Special Report

Booze and the badge

A report suggests the RCMP has alcohol problems

RAE CORELLI March 28 1994
Special Report

Booze and the badge

A report suggests the RCMP has alcohol problems

RAE CORELLI March 28 1994

Booze and the badge

Special Report

A report suggests the RCMP has alcohol problems


On the night of Oct. 11, 1991, it was raining in Charlottetown and patches of mist swirled in the cool autumn darkness. Fifteen-year-old Michael Miller and Laurie Docherty, 16, were walking along University Avenue to join Miller’s girlfriend at a fast-food restaurant. They never got there. At 9:49 p.m., Miller was struck and killed by a car driven by RCMP Cpl. Gary McGregor, who had just left the Mounties’ mess after drinking several bottles of beer. City police charged McGregor with dangerous and impaired driving. Last Dec. 10, after a two-week trial, he was acquitted by Judge Armand DesRoches, who decided that the breathalyser evidence had not been conclusive.

That verdict ignited a storm of public protest that has continued ever since. In newspapers and on radio phone-in shows, Islanders have questioned the calibre of the police investigation, the testimony of trial witnesses and the practice of serving liquor in the military-style RCMP messes where, for generations, Mounties have gathered to wine and dine one another. Earlier this month, the RCMP announced it was reforming mess procedures in line with recommendations put forward by David Archibald, the founder of Ontario’s Addiction Research Foundation, whom the force had hired to study how the messes were run. Archibald proposed, among other things, that Mounties be forbidden to drive while on duty unless their blood-alcohol level is zero, and that messes quit serving cheap drinks.

However, there now is evidence that the RCMP’s legendary spit-and-polish rectitude may mask serious alcohol problems—problems that afflict other Canadian police forces, as well. Maclean’s has obtained a copy of a 1989 report which concluded that more than onethird of the RCMP’s regular and civilian employees drank over the level recognized by the World Health Organization as damaging to health—three drinks a day. The 145-page, statistics-filled study, described in an accompanying document as “the first comprehensive study of alcohol use in a police force in North America,” was conducted by Toronto’s Clarke Institute of Psychiatry at the request of Joseph Dietrich, then chief of the RCMP’s Member Assistance Program. Said Dietrich in a recent interview with Maclean’s: “I realized there was an awful lot of drinking, I couldn’t believe how much, in the force generally.”

On Oct. 25, 1989, the institute delivered its findings to Dietrich, a 59-year-old native of Toronto who holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in public health from the University of Texas. He passed them up the chain of command, recommending that they be made public because taxpayers had paid for the study, and because the federal law enforcement agency ought to demonstrate that it was progressive and prepared to help employees deal with their problems. Other headquarters personnel concurred. Concluded one group of officers: “There is potential for embarrassment to the Force if the provisions of the Access to Information Act are employed to illustrate that some sensitive results of a publicly funded survey were hidden.” But in the end, the report was not released and, in mid-1991, said Dietrich,

“I was eased out with a golden handshake”— eight years after he was hired. He is now a private consultant in Ottawa.

The results of the Clarke Institute’s investigation would seem to bear out Dietrich’s concerns. Titled The Prevalence of Alcohol and Prescription and Over-the-Counter Drug Use in the RCMP, the contents are based on more than 3,000 replies to confidential questionnaires mailed to regular and civilian members across the country in February and March of 1989. Among the findings:

• Thirty-five per cent of the RCMP’s 16,761 regular and civilian employees had put away three or more drinks a day during the month prior to the survey. A drink was defined as either a 12-ounce bottle of beer, four ounces of wine or IV2 ounces of liquor.

• Eleven per cent—which would represent more than 1,800 people—admitted having seven or more drinks a day. Anyone who drinks that much, said Dietrich, “is clearly out of control.” (Studies suggest that between 6 and 10 per cent of the workforce are alcohol or drug dependent.)

• As many as 2,850 members had five or more drinks—the Clarke group called that “heavy” drinking—on working days. On days off, the number in that category jumped to 4,872.

• In the rank structure, constables were the heaviest drinkers on working days: 20 per cent reported downing five or more a day. Eighteen per cent of officers and NCOS said they drank that much compared with nine per cent of the civilian employees and seven per cent of the special constables.

• Twenty-nine per cent said they had become drunk without intending to one or more times in the previous year and 19 per cent had experienced blackouts.

• During the same period, 25 per cent of those who took part in the study blamed alcohol for one or more instances of absenteeism, being late for work, poor performance on the job and poor job evaluation, lost promotional opportunities, disciplinary action and deteriorating relationships with their supervisors and colleagues.

• The findings related to prescription and over-the-counter drug use were far less detailed. However, the authors said that as many as 600 members of the force who reported “some very distressing side effects of their drug use” needed help.

As it happens, there had been an earlier and fatter version of the report. On Aug. 31, the Clarke Institute delivered a draft from which, Dietrich said, his superiors ordered the deletion of 16 pages relating alcohol con-

sumption to psychological and job stress together with the supporting personal comments by 800 of the respondents. That information, Dietrich said, was crucial if he and his colleagues hoped to design programs to help members with alcohol problems. “It was with disbelief that I learned from management that the data would be ignored,” Dietrich said. “It might also be seen as a breach of faith with the more than 3,000 members who supplied it.”

In any event, the Clarke complied and the final version was handed over on Oct. 25. Subsequently, Dietrich said, “I could see by the correspondence that both RCMP management and the solicitor general’s department seemed bent on obscuring the study, so I wrote directly to the commissioner on April 17, 1990, to make sure the Force management knew exactly the whole result of the study.” In his reply on June 16, RCMP Commissioner Norman Inkster “basically said the force would make use of the material.” But a year later, Dietrich found himself out of a job. Still, he said last week, “some good stuff

came out of all this. Before I was eased out, seven sergeants representing various sections of the force and myself put together an alcohol and drug dependency policy. We wanted it to be strictly health-related, but some disciplinary overtones were added.”

An RCMP spokesman denied that the Clarke study had been suppressed and, as evidence, said the force had complied with an access to information request for a copy of it. ‘We didn’t publicize the results, but they are not restricted by any stretch of the imagination,”

Special,Wh Report

he said. “It was an internal review. If the study had taken place as the result of some external or public-related problem or perceptioñ, there would be more of an onus on the Force to make the results public in a more active fashion, as opposed to simply responding to access to information requests.”

At the same time, Dan Lee, the Force’s chief of emotional health problems at headquarters in Ottawa, said he thought the findings were flawed because of the sampling method used by the researchers. In a 1992 internal survey, Lee said, only 17 per cent of the respondents admitted drinking to relieve job stress. But Lee conceded that they were not asked how much they drank. What about the prevalence of alcohol abuse? “We haven’t surveyed that yet,” he said. But a survey was contemplated? “Yeah, something like that.” Did he think there was an alcohol abuse problem with the force? “Not necessarily a big one. I don’t think so. You could say that the frequency of drinking is no more than in the general population.”

The way the force elected to handle the Clarke study was not Dietrich’s only setback. At one point, he heard of an experiment undertaken by the RCMP’s Montreal mess, one of 36 across Canada, which installed a breathalyser so that members could check their blood-alcohol levels before leaving and, if they were close to the limit, call someone to get a ride home. The breathalyser was used 1,800 times in three months. “It was a hell of a good thing and I recommended that the force put one in every mess,” Dietrich

said. “They rejected the idea because they said it would cost about $30,000. I’m not trying to knock the force; what I’m trying to say is that it’s very difficult to make changes.”

And change, he said, is needed, not only to give greater recognition to the perils of addiction but to give recruits better preparation for what lies ahead of them. “There’s a lot of drinking,” Dietrich said. “It’s a symptom of the stress levels which are high, very high. Among other things, policemen are not taught how to deal with death. They come around a comer two or three weeks out of training to investigate a pileup and they find a child with no head. The trauma starts there.” There are stages in a law enforcement career that are common to policemen everywhere, Dietrich said. “They become alienated from society because all they see is the criminal 10 per cent of the population and all this blood, crime, suffering and death. They turn inward to their comrades for camaraderie and they spend a lot of time drinking. Then they see the problems and the politics in their departments and they become alienated there, too. What you wind up with is people in no man’s land.”

Dietrich is not alone in his observations about the Mounties. Terry Brennen, the 49year-old director of the City of Vancouver’s Employee Assistance Program and a recovering alcoholic himself, spent 15 years in the RCMP. From time to time in rural detachments, he said, “you might shut the office down, go into the back room and open a 40ouncer. A lot of times you knew what that would lead to—a card game or somebody leaves half-drunk and goes out and does something. I’ve known where guys left those sessions and got killed. In Saskatchewan, a guy ran into the back of a tractor-trailer. The trailer lights weren’t on, but he was drunk.”

There have been tragic examples of cops drinking and driving. Last Jan. 6, an Ontario jury found Metropolitan Toronto Police Const. Lenny Bennett guilty of impaired driving causing the death of Const Larry Lukas, 42. The prosecution had introduced evidence that both men were legally impaired when they crashed their unmarked cruiser into a bridge abutment on the night of March 6, 1991. Judge Ted Wren sentenced Bennett, who spent weeks in a coma and now claims to remember nothing of the crash, to nine months’ imprisonment.

A third of the Mounties surveyed had three or more drinks a day

The defence has appealed the conviction.

Drinking, said Vancouver’s Brennen, “is a big issue in most police forces but it’s not talked about—it’s the best-kept secret there is as far as the police community is concerned. It’s the old business that we have to be perfect and we can’t have any blemishes so we don’t show our spots.” The solution: “There has to be greater acknowledgment that a problem exists; more education, less tolerance for the problem by upper management, but dealing with it in a benevolent way.”

Brennen’s formula has wide support among those who deal with alcohol and drug dependency among policemen. David Hoath, 44, manager of psychological services for the Ontario Provincial Police and a former cop, quit police work to get a degree in psycholo-

TV’s early cop shows, like Jack Webb’s monosyllabic Dragnet, were simple crime dramas; all that viewers learned about policemen was that some wore suits and the rest wore uniforms. More recently, producers in pursuit of realism have explored the personal problems besetting their characters—infidelity, dishonesty and substance abuse. From 1981 to 1987, actor Daniel J. Travanti portrayed Capt. Frank Furillo, an AA-attending former drunk, on NBC’s Hill Street Blues. The current TV season’s favorite ex-drinker: detective Andy Sipowicz, played by Hill Street veteran Dennis Franz, on ABC’s top-rated NYPD Blue. A big-city Canadian policeman in the field of job-stress and substance abuse told Maclean’s Senior Writer Rae Corelli that some TV shoivs handle law enforcement’s dark side more openly than realdife police departments do. In the following interview, he spoke only on condition of anonymity:

Maclean’s: How widespread is alcoholabuse among policemen?

A: I would say it’s worse than the norm. If the numbers are in the order of 10 per cent in a large corporation, it’s probably double that in any police force in Canada. Maclean’s: What are the causes?

Ax It’s a number of things. Policemen are traditionally ostracized by the rest of society and because of the type of work they do, they distrust most outsiders. They have this Superman mentality, this macho image they feel they have to protect, which is part of the culture itself. Then, to handle the pressures of the job, the guys join together and the favorite pastime is drinking. Maclean’s: In his police novels, Joseph Wambaugh describes off-duty group binges called ‘choir practices. ’ Do they really happen?

Ax They sure do. It’s a release. You do an

) forget the things they’ve seen

accumulation of 10or 12-hour shifts, witnessing all kinds of horrific things, and you’re high. You have to come down off that high, you have to cope. Or sometimes you have a particularly bad day and you have to deal with that. The choir practice is a way to release everything. In summer, it’s usually in a secluded park or a field. In winter, it’s usu-

ally in a bar. You talk about what’s gone on, you joke about it, gallows humor, and it’s not social drinking, it’s binge drinking. The guys are there to forget what they’ve been forced to deal with, what they’ve seen. Maclean’s: How common is it for cops to drink on duty?

A; Not as bad as it used to be but it still goes on, sure. Especially in non-uniform functions. As a plainclothesman, you may be detailed to look after bars, check licences. Undercover, you’re expected to play the role and drink in a bar. Sometimes, guys get carried away with that. Maclean’s: What about policemen who become problem drinkers?

A: In big companies, say at GM, the problem is dealt with anonymously and the employee doesn’t wind up having problems with his boss. In police departments, everything gets back to the boss. They used to put down that you were off sick for 28 days. Well, everyone knew where you were and to the other guys, that’s a sign of weakness. Again, going to an employee assistance program is also seen as a sign of weakness. It’s that macho thing.

Maclean’s: So the guy with a drinking problem is rejected by his mates for weakness and lives in fear of the boss. How does he deal with that?

A: Some guys kill themselves—it happens.

Three guys I knew ended up as suicides. There was just nowhere to turn and this is what has to be looked at.

Maclean’s: What other kinds of things happen?

A: There was a policewoman who was badly injured on duty and in hospital they put her on painkillers and she got to like that real well. She started drinking and one day she took a bunch of people hostage. The SWAT team was called and there were shots fired but nobody was hurt. They finally talked her out. She got treatment and eventually went back to work. Then, there was a copper who would go into blackouts for three and four days at a time. During those periods, he would arrest people, put them in jail, testify in court and never remember any of it. One day, he woke up and there were three rounds missing from his automatic. To this day, he doesn’t know where they went, but that scared him enough to get help.

Maclean’s: What about cops who don’t drink? A: They’re the odd ones. It’s like having a professing Christian on the job—they’re not to be trusted. Which is too bad because the only support they have is the brotherhood. Maclean’s: What’s the answer to the alcohol issue?

A: Well, the last thing I want to do is badmouth any police department. The majority of police officers are out there for only one reason and that’s to make things better for society. That’s not bullshit rhetoric, it’s the truth. The thing is, most police forces have a problem—they don’t know addiction. A lot of training of supervisors has to go on, and include the families. Traditionally, police departments tend to look at excessive drinking as a disciplinary problem, not a health problem. But it is a health problem and, if they don’t treat it that way, it’s not going to get any better. It’s going to get worse.

gy. “One of the things that pushed me to make a change,” he said, “was that I didn’t feel that the whole police culture was opening its eyes to the problem of alcohol and the way it was being used.”

Hoath said he didn’t know whether policemen drank more than other people in highstress jobs. But “the culture of policing seems too attached to alcohol as a means of coping,” he added. “What it tends to become is an insidious pattern built up over a period of time for a lot of police officers. They didn’t set out to become alcoholics. They think they’ve got everything under control, but pretty soon they have an alcohol-centred life. They get up thinking about it and they go to bed thinking about it.” It used to be, Hoath

said, that policemen who had been involved in shootings or other stressful events would drink so they could relax enough to talk to one another about what had happened. “Now,” he said, “we’re trying to get them to talk without the booze.”

But before policemen will open up, they first have to overcome their mistrust of those in authority and the fear that, if they admit they have a problem, their macho comrades will reject them as weaklings. The Winnipeg Police Department’s Peer Assistance Program has tried to smooth the path for substance abusers by promising that the brass will not be told they asked for help. Sgt. Don McLean, a 27-year veteran who became the program’s co-ordinator in 1990, said it was

possible that 10 per cent of the department’s 1,000 uniformed officers were battling booze or prescription drugs; between 15 and 20 sought help each year. “In the past,” he said, “we found that a lot of folks suffering from substance abuse had been involved in an incident many years ago that they never dealt with properly. The way they chose to deal with it was by self-medication.” Like Vancouver’s Brennen, McLean speaks from personal knowledge. “I have had experience with booze,” he acknowledged. “As a result of that experience, I quit completely.” For policemen addicted to chemicals, there is really no other way to go.

With BARBARA MacANDREW in Charlottetown