Keeping our cops clean and sober

Guest Editorial published in The Oregonian, February 16, 2011

Come July, Portland police officers will have some extra spending money in their paychecks, but their new contract with the city actually includes something far more valuable. For some, it’s a chance at a new life.

The “treatment-first” option packaged with random drug testing in the contract means officers with alcohol or drug addiction will get help, not punishment. This is a substantive move that benefits the officers, their families and friends, and every one of us who looks to them for safety and protection.

Punishment and discipline for people with addiction and mental health issues are well-worn paths to secret-keeping and evasion. Drug tests without the option for treatment simply lead to better secret-keeping. Treatment works, and it should be available to everyone who needs it — including police.

Alcoholism and drug addiction are medical disorders, not matters for shame, any more than cancer or an allergy to peanuts. It’s been 72 years since the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous introduced a novel idea: “No man should be fired just because he is alcoholic. If he wants to stop, he should be afforded a real chance.” Almost 40 years ago, the disease concept was written into Oregon law. And like it or not, about one in 10 of us is born with the predisposition for a drug or alcohol problem. That includes the men and women who serve on the police force.

But officers have the added burden of a risky, stressful job. They also have guns.

Our officers must be the emblem of truth and trust — whether it’s with their kids, a judge and jury, or with a lawbreaker. With the new contract, the Portland Police Association and the city of Portland have created a terrific incentive for truth-telling and trust-building.

We know how to treat addiction. We know what works and what doesn’t work. We know the costs of not providing treatment. We know the pain and suffering someone with addiction can cause without skilled help.

Auto accidents, domestic violence, employee theft, debt, child abuse, physical, mental and spiritual damage — all are typical with untreated addicts. But what worries many addicted officers most is the prospective damage they may do to their spouses and kids. Especially the kids. Police officers have a greater risk of domestic violence and higher suicide rates than the general population. Both harm kids, and both are fueled by addiction.

Addiction can be devastating, even life-threatening. But with treatment, it’s entirely controllable. It’s our responsibility to provide treatment, and treatment that works — especially to those who provide so much to us.

Remember: Police officers are all human. Just like us, they are all fallible, mortal beings. Just like us, they sometimes misuse alcohol and drugs. And now, sometimes, those officers will fail a random drug test.

Instead of being surprised when this happens, instead of pointing a finger of judgment, instead of declaring them menaces, let’s make sure they get the care they need. Inside every intervention is the light of opportunity, and inside every addict there is hope.

Instead of saying, “she failed her drug test,” let’s offer a prayer of thanksgiving: “We arrived before the worst happened, before the addiction was out of control. Now we can help.” And help means providing effective, outcome-driven treatment for addiction regardless of the drug — whether it’s lorazepam or heroin, whether it’s a case of beer or a snort of methamphetamine.

Keeping our cops clean and sober will make Portland safer – and in the process, turn some lives around.

Jason Renaud and Jenny Westberg are board members of the Mental Health Association of Portland.