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There’s crisis in policing

September 2016

Re:  Did boozy cop get off easy? (Michele Mandel, Toronto Sun, 14 September 2014); I had two reactions when I read this article.  The first was what is causing so many cops to drink, especially when we see first-hand the carnage that results (collisions, domestics, etc)?  The second was this could have been me if my luck had run out. 

You see, I’m a serving police officer and an alcoholic in recovery.  I did a lot of the things Constable Andrew Ford did: drinking at work, drinking after work with co-workers either in a bar or in an industrial park late at night, drinking on my days off in a bar or at home and even drinking while I was driving (I always had a case in the back of my car).  While I was always careful not to be falling-down drunk whenever I was driving, I certainly would have failed a roadside screening test.  Only once was I stopped in a ride spot-check, but the cop never noticed the smell of alcohol.  I was very lucky indeed.

Why did I drink?  It was due to a combination of the stresses from the job and problems in my personal life.  I was under severe stress, clinically depressed and was self medicating, trying to ease the emotional pain in my head.  I had been a social drinker all my adult life, but eventually I started having trouble sleeping and started taking prescription sleep medication.

As the years (yes, years) went on, the sleeping pills started losing their effectiveness, so I started drinking alcohol with them as I found it gave the pills a “kick”.  This started to go badly for me as I started having blackouts (when the bottle says, “Do not consume alcohol when taking this medication,” it’s not a suggestion).  Luckily, I never hurt anyone or did anything like get in my car and drive during these blackouts, but I could have done something terrible, including the time my wife stopped me from walking out of the house with our then infant child.  I have no memory of it and no idea where I was heading.

As time went on, I went from drinking when I needed to de-stress or sleep, to drinking every day.

One big problem with combating alcohol (and drug abuse) in policing is the culture of “suck it up, ” something that is common in male-dominated professions and an attitude that has been a part of male culture for centuries.  If something is bothering you, you are told to just suck it up and get on with it.  If you expressed something was troubling you or even worse, asked for help, you were thought of as weak.  You were passed over for promotions and job assignments because it was thought that “you just couldn’t hack it.”

Constable Ford’s attorney Peter Brauti made it very clear one of the facts that really shouldn’t be ignored any longer when he said,  “If we wanted to be really forward thinking about this, we’d be addressing the causes of why police officers are drinking.”  This in no way should excuse police officers who drink and drive, myself included, because no one forces us to drink to excess and then drive a motor vehicle.  I don’t expect any forgiveness or any sympathy for what I did because I did it to myself.  However, until we address this problem, Constable Ford will not be the last police officer who ends up charged with impaired driving or causes death or injury to innocent civilians or themselves.

I was very lucky that I stopped myself before I caused any serious harm or found myself in handcuffs. I finally admitted to myself that I was an alcoholic and needed to change my life.  I never thought something like that would happen to me, but it did.  I still love policing and there are many, many positives to the job, but there is a dark side that no one really wants to talk about.

Is there something that could be better done to screen out prospective police officers who are susceptible to destructive behaviour like alcoholism?  I have no idea if there is any way to screen people because no one knows exactly how much you can take before you hit a breaking point.  Sometimes it’s a matter of having one devastating thing happen to you that starts a police officer down that destructive road.  We’re human after-all, with all the imperfections that come with it.  However, for some officers, nothing seems to bother them and they go through their career with no substance abuse or mental health problems.

I think a better way to address this problem would be to accept that stress and traumatic events will happen in professions like emergency services workers and work to destroy the stigma that comes with admitting that you’re overwhelmed and need some help.  I’m not claiming this will solve everything, but it will help.

I’m now proud to say that I’m a recovering alcoholic, because to me it means that I recognized that I had a problem and am taking steps to change my life.  It doesn’t mean I’m weak; far from it.  It means that I’m strong enough to combat a disease that kills over 2000 people each year from alcoholic liver disease, along with many, many more from alcohol-related incidents like traffic collisions and falls.

I know that I’ll always be in recovery; that I’ll always be an alcoholic and can never, ever, drink alcohol again.  Why can’t I have just one drink now and then?  Because I can’t have just ONE drink.

Did (the) boozy cop get off easy?  Yes he did.  Now let’s get to the task of helping him and the other cops out there who are killing themselves in slow-motion before they kill themselves or other innocent civilians.

 

*******************************************************************************************

 

An edited version of this column appeared in the Toronto Sun on 9 October 2016.  Edited by Editor Emeritus Lorrie Goldstein.

I’VE BEEN THERE

Re “Did boozy cop get off easy?” (Michele Mandel, Toronto Sun, Sep. 14):  I had two reactions when I read this article.

The first was, what is causing so many cops to drink, especially when we see first-hand the carnage that results (collisions, domestics, etc.)?  The second was that could have been me if my luck had run out.

You see, I’m a serving police officer in Ontario and an alcoholic in recovery.

I did some things the officer cited in Mandel’s story did and a lot more he didn’t do.

I drank at work and after work with co-workers, either in a bar or an industrial park, late at night.

I drank on my days off in a bar or at home.

I even drank while I was driving. (I always had a case in the back of my car).

While I was always careful not to be falling-down drunk when I was driving, I would have failed a roadside screening test.

Only once was I stopped in a ride spot-check, but the cop never noticed the smell of alcohol. I was lucky.

Why did I drink? Due to a combination of stress from the job and problems in my personal life.

I was clinically depressed, trying to ease the emotional pain in my head.

I had been a social drinker all my adult life, but eventually I started drinking every day.

One big problem with combating alcohol (and drug abuse) in policing is the culture of “suck it up”.

If something is bothering you, you are told to just get on with it.

If you ask for help, you are considered weak.

You are passed over for promotions and job assignments because it’s thought “you just couldn’t hack it”.

I could draw a line back to the older veterans telling us: “In my day, we didn’t take time off or go talk to a ‘shrink’ about touchy, feely things. We just sucked it up and got on with it.”

I was “sucking it up”, all right, and in the process became a danger to myself and others.

We need to ask why so many officers are drinking.

I don’t expect forgiveness or sympathy for what I did. I did it to myself.

I was very lucky that I stopped myself before I caused any serious harm or found myself in handcuffs.

I admitted to myself I was an alcoholic and needed to change my life.

I still love policing and there are many positives to the job. but there is a dark side no one really wants to talk about.

We’re human, after all, with all of humanity’s imperfections that come with that.

We need to accept that stress and traumatic events happen in professions like emergency services workers and work to end the stigma that comes with admitting you’re overwhelmed and need help.

I’m not claiming this will solve everything, but it’s a start.

I’m now proud to say I’m a recovering alcoholic. I recognized I had a problem and am taking steps to change my life.

I’m not weak. I’m strong enough to combat a disease that kills thousands of people every year.

I know now that I’ll always be in recovery; that I’ll always be an alcoholic and can never drink alcohol again.

We need to help other cops out there who are killing themselves in slow-motion, before they kill themselves or someone else.

NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST

(Thanks for sharing your story)

 


 

The original Toronto Sun column that prompted my column:

 

Did boozy cop get off easy?

September 13, 2016

A Toronto Police officer who admitted to drinking booze while still in his station’s parking lot and then driving home drunk will keep his job — but has been demoted for one year.

Is that penalty enough?

OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes has said that officers nailed for impaired driving have no business in uniform. MADD Canada believes the punishment meted out to these cops is too lenient and they should be held to a higher standard.

At one time, Toronto Police tribunals would only dock a few days of salary from an officer found guilty of driving while over the legal limit. How could the rest of us take seriously the message against drinking and driving when the very people entrusted to uphold the law were breaking it with hardly a ripple of consequences?

At least that is beginning to change.

According to this latest tribunal decision, Const. Andrew Ford is a nine-year veteran with an otherwise exemplary record. On Nov. 26, 2015, he was working in plainclothes as a member of the 42 Division Major Crime Unit when he ended his shift in a meeting at the Tara Inn Irish Pub and Restaurant in Scarborough. He stayed on for dinner and drinks.

“At approximately 9:40 p.m., PC Ford attended the station and reported off duty at the scheduled hour of 7 p.m. PC Ford then exited the station and went to his vehicle where he consumed a quantity of alcohol in the parking lot, prior to leaving,” Insp. Richard Hegedus said in his decision last week.

Ford then headed for home and was spotted driving “erratically” on Harry Walker Pkwy. in Newmarket by a witness who called York Regional Police. Luckily, no one was hurt. Arrested for impaired driving, Ford’s first breathalyzer test registered 192mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood and his second, 195mg — more than twice the legal limit.

To his credit, Ford pleaded guilty at his first opportunity. For operating a motor vehicle while over 80, he was fined $1,300 and had his licence suspended for a year. Charged with misconduct under the Police Act, he pleaded guilty in May.

At Ford’s sentencing hearing, the prosecutor quoted the still-alarming number of drunk driving deaths and the numerous warnings given to officers by former chief Bill Blair that they could face demotion or dismissal if convicted of impaired driving.

It doesn’t seem to be working. An average of five TPS cops a year have come before the tribunal with alcohol-related offences.

“The prosecutor submitted that to date, there has been little progress made to reducing the incidence of drinking and driving and that the message was not getting through,” noted Hegedus. “The prosecutor submitted that the service had reached a crossroads and has been working to deter officers from getting behind the wheel after having consumed alcohol.”

In the past, forfeiting 20 days of pay was considered a stiff sentence. “Over the last number of years, there’s been a deliberate effort to increase the penalties to officers who have been convicted of drinking and driving offences,” says police spokesman Meaghan Gray.

In the Ford case, the hearing officer noted his remorse, commendable record and early guilty plea but rejected the defence’s position of a nine-month demotion. Instead, he imposed a one-year reduction in rank from a first-class constable to second-class, which would cost him about $9,500.

“Const. Ford exercised poor judgement, put himself and the public at risk, and undermined the ongoing efforts of the service and organizations such as MADD when he got behind the wheel after consuming a quantity of alcohol,” Hegedus said. ”This event could have had tragic consequences and it is fortuitous that it did not.”

Did he just get off too easily? Carolyn Swinson of MADD Canada thinks so.

“They need to be held to a higher standard and a demotion is not strong enough; there should be a period without pay as well,” she insists. “Someone on the frontline who is there when there’s a crash and sees what can happen and has to knock on that family’s door, then you go out and take that risk yourself? That’s hard to comprehend.”

Should there be zero tolerance for cops who drive drunk? Or should they be allowed a mistake just like the rest of us?

 

 

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: http://militarybruce.com/a-crisis-in-policing/

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