49 the rate of dependence on alcohol was found to be 15 for males and 8 for females.

Despite the rate of drinking in the police force being twice as much as that of the general public, the picture is likely to mirror that of the general public when it comes to gender. The incidence rate of female police officers drinking is lower than that for their male counterparts.

Race and Ethnicity factors in Alcohol Abuse within the Force
The police department has been fairly integrated in terms of ethnicity and race and it involves people from across the population divide. The number of minorities in the police force is not likely to be high as their inclusion was more of a political necessity than genuine practice. Therefore, compared to the average number of police officers in the force, minorities are likely to comprise a small section of the overall percentage of police officers involved in alcohol abuse, although the ratio of alcohol abuse among a particular race may be high.

It is generally observed that white people drink more compared to people of other races. African Americans have a lower drinking rate compared to the rest of the population (Winkel, 2010). According to Winkel (2010), their rate of drinking is 44 while that of the rest of the population is 55. On the other hand, however, substance abuse among African Americans is higher compared to other minority groups and the majority white population. It stood at 9.5 while that of the rest of the country was at 7.9  (Winkel, 2010, p. 1).

In the police force however, race or ethnicity is not likely to be an important factor influencing drinking patterns. There may be little variations reflecting the drinking patterns in the general population but these are insignificant.

Marital Status of Police Officers Abusing Alcohol
Generally, there tends to be a higher divorce rate among the younger members of the police compared to the old ones. 75 of police officers get divorced within the first three years (Kirschman, 2007 p. 5). If the marriage of a police officer survives beyond three years it becomes stronger than the marriage of an average person in the general population (Kirschman, 2007 p. 5). Due to the pressures that police work puts one through, many of them experience strained marriages. They tend to resort to alcohol but alcohol only ends up compounding their problems (Kirschman, 2007 p. 184). The NSDUH survey classifies working people to be between the ages of 18-49. In its survey on nationwide drug and alcohol use and dependence among married working males was found to be 10 while married working females were found to be dependent on alcohol by 4 (NSDUH, 2004, p. 3). The police also fall in this working class category. Therefore, the rate of married officers, both male and female, dependent on alcohol is likely to mirror that of the general population as portrayed by NSDUH.

Married officers undergo marriage related stress often and they are more likely to engage in alcohol abuse than unmarried police officers. But that does not imply that the rate of unmarried officers abusing alcohol is lower than the married ones. The difference may be small as unmarried police officers alcohol abuse may be triggered by factors like peer pressure and normal work stress. In fact, the same research found out that divorced or separated working males were more likely to engage in alcohol at 23 compared the married ones at 11. The same trend was observed for the females where separated working females were likely to engage in alcohol at11 compared to their married counterparts at only 4 (NSHUS, 2004, p. 3).

ProblemsIndicators of Alcohol Abuse among Police Officers
Over indulgence in alcohol brings with it negative results in any occupation. It is not different in the police force. It may be hard for colleagues to notice that a fellow officer has drinking problems. Absenteeism, failure to control ones emotions and low work performance are some of the early indicators of alcohol abuse. In many cases, members of the public or family are normally the first ones to notice any indications of alcohol abuse in police officers. They notice it due to the negative circumstances that the officer may find himself or herself in due to alcohol abuse.

Loss of Lives
A number of police officers have lost their lives and caused loss of others in various settings caused by alcohol abuse. The most common are motor vehicle and motor cycle accidents. Because of the combative nature of their work, police officers need to be of sound mind all the time. Overindulgence in alcohol, especially during working hours, impairs judgment leading to the accidents. The impaired judgment may also give criminal elements an upper hand in cases of confrontation. The officers cannot fully concentrate hence rendering themselves vulnerable to danger.

Alcohol abuse has also been cited as a major contributor to the high suicide rates among the force. There has been an increasing rate of suicides among police officers primarily caused by alcohol abuse.

According to Lester (1992), Stack Wasserman (1993) (as quoted by McNamara Kennedy 1999), suicide and alcohol abuse among police officers have always been linked together. In 1995, Captain ONeill of New York police department said that alcohol was involved in over 80 of the suicides committed by New York officers since 1984 (Sudetic, 1995, p 2) (As quoted in the New York Times May 29, 1995). According to a research based in Chicago, 60 of all officers who commit suicide were alcohol abusers (Wagner  Brzeczek 1983) (as quoted in McNamara  Kennedy 1999). Based on the above research findings, it is safe to conclude that alcohol abuse significantly contributed to high suicide rates in the police force.

Loss of Jobs
Overindulgence in alcohol finally impairs ones ability to work and the police are not an exception either. The police, like other professionals, are expected to be sober while on duty. Besides putting their lives in danger, drunken police officers damage the credibility of the force. Dismissal normally follows on such officers. Perhaps as pointer to big underlying problems, 75 Boston police officers have failed drug tests since the program started ten years ago. 26 officers have been fired in the same period (Smalleys, 2006, p1). Though they were not fired entirely on alcohol abuse grounds, hypothetically alcohol abuse acted as a precursor to abusing hard drugs.

The literature above cannot be said to be exhaustive on the topic of police alcohol abuse. However a number of conclusions can be drawn based on the findings. The problem is real and widely prevalent in the police force. The police have the highest divorce rate in the US, the second highest suicide rate and twice the rate of alcoholism in the country (Constant, 2010). It is almost assured that many more police officers will be victims of alcohol abuse and may suffer the consequences discussed above.

The main cause of police alcohol abuse has largely everything to do with stress. Police officers work under strenuous conditions and in many occasions come to contact with situations that expose them to post traumatic stress order conditions. This makes some officers to look for remedies to deal with individual stress thus exposing them to dangers of alcohol and it will be necessary for the concerned departments to step up and find some solutions. Some officers have succumbed to peer pressure and find it difficult to report when they have personal problems. Others cannot refer to their colleagues for remedial programs for fear that they might be jeopardizing their colleagues careers.  Peer pressure has forced others to drink in order to be accepted. Causes of alcohol abuse like peer pressure can be dealt with through regular counseling and encouraging police officers to develop strong personalities. Fellow peers in the force are better placed to help their colleagues since they share a lot and will develop a sense of camaraderie. It will help them resist undue pressure from colleagues and peers.

The problem is evidently affecting many police officers families. Divorce rates are high, especially among newly recruited officers within the first three years. It is important to bear in mind that police officers whose family is not happy cannot perform optimally.

Though various police departments have recognized the problem, many more are yet to do something about it. In 1981 Civil Rights Commission emphasized the need for the establishment of stress management systems in police departments (Forst Dempsey, 2010, p 180). The New York police department established its stress management program in 1986 with an initial group of 100 trained police officers as per counselors. Since then, many others have followed suit. The peer counseling departments should continuously be adapting to the dynamics of the problem to ensure help is effectively delivered when needed. It is highly likely that people who engage in alcohol abuse engage in drug use as well. Tackling drug use among the police may offer insights as to which members of the force abuse alcohol hence extend help.

Alcohol abuse among officers should be regarded as a pointer to a bigger problem, whether individually or in the organization. Remedial measures should be instituted to correct the situation to prevent more officers from falling into the same situation. The programs should be extended to cover even retirees.

Alcohol abuse is a disaster not only confined to the police force. From another angle, they are part of the general population that as studies suggest drinks less than the law enforcement force. However the critical role they play in maintaining law and order demands that they work in a sober environment and in a sober state of the mind. In the United States, both the state and federal police departments are big institutions that touch every person and every aspect of their lives. A majority of the police officers are well behaved and do not have problems with alcohol use, although the percentage which is alcoholic is a matter of concern to all members of society. Bureaucracy within the police force in terms of obtaining information should be discouraged as it only acts as a catalyst to the problem by distorting the actual facts of the scourge.


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