The College of New Jersey
Alcohol abuse among police officers is a serious and widespread problem, with some studies estimating that it afflicts one-quarter of all police officers in the U.S. Research has revealed a strong connection between occupational stress and alcohol and drug abuse, but also a strong sub-cultural more among police officers that encourages drinking both for social and stress-reduction purposes. Alcohol consumption among police officers is also correlated with officer suicides and domestic violence, and many departments are beginning to recognize the liability in allowing this problem to go untreated. Mental health professionals have an opportunity to introduce prevention and intervention services to law enforcement agencies, but they must first surmount the wall of suspicion and cynicism that isolates the police sub-culture from the rest of society. This paper explores the nature of the problem of alcohol abuse among police, and also describes several initiatives aimed at reaching the men and women who protect and serve.
Alcoholism Among Law Enforcement Personnel: Its Unique Challenges
Problem drinking in the U.S. costs employers a staggering $10.7 to $2.7 billion per year in accumulated sick pay, lost productivity, accidents, and the consequences of bad workplace decisions. Some 60% of job absenteeism is attributable to alcoholic and other troubled employees, and these employees miss work 16 times more frequently than do their non-troubled colleagues. Moreover, nearly 90% of all industrial accidents are attributed to workers with either substance abuse or mental health issues. Across occupational lines, those employed in law enforcement are especially susceptible, and some studies have estimated that one-quarter of all police officers in the U.S. have serious alcohol problems (Moriarty & Field, 1990). Other health risks associated with police stress include weight gain, insomnia, gastric conditions, and heart disease (Lumb and Breazeale, 2002). A recent Australian study suggested the alcohol abuse rate is as high as 33% for police officers in that nation (Davey, Obst, and Sheehan, 2001). Several studies have corroborated the link between high stress and drinking (and their association with police suicides and domestic violence), and police work is ranked among the highest occupations for work-related stress (Davey, et. al.).
Paradoxically, despite the significantly high risk for alcoholism and other related problems, law enforcement remains one of the most difficult groups to reach with intervention and prevention services, due largely to the insular, clannish nature of police culture (Donovan, 1994). The purpose of this paper is explore the factors that may contribute to this situation and discuss some of ways mental health professionals might effectively reach out to the men and women who protect and serve.
Nature of the Problem
The job of a law enforcer in many respects occupies a unique role in a society. As Beutler, Nussbaum, and Meredith (1988) point out,
Officers must be willing to expose themselves to danger on a daily basis and to confront life-threatening circumstances. They must be willing, on one hand, to comply with a superior’s demands even when disagreeable and, on the other, to withstand the angry efforts of offenders to control them. The need to balance contradictory roles while maintaining a high degree of interpersonal sensitivity may adversely affect an individual over time if he or she does not have unusual skills (p. 503).
The Role of Stress
As previously noted, several studies have established a significant correlation between occupational stress and increased alcohol use by law enforcement personnel (Moriarty and Field, 1990; Violanti, 1985; Davey, et.al., 2001; Kohan and O’Connor, 2002). North Carolina Wesleyan College (n.d.) lists several sources of stress that are unique to police work and which may influence officers to consume alcohol as a means of coping. Stressors internal to the police organizationinclude: Poor supervision (too lenient or too tough); absence of upward mobility; absence of an extrinsic reward system; offensive (annoying or silly) policies and procedures; excessive paperwork; and poor equipment. External stressors include: Absence of career development and lateral entry; jurisdictional turf battles among different law enforcement agencies; an ineffective criminal justice system; biased news reporting; negative minority attitudes towards police; derogatory remarks by the public; political interference; and lack of community resources. Stressors connected with police work include: Role conflict and strain; rotating shifts; fear and danger; relinquishing cases to the detective bureau; victim pain and anguish; and employee review boards (or civilian complaint review boards as they are called in New York City). Additional stressors include greater media and public scrutiny of police work and the ever-increasing sophistication and weaponry of many criminals. Women and minority police officers also face their own, unique stressors: for women, sexual harassment, public stereotypes, and non-acceptance by male peers; and for minorities, racial prejudice from white colleagues along with alienation from their own communities, which often fear and dislike the police (North Carolina Wesleyan College, n.d.).
Police, much like soldiers in combat, often experience the effects of job-related stress in a delayed manner similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But unlike other professionals and executives whose occupational stressors remain fairly constant, law enforcement personnel experience what is known as burst stress: long periods of calm and boredom suddenly interrupted by periods of high activity (North Carolina Wesleyan College, n.d.). Terry (1985) calls this “police stress syndrome.” As many turn to drinking as a means to cope with the challenges of their work, the rates of police suicides and domestic violence are increasing nationwide, with the majority of these cases being alcohol related (Donovan, 1994). In Chicago, for example, alcohol was involved in all police suicides between 1977 and 1979 (Wagner and Brzeczek, as reported by Moriarty and Fields, 1990).
How Stress Affects Police Officers
Lumb and Breazeale (2002) assert that occupational stress, if untreated, can lead to negative changes in police officers, specifically in their self-schemas and in how they perceive the communities in which they serve. This, in turn, puts them at risk for becoming cynical, burning out, turning apathetic, divorcing, abusing alcohol and drugs, and committing suicide. Moriarty and Fields (1990) expand on this point:
The time early in one’s career is particularly stressful since it requires adjustment to the mores of an occupational group that may be quite different from that which is otherwise familiar to the individual. For police officers, this adjustment is particularly difficult since the transition from civilian life to police work involves exposure to stressors that heretofore have not revealed themselves to the recruit. For rookie officers, in particular, there is evidence to suggest that stress from their work causes physiological changes even before the officer himself or herself recognizes that stress is problematic to one’s health (p. 158).
The overreaching impact of stress is corroborated by Beutler’s (1988, as reported by Police-Stress, n.d.) longitudinal, four year study of 25 rookie University of Arizona police officers, which utilized several self-reporting tools including the MacAndrews Alcoholism Scale. The study found that “significant changes” occurred in the psychological makeup of the officers after just a few years on the job, and concluded that “police officers may show signs of stress early in their careers” and that “with greater time in service, somatic signs of stress and risk of substance abuse increase” (Discussion section, para. 2). To wit, respondents’ scores on the MacAndrews Scale increased from 0% for alcohol problems in the first year to 27% by the end of the second year, and to 36% by the fourth year of the study.
Cook (2003), in her anthropological essay written from the perspective of a rookie police officer’s wife, notes that stress begins in the police academy, where recruits receive their first taste of the harsh realities of modern police work. “Recruits are told stories about other cops being sued, becoming alcoholics, druggies, wife beaters, or even worse, committing suicide, so their morale is low even as they enter the profession…Eventually the recruits look at the job as an eventual spiral of pessimism, negativity, and increasing liability” (Cook, The Nocebo Effect and Stress section, para. 1).
Impact of Police Culture
Several researchers have linked negative coping mechanisms with alcoholism and drug abuse in law enforcement personnel (Shanahan, 1992, Elliott and Shanahan, 1994, Violenti, 1993, and Davey, et. al., 2001). Pugh (1985, as cited in Lumb and Breazeale, 2002) suggests that these negative coping skills may be embedded in character traits (specifically, tough-mindedness and aggressiveness) typically associated with the “beat cop,” and which many departments may still look for in recruits despite a rapidly changing social environment. Pugh suggests that these character traits are “constant predictors of superior police performance” in a traditional, reactive law enforcement setting (p. 95). However, the current trend in law enforcement is away from the reactive practices of patrol, rapid response, and investigation and toward a more proactive, community-oriented approach. The new skills required for this new approach include “problem solving, flexibility, good interpersonal and communications abilities, and a demeanor that is authoritative rather than authoritarian” (Lumb and Breazeale, p. 96).
Thus, officers who cling to the “old school” mindset may suffer future shock in a rapidly evolving social climate. Even in the midst of social change, many police departments today continue to embrace many of the traditions of a bygone era, including the acceptance of drinking (Davey, et.al., 2001). Factors such as the availability of alcohol both inside and outside of work, lack of departmental policies on drinking (or if they do exist, lax enforcement), lack of support mechanisms to help members deal with stress, and—not by far the least—peer pressure, all contribute to the problem of drinking among police officers (Davey, et.al., 2001). Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (as cited in DiClemente, 2003) would view drinking as a social cue of the cultural group or subgroup with which one is involved. In the case of police work, drinking has been a time-honored way of “taking the edge off” the stresses of the job since the first New York City patrolmen set out on their nightly rounds in the 1840s. To understand why this is so one must have a basic knowledge of the history of policing in the United States.
From the origins of most big city police forces in 1850s up until the early 20th Century when automobiles emerged as integral law enforcement tools, the lot of the ordinary patrolman was to walk a solitary beat, day and night, outside and under all weather conditions. The conventional wisdom of the time was that a “nip of liquor” would help to insulate one’s body from the bitter cold of winter. Thus, while official department policy may have prohibited drinking while on duty, it was tacitly acceptable for a policeman on foot patrol on cold nights to either carry a personal flask of alcohol or stop in at the bar on his beat for a quick drink. A second point to consider is that Irish-Americans, up until just a few generations ago, dominated the ranks of many big city departments, notably New York City and Chicago, and for them drinking was a big part of their cultural heritage. Furthermore, the tight-knit bond between officers (including strong peer pressure to conform), which still exists today, was forged in an era when police officers would work a 12-hour shift and then be held over at the stationhouse as “reserves” for an additional 12 hours (Lardner and Repetto, 2000). Liquor was typically kept at the stationhouse, and traditional occasions for celebration included: the conclusion of successful operations; promotions, transfers, and retirements; debriefings and workshops; and traditional holidays such as Christmas, New Year’s and of course St. Patrick’s Day (Davey, et.al., 2001).
Modern Police Culture and Drinking
Modern police culture remains insular and tight-knit, and the extent to which drinking has become ingrained in it varies from station to station, department to department. Yet empirically, police officers face heavy pressure to drink, to where non-drinking officers are often viewed as suspicious or anti-social by their colleagues. Davey, et.al. (2001), in a recent survey of police officers found that nearly 25% reported drinking in order to “be part of the team” while 25% reported that they were negatively affected by a co-worker’s drinking (p. 147).
Whereas alcohol abuse, substance abuse, other associated health-related problems can create liability for a police department and compromise its effectiveness, police officials typically do nothing to prevent or mitigate the problems but instead react punitively once a troubled officer’s behaviors get out of hand (Lumb and Breazeale, 2002). There are opportunities for prevention specialists and mental health professionals to partner with police agencies to reduce the incidences of alcohol abuse among law enforcement personnel, providing they are presented in such a way as to overcome officers’ barriers of cynicism and suspicion.
Prevention and Intervention
Employee assistance programs (EAPs) have grown in popularity within the corporate community over the past 20 years, as employers seek ways to mitigate the costs of lost productivity, sick time, and accidents that are associated with troubled employees. Moriarty and Field (1990) advocate the use of EAPs within police organizations to interdict officers’ alcohol abuse and other issues before they escalate. Noting the fact that police culture is often suspicious of outsiders, cynical, and resistant to change, the researchers argue that participation in EAPs should be mandatory for all officers, from the time they begin their law enforcement careers. Rookie officers, upon entering the field portion of their training (which typically begins immediately after police academy graduation), would be required to make contact with an EAP intervention specialist for the purpose of a lifestyle assessment designed to reveal potential risk factors. This is vital as the rookies begin to experience, hands-on, a reality that may well be a paradigm shift from the reality they knew as civilians. Moriarty and Fields (1990) explain the rationale:
The new recruit develops an anticipatory set of beliefs about the nature of police work. These beliefs, however, are not verified by the reality of his or her experience. Soon after employment, another dimension reveals itself to the officer. This creates a need to resolve conflicts between expectations and the reality of the job. How the officer puts this together into a compatible set of beliefs is critical to his or her emotional well being for at least two reasons. First, it represents the prototype for coping with job related stresses that are yet to come in one’s career. Secondly, this is the time that some officers gravitate to those colleagues who have not adjusted well to their profession, the men and women whose cynicism casts a negative shadow on the entire department…Without some exposure on a regular basis to productive and professional styles of adjustment, the rookie officer is often left to commiserate with those colleagues who are too sympathetic to his or her plight and are more than willing to nurture the negative perceptions that the administration, the public, or the world is at fault (p. 157).
Lifestyle assessment looks at aspects of an individual’s lifestyle such as: (a) Personal habits, which include diet, rest, exercise, and personal coping skills; (b) communication styles, both at the personal and professional level; and (c) the individual’s general state of physical and mental fitness. Rookies who score high for risk factors—e.g., poor coping skills, inflexibility, low self-esteem, etc.—would then work with the specialist to develop more effective coping skills aimed at preventing emotional crises and reducing reliance on alcohol as a requisite means of managing stress or gaining acceptance.
Whereas EAPs typically employ mental health clinicians and not law enforcement professionals to work with officers, the New York City Police Department has employed a strategy of using its own to help its own. The Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA) program, launched in 1995, is staffed by trained intervention volunteers recruited directly from the ranks of the City’s 38,000-member police force (Police-Stress, n.d.). POPPA operates a 24-hour, confidential helpline for officers. The NYPD reports that the helpline receives between 900 –1200 calls per year, and about 75% of those result in a face-to-face offsite meeting between the caller and a peer counselor. The counselors lend a sympathetic ear and provide referrals to outside mental health providers as necessary, but they do not provide psychotherapy. The program’s rationale is that it takes a cop to know a cop, so a troubled officer is more likely to open up to someone who has himself or herself experienced police stress. The POPPA program has achieved modest success in its first 10 years, with the percentage of callers accepting mental health referrals rising from 30% in 1995 to 45% in 2005 (Police-Stress). There are now a number of programs throughout the U.S. that are modeled on the POPPA initiative.
Recognizing that the changing nature of police work is a major source of stress for many law enforcement officers, Lumb and Breazeale (2002) have proposed a pilot program in which select police department employees would be trained to coach other employees in how to cope with change and better manage occupational stress. The goal of the program is prevention: to provide officers with effective coping strategies and resources before stress can lead to problem behaviors and substance abuse. Although not implemented at the time their article was published, the authors presented the concept to a focus group of law enforcement administrators from various agencies in North and South Carolina, with the majority of participants responding favorably.
St. Michael’s House in Chicago, IL, which opened in 1997 and serves all of Chicago’s 13,000-member police force, is described as “the nation’s only comprehensive treatment program designed solely for law enforcement officers” (Program for Police, p. 4). While not aligned with one particular religious sect, the program is the result of a partnership between the department’s chaplaincy and counseling services and Rush Behavioral Health (a division of Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center). Services include: (a) Pastoral care; (b) 24-hour hotline; (c) traumatic incident debriefing services; (d) individual, marital, and family therapy; and (e) alcohol and drug treatment, including relapse prevention and aftercare. Plans are also in the works to open a residential drug and alcohol treatment center for police officers in Chicago and surrounding communities.
The problems and stressors facing police officers, especially in this age when law enforcement on the whole is undergoing paradigm changes in how it serves society, present a daunting challenge to mental health providers. As alcoholism rates continue to rise—and with them the associated problems of domestic violence and suicide—there is great need of initiatives that can overcome the typical barriers of suspicion and cynicism that serve to insulate and isolate those in law enforcement. While this paper has highlighted several cutting edge programs, it should be noted that further research on the police subculture is needed.
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James Genovese, Department of Counselor Education, The College of New Jersey.
All correspondence regarding this article should be sent to James Genovese, 123 Elmwood Avenue, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 07116-2020. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.