Substance Abuse in Law Enforcement

Evaluating an Individual’s Treatment Needs
Addiction among Law Enforcement

law enforcementMost individuals probably have a perception that law enforcement officers have higher rates of substance use disorders than observed in the general population. Despite this general perception, a 2011 article in the American Journal of Addiction noted that surprisingly few studies had been done on substance use disorder rates in American law enforcement officers. The study went on to criticize some of the past investigations into substance abuse in law enforcement officers as having a number of methodological flaws, including poor response rates and limited sampling techniques.

That particular study looked at a large sample of urban police officers and found that 7.8 percent of the sample met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder in their lifetime and that 18.1 percent of the males and 15.9 percent of the females reported experiencing detrimental effects due to alcohol use. Alcohol use in the study was not related to the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder in the officers.

The lifetime prevalence rate of alcohol use disorders reported in law enforcement officers above is lower than other estimated lifetime prevalence rates of alcohol use disorders reported in the general population. For instance, according to earlier studies, such as reported in a review study in the journal Human Genetics in 2012, lifetime prevalence estimates, based on diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders–IV–TR, would be well over 10 percent in the general population. To make things even more complicated, a 2007 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice reported that in a sample of nearly 1,000 American police officers, 37.6 percent admitted to at least one problem drinking behavior. The data on illicit drug use occurring in police officers is much less reliable.

Do Police Officers Have Significant Rates of Substance Use Disorders?

Part of the issue in determining the prevalence of alcohol use disorders and other substance use disorders in police officers is the relatively poor methodology used in many of the studies, low response rates, and the tendency of police officers not to be frank when answering questionnaires of this nature for fear of reprisals. In addition, the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has altered the diagnosis of substance use disorders such that these disorders are now believed to be displayed on a continuum of severity from mild to extremely severe. The long-held old designations of substance abuse being a different disorder from substance dependence or addiction are no longer used.
police-officerEven with the methodological issues in previous studies, it is clear that a significant number of police officers did have issues with substance abuse in the past and by current diagnostic criteria would have some level of a substance use disorder. Police officers admitting issues with frank addictive behaviors by past diagnostic criteria in these types of studies, even with the guarantee of confidentiality, would be expected to be few in number.

However, there are other indications that substance abuse is an issue with police officers. For example, a 2010 article in Forensic Examiner reported that alcohol is a factor in over 95 percent of police suicides. It also discusses the relationship between trauma and substance abuse in police officers.

Substance abuse and substance use disorders are serious issues, and these disorders in police officers can obviously lead to extremely serious ramifications. The majority of the research suggests that substance use in law enforcement officers is related to social and stress-related issues. Social factors that contribute to substance use disorders in police officers, especially alcohol use disorders, are often attempts to fit in with the officer’s peers. The social factors that are used by peers to define the behavior of police officers are very important, as police officers spend a large amount of their social time with other police officers, and when they are off-duty, they often spend time together having a drink or two (or more).

In addition, aside from the aforementioned study where problematic drinking behaviors in police officers were not related to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, many experts still believe that alcohol and drug abuse occurring among police officers represents attempt to cope with stress and even the trauma that many officers must endure as part of their job.

Signs of Substance Abuse in Law Enforcement Officers

police-tapeSubstance abuse in law enforcement is an ongoing concern, and it is complicated by such attitudes as being loyal to the brotherhood of officers. Codes of silence in the law enforcement profession actually becoming enabling behaviors, and the problem may not be addressed until it has gotten out of hand in individuals who suffer from moderate to serious substance use disorders. Is important that the symptoms of potential substance usedisorders be recognized in law enforcement officers. These include:

  • Obvious declines in work performance
  • Excessive absenteeism or use of medical leave
  • Constantly being late for roll call
  • Attitude issues or demonstrations of excessive force with suspects and or inmates
  • Issues with paperwork, trying to get others to take over their duties, and a notable decline in the individual’s personal appearance or hygiene
  • Significant attitude changes and an increase in argumentative behavior or disobedience of direct rules or orders
  • Notable signs of withdrawal from substances, such as a flushed face, sweating, shaking hands, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, headaches, etc.

Comprehensive Treatment

patrol car with sirensLaw enforcement officers tend to be a pretty tight knit and closed group. Treatment options should take this into consideration. In many cases, it is critical that the officer take time away from the job. Using medical leave allows the officer to concentrate on their recovery and not have to worry about the issues associated with work.

It is important that officers with substance use disorders, just like anyone with a substance use disorder, get professional treatment to learn new coping strategies, understand the issues that drive their substance use, learn about the triggers that affect them, develop a program of relapse prevention, and create an aftercare program to keep them engaged in recovery as a part of their overall treatment program. Police departments should provide collaborative treatment approaches for these individuals that utilize mental healthcare professionals and officers in recovery.

Some treatment options for law enforcement officers with substance use issues include:

  • Peer support services
  • Employee Assistance Programs
  • Opportunities for inpatient treatment when needed
  • Extensive outpatient treatment
  • All types of therapy services (e.g., individual, group, family therapy, etc.)
  • Availability of support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous
  • Addiction medicine and psychiatry services
  • Installation of random and mandatory alcohol and drug testing in police departments
  • Other supports as needed


Addiction within Demographics

About The Contributor
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers
The editorial staff of Sunrise House is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More