Shaw: Booze, cops on duty a risky mix
By Andy Shaw March 12, 2013 9:06PM
Updated: April 14, 2013 6:41AM
Cops and pops may rhyme, but they don’t mix.
Consider: The city of Chicago recently approved a $4.1 million legal settlement to the family of an unarmed man shot to death by a Chicago police officer who was reportedly drinking alcohol before going on duty.
It’s a no-brainer to point out that cops and booze are a potentially lethal combination, but, incredibly, a lot of suburbs tolerate substantial amounts of alcohol in the systems of their on-duty officers. In some cases — and here’s the real shocker — they allow the police to have 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 at least somewhat intoxicated. 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 multimillion-dollar settlements.
The Better Government Association and NBC5 recently uncovered this ticking time bomb, along with some disturbing examples. Oak Park and Elmwood Park, for instance, technically allow blood-alcohol levels up to 0.079 — a couple of sips below being legally drunk.
Other suburbs — including Westchester, Forest Park, Glendale Heights and South Barrington — let their cops work with a 0.049 blood-alcohol level, or “more than half drunk,” as one mystified police chief put it. Several other towns, including Chicago, set the level a 0.02.
So how has this been allowed to 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 top police officials and municipal leaders didn’t even know the contract clauses pertaining to blood-alcohol level existed until the BGA informed them. And based on public reaction to our investigation, the average suburban resident 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, such as 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 that cops confront daily.
Some police 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 officers.
Airline pilots and Chicago Transit Authority bus and el train 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 police and firefighters.
“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 chief executive of the Better Government Association.