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Alcohol abuse in policing: prevention strategies.

Alcohol abuse represents an important issue in police work. Estimates show that alcohol abuse among police officers in the United States is approximately double that of the general population where 1 in 10 adults abuses alcohol.(1) While the social use of alcohol may be accepted in most professions, excessive use can impair an individual's ability to function properly at work and at home. This can prove particularly dangerous for police officers.

Researchers find the occupational and personal losses associated with alcohol abuse among police officers difficult to determine, and deficits in job performance due to alcohol abuse cannot always be easily detected. Because alcohol use often is considered part of the police lifestyle, officers who have a problem seldom get approached by their peers.

Ultimately, officers who abuse alcohol get noticed by their organizations and sometimes by the public. Their drinking problems may lead to an automobile accident, a domestic violence situation, or a citizen's complaint. To deal with such situations, many police agencies adopt a strategy of getting help for abusers only after they discover a problem. Help may include a referral to an employee assistance program or alcohol rehabilitation clinic. Agencies often use a late-stage treatment strategy because police managers sometimes lack faith in early detection approaches and view them as ineffective. Yet, if agencies intervene before officers get into trouble, they can help officers onto the road to recovery, avoiding damage to both their personal and professional lives.


Prevention approaches view the causes of alcohol abuse to be based on the behavior of the officer, as well as being influenced by the officer's social network. The police social network has similar risk factors for alcohol abuse as other high-stress occupations. Police officers may endure stress, experience peer pressure, and be subjected to isolation - all within a culture that approves alcohol use.(2) Oftentimes, police officers gather at a local bar after their shifts to relax over a few drinks with their peers and reinforce their own values. Furthermore, because of the close-knit police culture, officers may feel reluctant to report colleagues for alcohol-related difficulties. Many officers may go to great lengths to protect fellow officers in trouble.

If a police department hopes to effectively reduce alcohol abuse, it should intervene early into the very network that reinforces such behavior in the first place - the police culture.(3) Agencies should get involved as early as the police academy stage and follow up with periodic in-service interventions.

Departments can use numerous strategies for early intervention. For example, they can

* help to improve the fitness and well-being of officers;

* provide education on lifestyle rather than on alcohol itself;

* initiate stress management programs; and

* shift the responsibility of detection to individuals other than the affected officer.(4)


Improve Physical and Mental Fitness

Improving physical and mental fitness represents an important first step in alcohol abuse prevention. Experts believe that individuals who live unhealthy lives increase their risk of becoming excessive drinkers. Fitness protects against developing destructive habits, which, over time, can lead to health problems. For example, a physically fit individual generally does not smoke and drinks only at a low risk level. Thus, poor physical health may prove compatible with excessive drinking because officers may not perceive drinking as worse than other aspects of an unhealthy lifestyle. In this sense, the appropriate target for alcohol prevention becomes the unhealthy lifestyle of the officer rather than the drinking behavior itself.(5)

Provide Lifestyle Education

Education serves as another part of an alcohol abuse prevention strategy. Individuals unaware of the effects of alcohol risk the development of alcohol-related problems. Although the use of such knowledge likely can be affected by values and beliefs, experts argue that the presence of such knowledge reduces the likelihood of alcohol abuse. Contrary to common belief, lectures on alcoholism remain one of the least effective methods of educational prevention. Providing information about how to identify and explore lifestyle factors that support alcohol abuse proves more beneficial. For example, smoking cessation clinics identify cues that trigger cravings for smokers and teach them new responses to avoid those cues. The point of an alcohol education program should be that change in alcohol abuse behavior is unlikely to occur unless factors in the officer's lifestyle are identified and changed.(6)

Reduce Stress

Minimizing stress in the workplace also can help to prevent alcohol abuse. Research has shown that people who experience high stress remain more at risk for alcohol abuse. Stress can exist on both the organizational and individual levels in police work. Within the organization, managers should identify and minimize sources of stress as much as possible, particularly stress that serves no legitimate organizational goal. On the individual level, officers should be taught how to deal with the effects of stress from inside and outside the workplace. For such occupations as policing, where inordinate stress exists, something should be done before alcohol abuse becomes a problem.(7)

Officers' sense of control over the environment represents another factor in the amount of stress they experience and, in turn, whether they abuse alcohol. Officers who feel more in control of their lives generally feel less stress. A feeling of participation in important decisions that affect their work can increase their sense of control, instill confidence, decrease stress, and make them less likely to abuse alcohol. Moreover, allowing officers to participate in important workplace decisions can help them maintain the self-regulating mechanisms necessary to control alcohol use under stressful conditions.

Increasing an individual's control of work situations remains a long-standing problem in military structures similar to policing. A good starting point can be small, self-reinforcing changes that make officers feel more in control and better about themselves. First-line supervisors are important in instilling these feelings.(8) They can accomplish this by emphasizing the officers' positive achievements and recognizing superior work performance.

Encourage Early Detection

Some common signals of alcohol abuse may be increased absenteeism, a change in personality, or possibly memory lapses such as forgetting work assignments. Detecting these early signs of alcohol abuse can limit its devastating effects and illustrates another factor in prevention. A significant difficulty for those individuals abusing alcohol remains their reluctance to admit the problem; therefore, it becomes necessary for others to intervene.

In this regard, first-line supervisors become invaluable. Supervisors should monitor the performance and activities of their workers and should recognize when problems arise. Complaints from other workers may focus the supervisor's attention on a particular employee. The supervisor can provide constructive advice on alcohol abuse, which can help guide the officer toward treatment and possibly even prevent an officer from becoming an alcohol abuser. Supervisors should become more familiar with their officers by getting to know them both professionally and personally. Becoming acquainted with the officers in this way may help supervisors to discover issues that may later develop into problems. Thus, supervisors, through education and policy, can become aware of the signs of alcohol abuse and responsible for detecting them in the workplace.(9)

Finally, an officer's family remains an additional source of detection. The officer's family may suffer as a result of alcohol abuse, which provides motivation for members of the family to seek help for the troubled officer. However, police families, much like fellow officers, may be reluctant to report alcohol-related problems. Departments should inform families of known problems police officers often have with alcohol abuse and emphasize the importance of the rehabilitation process for the officers and their families. Departments also should provide information to the family regarding the help available for officers and their families.(10)


A preventive approach has the long range potential to reduce alcohol abuse. Police departments should note that proactive prevention strategies designed to prevent alcohol abuse are more economical and practical than curing those who abuse alcohol.

Based on the prevention strategies of wellness, lifestyle education, and stress reduction, police administrators should set two goals for dealing with alcohol abuse. First, they should seek to lower alcohol consumption levels among all personnel but especially in those who already manifest high intake levels. They should encourage officers to decrease alcohol consumption while making other changes in their lives that would sustain that practice. Second, administrators should encourage the minimization of factors, such as stress, that may lead to alcohol abuse. Stress management programs, similar to alcohol-related programs, remain essential in a comprehensive approach to mental well-being at work.

When police managers implement such strategies early on, they can reduce the likelihood of alcohol abuse within their departments. When officers get the help they need from the onset, both the officers and their agencies benefit.


1 E. Kirschman, I Love A Cop (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 158

2 Ibid., 163.

3 M. Braverman, Beyond Profiling: An Integrated Multidisciplinary Approach to Preventing Workplace Violence, symposium conducted at Work, Health, and Stress 95 Conference, Washington, DC, 1995.

4 C. McNeece and M. DiNitto, Chemical Dependency: A Systems Approach (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994), 25-56; and B.L. Schecter, "It's More Than Testing, It's Wellness," resource paper, Prevention Associates, Oakland, CA, 1991.

5 Ideas for Action on Substance Abuse Prevention: Healthy Lifestyles, Mandatory Health Programs and Services (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: 1991), 25-35.

6 M.A. DiBernardo, Drug Abuse in the Workplace: Employer's Guide to Prevention, U.S. Chamber of Commerce (Washington, DC, 1988), 12-19.

7 J.M. Violanti, J. Marshall, and B. Howe, "Police, Alcohol, and Coping: The Police Connection, "Journal of Police Science and Administration 13 (1984): 106-110.

8 U.S. Department of Labor, An Employer's Guide to Dealing with Substance Abuse (Rockville, MD, 1990), 12.

9 Ibid.

10 Supra note 1, 12.

Dr. Violanti serves as an associate professor of criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York.
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Author:Violanti, John M.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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