Blue Line


April 10, 2013  By Stephanie Conn

782 words – MR

Police and substance abuse

by Stephanie Conn

We have all seen headlines about police officers abusing alcohol or drugs. It seems like something that happens to other people and very little is reported about how the officer arrived at this place in life.


It is such a contradictory story. It’s like an obese personal trainer or a hairstylist with bad hair. It doesn’t make sense yet there is a long history of substance abuse in policing. I think back many years ago to when my department asked me to offer training on abuse awareness after officers committed a series of alcohol-related offences. What I found was shocking. It really opened my eyes.

Substance abuse isn’t always obvious. It may start out as social drinking with fellow officers to relax after a shift. It can be the insidious escalation of prescription drugs once taken legitimately for back pain. Many people can abuse substances while still appearing functional to most observers. Making matters worse, many of the observers are co-workers reluctant to say anything to the officer or others due to a code of silence.

The standard approach to substance abuse issues really doesn’t make much sense. For example, if I tell you not to think of an elephant, what happens? Did you see one? So, if a department tells its officers to avoid alcohol and drugs, what do you think they do with that message?

Most people don’t like to be told what NOT to do. Police officers REALLY don’t like to be told what not to do. It is called psychological reactance. We react strongly when we perceive our freedom is being taken away, digging in our heels and refusing to budge (in this case substance use/abuse).

A better approach for a agency (or individual, for that matter) is to encourage healthy habits, such as exercise and proper nutrition. This will send the message to officers that they are supported in making healthy choices.

Police agencies can promote healthy habits by offering various training, events and challenges. Police officers should be involved in planning and organizing these initiatives so they feel invested in setting goals for themselves. Participating in healthy behaviours activates another principle, cognitive dissonance, where the person’s commitment to healthy habits makes unhealthy habits such as substance use/abuse too contradictory to even consider. Voila! You have just countered substance abuse issues by promoting your officers’ health. It seems like a win-win situation to me!

This proactive approach is great to minimize the likelihood of the onset of substance abuse issues for some but what about those who are already abusing? If you have noticed a need for substances, taking measures to handle this yourself is far better than waiting for someone else to notice and take action. Get help!

There are support services that specialize in police substance abuse issues. Take note of your use pattern. Do you use them to avoid something else? Did it start out as a social event that took on more importance because you felt poorly without it? These are important distinctions to make, as they have implications for how you can tackle the addiction demon by substituting alternative coping or combating the physical addiction with medical support.

If it is a co-worker, approach them and talk about your concerns. Be explicit about what you have noticed but continue to offer your support and concern. Encourage them to talk to someone. If they seem resistant or don’t follow through with getting help, let them know that you will get them help. It is NOT a betrayal but an act of courage and compassion for the officer, other officers, their families and the profession.

If you are a supervisor and notice absenteeism, lateness, citizen complaints, reduced productivity and visible signs of decline, talk to your officer. It may be a substance abuse issue or just the tip of the iceberg. Substance abuse may be the officer’s way of coping with personal or professional stressors. Talk about what he or she needs to better manage these stressors and, consequently, eliminate the need to numb out with substances.
Recruit the help of confidential professional support to assist your officer in dealing with this issue.

I realize the suggestions are easier said than done. Nobody wants to be the one to “rat” on a fellow officer. We feel paralyzed to act so we do nothing. When something bad happens, we feel regret for what we could have done to save the officer’s career and/or life.

I would rather a fellow officer be mad at me but alive and getting support than be filled with a lifetime of regret for what I did not do.

Print this page


Stories continue below