On-duty police and alcohol are a dangerous mix
BY ANDY SHAW Better Government Association March 1, 2013 8:06PM
Updated: April 4, 2013 6:38AM
Cops and pops may rhyme, but they don’t mix.
Consider: The City of Chicago recently approved a $4.1 million settlement to the family of an unarmed man fatally shot by a Chicago police officer who was reportedly drinking before work.
It’s a no-brainer to point out that cops and booze are a potentially lethal combination, but incredibly, a lot of suburbs actually tolerate substantial amounts of alcohol in the systems of their on-duty police officers.
In some cases — and here’s the real shocker — at blood-alcohol levels of nearly 0.08, the state’s definition of legally drunk.
Visualize: Sworn officers wearing badges, carrying guns, driving squad cars at high speeds and encountering citizens in stressful and pressure-packed situations while they’re buzzed. OMG.
That undermines public confidence in law enforcement and increases the likelihood of booze-fueled misconduct and excessive-force lawsuits that leave taxpayers liable for multi-million-dollar settlements.
The BGA and NBC 5 recently uncovered this ticking time bomb, along with disturbing examples: Oak Park and Elmwood Park technically allow blood alcohol levels up to 0.079 — a couple of sips below legally drunk.
Other suburbs, including Westchester, Forest Park, Glendale Heights and South Barrington, let their cops work at 0.049 —or “more than half drunk,” as one mystified police chief put it — and a number of communities, including Chicago, permit 0.02.
So how did this happen?
Easy: Permissive blood-alcohol levels have been part of the boilerplate language of police union contracts for years — throwbacks to a “Mad Men” era when untoward alcohol-related behavior was tolerated and even socially acceptable.
So it’s no surprise that most of the top cops and municipal leaders didn’t even know the clauses existed until the BGA told them. And based on public reaction to our investigation, the average suburban dweller had no clue that Officer Friendly was allowed to have a cocktail or two or three before going on duty.
Some police unions say a small trace of blood-alcohol should be excused for medical reasons — like taking a swig of cough syrup prior to a shift.
OK, but medical experts argue strenuously against sanctioning anything more, and they stress the perils of blending even modest drinking and police work with these sobering facts:
At 0.02, reaction time is affected; at 0.03, vision and vigilance are impaired, and at 0.04, motor skills are considerably impacted. Anything higher is a formula for disaster when you consider the split-second, life-and-death situations cops confront daily.
Some departments — including the Illinois State Police and Cook County Sheriff’s Police — have a “zero tolerance” policy that bars any alcohol in the bloodstream of on-duty cops.
Airline pilots and CTA drivers have to be clean for a number of hours before work. Cops should be, too.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who helped pass a zero-tolerance law for school bus drivers, told the BGA he was outraged at our findings and pledged to draft similar legislation for cops and other public safety officials.
“When officers are drinking, they’re not safe and taxpayers aren’t safe,” White said. “This legislation should have been introduced a long time ago.”
True, but it wasn’t, so here we are, and to repurpose the Chicago Police motto: Protect now and serve later.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.