Officer (Falling) Down
Last Sunday around 5 a.m., she received news which she had been dreading for years. The text message transmitted the kind of news that made her feel as if her stomach was trying to climb up into her throat. “I was arrested for DWI at midnight,” the text message read. “I wanted you to hear it from me before you read it in the paper. I’m sorry I let you down.”
She sat up in bed, cradled the phone in her hand, and reflected that maybe she had been the one who let him down. This cautionary tale is a true story, but for obvious reasons, must remain anonymous. Call him Chris, but he could just as easily have been named Roberto, Laurie, D’Andre, or Nguyen. He (or she) could be from New York City or Honolulu, San Juan, Puerto Rico or San Juan Capistrano.
Chris is still the best instinctive police officer she knows. He served in a Presidential detail for a number of years while in the armed forces. Chris was dedicated, passionate, and committed to enforcing the law. Beloved by the neighborhood he served, Chris’ approach to community policing led the citizens to nominate him for a “Top Cop” award, which he won for his municipality.
But Chris also had PTSD from his military service. Sadly, Chris had been exhibiting symptoms of distress for a number of years. He suffered with a longstanding gastric problem causing many absences. His Facebook page was filled with dour comments regarding the city where he serves. Many of the pictures shared there clearly involved consuming alcohol. Romantic relationships crashed and burned.
Chris’ work began to slip. He lost his temper and became frustrated easily while on duty. Chris missed training. His appearance changed; he looked bloated and had gained a great deal of weight. Chris was subject to a number of disciplinary actions for low-level infractions. He would frequently fail to remember interpersonal communication and distanced himself from friends.
As always, there was plenty of gossip around the department. She tried speaking to Chris directly on several occasions. He told her that his only problem was her. Other officers from his unit who knew that they were close expressed concern to her. She contacted his brother who was a senior non-commissioned military officer, but the downward spiral continued.
What held her and others back from taking action and notifying the chain of command? What kept his chain of command from taking other than disciplinary action? Was it lack of concern? Fear was the primary motivation.
Isn’t it ironic? Those who place themselves in harm’s way day after day in law enforcement are often afraid to take action to report a colleague who needs help. Officers are afraid to ask for help themselves because they fear career damage. Co-workers and superior officers fear grievances or strained work relationships if they intervene.
The saddest part of this difficult issue is that it is often the very pressures of the job that drive officers to attempt to cope through substance abuse. All law enforcement officers are aware of the troubling statistics regarding drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, disability, and suicide among law enforcement officers, yet the police family still hesitates in confronting or reporting a fellow officer.
Chris is suspended now without pay and in rehab. She had breakfast with him recently. He told her that all he felt was relief. His case has not been adjudicated yet. His chief has received many letters of support from citizens. She hopes that his career may be saved.
The tension in dealing with troubled police officers lies between the legitimate notion of zero tolerance for drunk driving and creating an open environment in which to ask for help. Public perception of poor behavior among police officers is a constant concern of any competent police executive. However, actions taken to address that concern can stand in the way of assisting a salvageable officer.
Having a substance abuse problem? Now we will make it impossible for you to support yourself or your family by suspending you without pay. While such action as reported in the local paper satisfies a public often critical of law enforcement, it does little to assist the officer. Further, it makes other officers loathe to ask for help or to intervene with a colleague,
All police professionals must make it easier for troubled officers to ask for help. Undergoing successful treatment for alcoholism or receiving counseling should not hamper a career. In fact, having the maturity to recognize when assistance is necessary should be a plus.
She chickened out in taking further action because she was afraid that she might be wrong. She was afraid that Chris would be angry with her. She feared that her actions would permanently damage the friendship and his career.
Is there a Chris in your life? Are you Chris? Courage is being afraid and doing it anyway. Have courage and do something. In doing so, you may save a life just as surely as if you gave CPR to the victim of a motor vehicle accident. Do something.
Although most departments have Employee Assistance Programs, following are some helpful resources
Police Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings
Police and AA Article