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The Sobering Fine Print

Many central Illinois police and fire departments have union contracts that allow officers and firefighters to have alcohol in their systems while on duty. But that could soon change.

By Patrick McCraney/BGA, with WCIA-TV

May 9, 2013 8:38 AM

whiskey+alcohol+drinksWith the state’s flagship university in their jurisdiction, Champaign cops have to deal with alcohol-related incidents all the time. While those cops are busy keeping residents and University of Illinois students safe – driving squad cars and handling guns – the police union contract allows on-duty officers to be half-drunk. Literally.

The union contract for rank-and-file Champaign cops says a "positive test" for alcohol starts at a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.04 – usually the equivalent of a few beers. It’s against the law for any motorist to drive at 0.08 and above.

But it’s not just police. Champaign firefighters have language in their union deal that’s even more lenient, the Better Government Association and WCIA-TV found. If they’re tested in the first hour, Champaign firefighters aren’t "presumed to have been impaired" until they hit 0.08. That number drops each hour, however. That means if a firefighter isn’t tested until, say, the fourth hour of his or her shift, he or she could still be just below 0.04 and not be considered too buzzed for work.

"The existing language has been in place for several decades and likely represented the thinking, science and case law in its day," said Dennis Forsman, Champaign’s fire chief. Forsman said the city will soon begin talks with the union on a new contract, and he will look to potentially update the language to reflect "modern standards, policy and science."

Chris Zaremba, president of Champaign Firefighters 1260, said he wasn’t aware of the language in the contract.

"It’s never been an issue. It’s something we never even looked at for my whole career," Zaremba said.

Champaign isn’t alone. In Urbana, impairment starts at a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.03 for both the police and fire departments, according to interviews and documents. For the Decatur and Springfield fire departments, it’s 0.04. Decatur cops aren’t considered to be too drunk for work until 0.08, but that number drops by 0.01 each hour into their shifts, much like the Champaign fire contract.

These findings come on the heels of a series of BGA/NBC 5 Chicago investigations that found a number of police and fire departments in Chicago and its suburbs have union contracts that allow police officers and firefighters to have alcohol in their systems.undefined

Since the original story in February, which focused on police, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has proposed "zero tolerance" legislation regarding alcohol use for cops while on duty. (Because of different circumstances with firefighters – including the prevalence of volunteers – they are not part of this legislation, but might be the subject of a separate bill down the road.)

Officials with central Illinois police and fire departments interviewed by the BGA and WCIA said there have not been any incidents with their employees coming to work with booze in their bloodstream.

Medical experts warn that even a single drink can impact a person’s judgment and reaction time.

To put blood-alcohol numbers into simple terms, the average 200-pound person hits 0.04 after consuming two and a half alcoholic drinks (each drink generally equates to a shot of hard liquor, three ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer) in a single hour, according to the Illinois State Police and other sources. Drinking an additional beverage each hour maintains that level.

 

The Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, which represents officers in Champaign and Urbana, wouldn’t comment on this story. That organization has been fighting White’s zero tolerance bill in Springfield. However, the president of Urbana’s chapter of the FOP is staying neutral.

"This union has stayed out of political matters for years, and will continue to do so," said Dan Bailey, the president of FOP Lodge 70, which represents officers in Urbana. "Of course if the law gets changed, we will make sure our contract reflects that change."

undefinedIt appears Danville is ahead of much of the state on this issue. Neither its police nor its fire union contracts have language allowing a certain blood-alcohol concentration. Both departments, which are run by Danville Public Safety Director Larry Thomason, fall under the city’s zero tolerance policy for all its employees, Thomason said.

While White’s proposed bill only involves police, the president of the union representing Danville firefighters said he wouldn’t mind if it involved all public safety personnel.

"As far as I’m concerned we don’t want anybody under the influence," said the fire union president, Sean O’Kane. "They’re putting our lives in danger as well as the public’s lives. We don’t have a problem with [zero tolerance] at all."

Danville’s police union wasn’t as enthusiastic about the idea.

"Police officers are and should be held to a higher standard than the public," said Troy Hogren, a Danville officer and vice president of the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association.

But, sometimes cops are called in while off-duty, so they shouldn’t be penalized if they’ve had a beer at that point, he said. Rather than institute a state law, drinking should be governed by "common sense," Hogren said.

"A zero-tolerance bill would be bad legislation statewide."

This article was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick McCraney, with Dave Benton and Steve Staeger of WCIA-TV. McCraney can be reached at (815) 483-1612, or pmccraney@bettergov.org. His Twitter handle is @patrickmccraney.

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