Substance Abuse Among Police & Law Enforcement

4 min read · 5 sections
What you will learn:
The prevalence of substance abuse in the police force.
Why police officers might abuse sustances.

Substance Abuse Within the Police Force

police and substance abuse

“When I was in narcotics, I had very little compassion for people who were drug users,” says assistant police chief William Lowry in an article for the Washington Post. “As a cop, I never understood how you could take the things that were important to you … and push all that to the side.”

The Post article was about Lowry’s son, Matthew Lowry, who was facing trial for crimes related to his heroin addiction. “William Lowry had listened to the parents of countless addicts claim they didn’t know,” the article continues. “Now, he was one of them.”

William Lowry’s sentiment is probably shared by many of the 806,400 people who, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, serve as police officers, detectives, and game wardens. Unfortunately, they may also share Lowry’s blind spot when it concerns those close to them. “You don’t want to see what you don’t want to see,” the senior Lowry told the Post.

Though the younger Lowry arrived at his heroin addiction through prescription pain medication, addiction can also strike at the law enforcement community through attempts to self-medicate. Studies show a correlation between high stress careers and substance abuse. In the case of first responders, the job stresses involve life-and-death issues. Over the long-term, this type of stress, if left unaddressed, can build and develop into PTSD. If the officer tries to address this by self-medicating the chances for substance abuse and addiction grow. Whatever path leads law enforcement professionals to addiction, Lowry is not alone. Surveys suggest that as many as 30% of those in first responder professions may be struggling with substance abuse.

Why the Risk?

police struggle with drug addiction as wellLife in the police force means a life of routine or vigilance punctuated by episodes of violence. For example, a study conducted by The Oregonian found that Portland officers were involved with 7.3 shootings per year, on average, and some of those shootings were fatal. These officers suited up for work on an average day, went into familiar territory, and yet before that shift at work was over, they had to make the choice to end another person’s life.

Those brief episodes of violence are often followed by long and mind-numbing periods of waiting and paperwork. Games, jokes, patrols, and trainings can fill up the time. But deep in the back of every officer’s mind is the reminder that the call could come at any moment. And when it does, everything could be different.

Consider Police Lt. Mike Madden, who was the first officer on the scene of the horrible shootings at Inland Regional Center in 2015. In an interview recapped by USA Today, he described walking into a scene that was still decorated for the upcoming holiday. As he confronted the carnage, he kept thinking about how the issue would impact the family members left behind.

There are so many families going into this holiday season that are going to be suffering from this senseless act of violence, he said. “It was unspeakable, the carnage that we were seeing.”

But because he had an active shooter still unaccounted for on the scene, Lt. Madden had to put his personal feelings and sense of horror aside. He had survivors who were too worried to come out of hiding. His personal feelings had to be shoved aside – he had work to do.

Lt. Madden’s experience is not uncommon, and it’s not something that ends when officers punch a time clock and walk out of the building at the end of a shift. Even the most understanding family member might not get what it’s really like to walk into the aftermath of violence. And frankly, a spouse, sibling or roommate may not really want to hear the details of the cop’s horrific night on the beat.

Some cases won’t even allow officers to speak freely. There are witness names to protect, the chain of evidence to consider, and investigations to preserve. Some details must be purposefully omitted or removed — sometimes indefinitely.

stressed officer Turning to colleagues for help doesn’t always work. The police force is notorious for crafting a culture of repression and omission. Diane Wetendorf, who has written extensively on the issue of violence in the police force, suggests that this culture shift comes with training. When learning to be police officers, trainees lose their individuality. They are no longer people with thoughts, feelings, and opinions. They are all officers, and they are all the same.

That culture could protect an officer in trouble, as peers might be quick to see the officer’s side of an argument, but that same culture could also hamstring an officer in need. An expression of worry or fear could be interpreted as weakness. And because weakness could put another officer’s life on the line, the culture admits no space for expressing deep or overwhelming emotional concerns.

Handling the Stress and Pressure

heroin dependency

So if a cop’s life is punctuated with horror and boredom, and the average cop can’t talk about the problem with either peers or loved ones, what’s that person to do? Officers employ a number of solutions that may temporarily give them the desired results.

Some officers develop a tough exterior that’s marked by episodes of aggression or hostility. It’s a sort of mask of gruffness that a cop could put on in order to avoid discussing anything deeply emotional or difficult. It seems effective, as it tends to prompt people to halt conversations and avoid conflict. A gruff cop may seem to crave isolation, and that gruffness brings isolation to life, but it can also make a cop horribly alone. That doesn’t solve the cop’s inner problems.

Even if a police officer doesn’t want to admit that the problems are there, emotional distress will find its expression. Sometimes, that expression comes in the form of physical illness. In a study of the issue, funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, researchers examined more than 400 police officers with questionnaires, blood tests, stress monitoring, and more. The researchers found that officers older than 40 had a higher risk of a heart attack when compared to national standards. They also found that officers had higher levels of cholesterol and cortisol (a chemical associated with stress).

Studies like this show, quite clearly, that stress that is ignored is not stress that goes away. It’s stored in every cell of an officer’s body. If it isn’t dealt with, an officer could make a terrible choice.

Other officers turn to drugs of abuse. On the surface, and especially early on, this coping strategy might seem like a reasonable solution. Many drugs an officer might turn to have the ability to slow down an overactive mind pushed to the limit by stress, worry, and trauma. These drugs might include:

  • Alcohol.
  • Prescription painkillers.
  • Heroin.
  • Benzodiazepines.
  • Marijuana.

When a stressed officer takes these drugs, the circuits in the brain slow down. The underlying trauma has not been healed, but the officer might finally feel relaxed and at ease. These drugs might also boost the production of chemical signals of pleasure, which can make an officer feel finally happy and accepted. In short, these drugs can seem like a godsend.

But drugs rarely work as long-term solutions. The brain learns to compensate and deregulate in response to the constant presence of drugs. That can mean officers who consistently take drugs might need to take more and more over time. Even then, they might not find relief. In time, the urge to use might become compulsive. Officers might be driven to use drugs, even when they do not want to do so. Their brain cells can become chemically dependent on drugs, and that makes controlling behavior very difficult.

Finding a Better Coping Response

Addictions are serious, and when they appear, they should be dealt with in a comprehensive manner. As Robin Kroll, PsyD, put it in an issue of The Police Chief: “When officers struggle with addiction, it is critical that they take time away from the job. Medical leave allows officers to fully concentrate on recovery, which includes gaining insight to the root of their addiction, learning new healthy coping strategies, and identifying triggers that have led or could lead to a relapse.”

Officers that enroll in a qualified treatment program could gain tools that could help them to handle the current substance abuse issue, as well as the ongoing stresses that they face every day they are on the job. Those tools involve:

Healing on the Job

getting treatmentAddictions are far from rare among members of the police force. Officials are trying to do their part to change the culture, so it becomes a smaller or nonexistent issue in the future. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice recommends many cultural and practical shifts that can reduce the risks of drug abuse, for example, shifting officer training to include addiction topics, so future officers will know how to deal with addictions in their suspects as well as in their colleagues and themselves.

That change can start at the individual level too. Officers with addiction issues can and should get the help they need to recover, and they should feel capable of discussing their recovery with peers. Every officer who does so demonstrates that addiction is both common and beatable.

The sooner people get help, the better. In an interview with WGBH news, a former officer who developed an addiction while on the job compared his addiction to the edge of the cliff. “You’re not automatically on the edge of the cliff,” he said. “But eventually, with each step you bring yourself closer and closer to the edge.”

If you are addicted, get help now. Comprehensive addiction treatment can help an officer in need, confidentially, and give that

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