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Alcoholism In Police Officers Statistics

Although police officers are meant to uphold and follow the law, that does not make them impervious to falling under the grasp of addiction like anyone else. In fact, substance use disorders are estimated to be between 20 and 30% among police, compared to under 10% among the general population. With 1 in 4 police officers struggling with an alcohol or drug abuse issue, it raises major concern for this population. Alcoholism in police officers not only affects the individual and their family, but it can also affect the community.

According to a 2010 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 16% of female officers and 11% of male officers showed at-risk alcohol use. It is estimated that over 33% of police binge drank in the last month. Binge drinking is defined as a man consuming 5 or more alcoholic drinks and a woman consuming 4 or more alcoholic drinks within 2 hours. The largest age group of binge drinkers in America is people aged 25 to 34. The average age of male police officers is 39, and the average age of female police officers is 38. Most law enforcement agencies require a minimum age of 21 to join. The states that have a maximum age limit to start a law enforcement career are usually between 34 and 37. This generally young age range may be a contributing factor in some of the many reasons we see alcoholism in police officers.

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Reasons for Alcoholism in Police

It’s obvious that working in law enforcement is different from other career paths. Odd working hours, exposure to hostile situations, and physical and mental stress are responsibilities that police agree to take on when they join the force. The trauma that police may encounter while they work would undoubtedly take a toll on anyone’s mental health, and trauma often leads people to turn to substances to cope. Extreme stress, as well as an ingrained drinking culture can exacerbate an alcohol use disorder.

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Police officers may witness deadly car accidents, domestic violence, animal abuse, shootings, and gory crime scenes on a regular basis. Any of these situations could have a serious psychological impact. Coupled with the pressure that police are under to remain calm and correctly do their job, this could lead to drug or alcohol abuse to attempt to cope with depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. A study published in the National Criminal Justice Reference Service found 4 main occupational demands that can trigger alcohol abuse. They are:

  • Reacting unemotionally to the daily stresses of the job (depersonalization).
  • Authoritarian demands from police managers.
  • Organizational protection of officers from criticism.
  • Daily awareness of the dangers of the job.

Between 7 and 19% of police have some symptoms of PTSD, and 1 in 4 police have thought about suicide at least once in their life. The suicide rate is 4 times higher for police than firefighters, who also experience traumatic situations on a regular basis. In fact, more police die by suicide than by homicide. While stressful situations may trigger alcoholism in police officers, trauma is not the only contributing factor. Working in an environment where your peers are also abusing alcohol and ignoring warning signs of alcohol addiction can perpetrate a serious alcohol use disorder.

Drinking Culture

In police who demonstrate at-risk drinking behaviors, fitting in with their peers appears to be a major contributing factor. A study published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology found that the officers who were, “most at risk for drinking problems admitted that fitting in was highest on their list of why they drank alcohol.” While stress is the most common reason that police state they drink, studies have found that celebration and socializing with peers were some of the most important factors that contributed to alcohol use. Some research has even shown that nondrinkers were seen as suspicious and unsociable people by other police officers.

A common mindset among police is that a person outside of the police force will be unable to understand the pressures they face, which leads to a tight-nit and potentially destructive group mentality among officers who abuse alcohol. Police may also protect their own, and not report dangerous drug or alcohol use that they witness in their peers. This can be considered enabling and does nothing to help the addict.

What Can be Done?

A police officer working under the influence or hungover can lead to a potentially disastrous situation. Police need to make quick decisions and deescalate tense situations, which can be near impossible when their mind is fogged by the effects of alcohol. Even if he or she realizes they have a problem with alcohol and knows they need professional help, they may be afraid to seek out help for fear of disciplinary action or loss of their job.

While an officer can be terminated for alcohol use that adversely impacts their work, they are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if they choose to seek treatment for an alcohol use disorder. Officers can take advantage of programs like Access EAP, a peer-based Employee Assistance Program that offers support for first responders that are struggling with, “stress, depression, substance abuse, family, grief, financial issues, and more.” There are also inpatient and outpatient treatment programs available that can focus on resolving PTSD issues as well as an alcohol use disorder.

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