The blurred blue line – when cops become alcoholics
Mark Mann still doesn’t remember what he did or said during a boozy haze that landed him in jail next to a prostitute he’d arrested.
He has since read the one-inch thick police report on his DUI the day after Christmas in 2003.
“What shocked me was the level of alcohol in my blood stream. It was a .31 and a .33 right in there. (Legal limit in Washington is .08) The time of day – noon. Noon,” Mann says in disbelief. “I woke up in a jail cell and the most bizarre feeling of all was the realization that it was over.”
“It was over” meaning both his career as an officer, and his refusal to get treatment for alcoholism.
Mann was a respected Tacoma Police officer and the department’s spokesman for many years through the 1980s and 90s. After that, he was a high-ranking commander in the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office.
He was also an alcoholic.
Growing up in the Tri-Cities area, Mann was intrigued by public safety since he was 10 years old.
“I was probably one of the kids that ran to the edge of the road any time I heard a siren,” he says.
It was his sister Cheryl’s addiction to heroin that led him to a life pursuing justice as a police officer. And it was his brother Richard’s death – in a head-on suicide accident with a semi – that changed him.
Mann, the self-described “big, tough Tacoma cop” was asked to identify the body in a makeshift morgue.
“I unzipped that bag and discovered it was in fact him. I decided at that point no one in the family will see this, and I never shared with anyone what I saw,” he recalls. “It just became one of those many secrets or pains that’s locked up forever.”
Although it was out of character, he went home after identifying his brother’s body and drank.
“Black Velvet. Black Velvet is what I drank and there had been a half gallon of Black Velvet with dust all over the bottle in a cupboard for ages,” says Mann.
He found himself turning to alcohol to deal stress from his past, from his job, from anything.
How common is alcohol abuse for cops, and should drunk cops be fired?
Recently, two Seattle police officers were arrested for drunk driving after crashing a vehicle into a light pole and leaving the scene.
The female officer repeatedly swore at the arresting officers and appeared “extremely intoxicated.” Two breath tests came back with a blood alcohol level of .234 and .247 from the December incident. The male officer was also above the limit.
Two officers in Bellevue were demoted after their drunk and disorderly conduct at a Seahawks game in September. A month later, another Bellevue officer covered up for a fellow cop who was intoxicated and attempting to drive drunk.
“We take people who are incredibly sharp and we test and hire them because of their sensitivity and intuitive nature – their compassion – and then we’re blown away when five years later they’re drunk as a skunk. That seven, 10 years later they are in the gutter drunk,” Mann says. “I’m not surprised at all.”
Mann hasn’t touched alcohol for the past nine years. He’s now working with other cops who have problems substance abuse.
“I own my past behavior related to drinking. I own my deception. What I won’t own is a system that consistently handles or mishandles the alcoholic cop,” he says.
By Mann’s estimation 15 to 20 percent of law enforcement officers abuse alcohol.
Alcohol abuse with cops is hard to verify. Many incidents don’t get reported until there is a DUI or some other crime that forces a public record of the mostly private behavior.
Seattle Police Sergeant Rich O’Neill says the range seems high to him.
The Seattle Police Officer’s Guild president says there are only two or three DUIs involving Seattle cops each year, out of about 1,200 officers.
“Police officers are human. Until we stop recruiting from the human race we’re going to be dealing with human problems,” says O’Neill. “One of those problems is people going out and having a little too much to drink.”
Studies show police officers have higher rates of alcoholism, divorce, and drug abuse, than the average American. They also have life expectancies ten years less than the average person, mostly due to suicides.
While some citizens think cops who get in trouble with alcohol should be thrown off the force, O’Neill says “that’s not a solution.”
“Why would we want to invest all of this training and money and experience to have a quality employee, who then goes out and makes a mistake – a terrible choice – and we’re just going to throw them out like they’re a replaceable widget of some kind?”
Mann does not think officers who get in trouble with alcohol or drugs should be fired either.
Instead he’s proposing they go back to work with a special contract – in addition to their deal from the police union. that outlines their requirements in order to get clean and sober and work again on the streets.
The “Return to Work Contract” outlines aggressive treatment, monitoring, and clear intent to terminate if or when the contract is not honored.
He is calling for drug or alcohol testing of officers too, saying behavior and performance changes are easy to feign for the alcoholic cop, but the blood and breath can’t lie.
“Some of the best police officers I’ve ever met are those who succeeded in recovery. They are hot on the street,” says Mann. “They are really good at what they do.”
By LINDA THOMAS