I Google the phrase “alcoholic cop” every few months. The results shed light on several challenges cops face. Undoubtedly, police work is one of the most challenging jobs in the world, often faced with the worst of the worst regarding the world today. It can be sad, depressing and frustrating. It’s commonly reported as one of the most stressful jobs one can have, but yet be entirely dedicated to. Unfortunately, alcohol is a widely misused substance among police officers.
Some officers use alcohol as a way to cope with the daily stress of the job or to numb depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress. Others might have alcohol conditions stemming from genetics or the environment they grew up in. If someone comes to law enforcement with a predisposition for alcoholism, they can be triggered by the stressful and often grim situations officers face on the job.
And then if you watch any television program portraying the life of a police officer, you are going to see a strong yet broken hero who deals with the pressures of his work with a glass of scotch or bourbon at their office or favorite bar. The scene plays out with everyone having a good time celebrating as if the alcohol made everything okay. Law enforcement does have a culture of brotherhood or camaraderie and family, but it can also foster a culture of denial, avoidance and dependency. Many officers are taught and expect to be able to fix every problem. Even steel wears down!
Learning to deal with the stress of the job and maintaining a healthy personal life is a skill many in law enforcement don’t often learn. The end result is too often too much alcohol, burnout and/or divorce. Knowing how to handle emotions is just as important as healthy eating and being aware of our surroundings.
It’s hard for many people to acknowledge that emotions could be part of the equation in law enforcement. We are drilled on codes, procedures and handling weapons. Coping mechanisms come in all shapes and sizes. Healthy and unhealthy ones become everyday practice. Alcohol is a depressant and will dull thoughts and feelings, while also causing more feelings of being invincible or simply blocking out the emotions that are troubling you.
The stressors that deputies and officers are exposed to surpass the typical range of emotions most people experience. The calls handled in one shift can range from the mundane to the horrific, such as multiple victims, motor vehicle accidents, drug addicts, domestic violence and car chases. The emotions involved create a perfect storm if you don’t have a healthy way to decompress routinely in positive ways. Add to the equation a culture that encourages camaraderie over a few drinks. Celebrating a promotion or the new recruit class graduation is not a bad thing. What makes it harmful is the culture that encourages excessive drinking!
If any of these behaviors sound familiar, call the Psychological Services Bureau (PSB) at (213) 738-3500 to speak with a law enforcement psychologist or myself. There are numerous peer support members and chaplains at various facilities who can help, along with the Peace Officer’s Fellowship (POF) members listed on this page. Help is available.