License to Swill
Westchester cops can’t be drunk on the job, but being buzzed – well, that’s apparently a different matter.
The village board in the western suburb recently adopted a union contract that allows rank-and-file cops to come to work with a blood-alcohol level up to and including 0.049 – meaning they’re allowed to have a few pops before roving the streets, handling a gun and making arrests.
Experts outside the department, which patrols a community of roughly 17,000 people and includes about 30 cops, said they were stunned by the alcohol provision, calling it a remarkably bad idea that could open officers and the public to additional harm, and expose local taxpayers to untold legal liability.
"I think it places the city at great risk," said Walter Zalisko, a retired police chief who now runs Police Management Consultants International in Fort Myers, FL. "Zero would be the wise choice, that you can’t have any alcohol" in the bloodstream while working as a police officer.
Zalisko made the remarks after being briefed by the Better Government Association, which found, with NBC 5, that Westchester isn’t alone in embracing such a permissive policy.
Police contracts in nearby Elmwood Park and Oak Park technically allow officers to come to work with blood-alcohol concentrations of 0.079, just below the legal threshold at which a driver in Illinois is considered too drunk to drive, 0.08, according to interviews, and documents. Both departments, however, indicated they would still try to discipline cops that come to work with a lower blood-alcohol level.
Police in Forest Park, Glendale Heights and South Barrington also allow their officers to work at 0.049, and a number of suburbs allow 0.02, records show.
Westchester Mayor Sam Pulia said he is very much opposed to the provision in his community, and voted against the contract on Jan. 22 when it was approved by the village board 5-2.
"I am a police officer," said Pulia, a LaGrange Park cop who previously served as deputy police chief in Westchester. "I was a police officer here for 28 years. My belief is that the officers shouldn’t have any alcohol in their system."
"We’re held to a higher standard and I know I don’t want any [police officer] coming to my home with alcohol on his breath," Pulia said.
The contract, ratified by Westchester’s police union on Jan. 17, indicates that a 0.05 blood-alcohol concentration or higher is considered a "positive" test that can lead to discipline, including firing. A test that comes back at 0.049 or lower is not considered failing for cops on the clock and would not, under the new contract, result in discipline. (The blood-alcohol level represents the percentage of alcohol in a person’s blood.)
Westchester officials emphasized that officers aren’t allowed to drink on the job, the new contract does not permit officers to drink "just prior" to their shift and the alcohol provision has been part of the village’s police contracts since at least the early 1990s.
What’s more, they insisted there’s never been trouble with drunk or buzzed cops as far as they can recall.
Even so, experts interviewed by the BGA pointed out the potential perils of the policy and others like it.
"Your motor skills start being affected at 0.04," said Dr. David Zich, an emergency room physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "That’s one of the last things that gets affected when your blood-alcohol levels goes up."
"At a level of 0.02, your reaction time starts to be affected. At 0.03 both your vigilance and vision start to be affected."
Aaron White, a neuroscientist at the Bethesda, MD-based National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, relayed that at 0.04 "most driving-related skills show impairment."
"Attention is impaired at that point. . . . It doesn’t sound like a lot of alcohol, but in reality it is enough to produce some impairments."
James Fell, a senior research scientist for the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Calverton, MD, said "impairment and especially impairment for driving starts at the first drink."
Fell’s nonprofit, which focuses on public safety and health, conducted a study that found drivers 21 and older with a blood-alcohol content of 0.02 to 0.049 were three to four times more likely to be in a fatal single-vehicle crash.
Another study, financed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, concluded there’s "partial evidence of impairment" at 0.02 and at 0.04 "all measures of impairment that are statistically significant are in the direction of degraded performance."
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.
Ray Violetto, a board member of the Metropolitan Alliance of Police, the union that negotiated the current contract for Westchester officers, said there was no special rationale for including the alcohol provision in the labor agreement. The provision had been included in earlier contracts negotiated by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the previous union, and was simply carried over, Violetto said.
David Wickster, executive director of the Illinois FOP Labor Council, argued that some wiggle room on blood-alcohol levels is important because, in part, certain over-the-counter medications and mouthwash contain alcohol, and the allowable limit for truckers and airline pilots is just below 0.04.
Besides, officers working a late shift should be allowed to maintain as normal lives as possible, which might mean attending a wedding reception at night and having a drink or two, Wickster said.
But the BGA review of police agencies in the Chicago region found disparity among departments, with Elmwood Park and Oak Park the most permissive (at least in their union contracts) at 0.079.
Some departments – including the State Police and Cook County sheriff’s police – have a "zero tolerance" policy that bars any alcohol in the bloodstream for on-duty cops.
The Chicago Police Department and some suburban agencies allow their officers to have a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.02 and still work, officials said.
Just in recent days, officials with the City of Chicago approved a $4.1 million settlement payable to the family of an unarmed man fatally shot by an on-duty Chicago cop who reportedly had been drinking alcohol prior to his shift.
Westchester’s contract calls for officers suspected of boozing to submit, at the direction of a superior, to a blood or urine test at a medical facility.
But the contract doesn’t answer some questions, including: What if an officer is tested in the seventh hour of a shift, and the blood-alcohol level is 0.04? That would seem to indicate the officer had been drinking on the job – or had a lot more alcohol in the system at the start of the shift.
Pulia said despite the wording of the new police contract, if he hears of a Westchester cop coming in buzzed, he’ll make sure that person is put on desk duty or sent home. Elmwood Park Police Chief Frank Fagiano echoed that, and insisted alcohol intake by his officers hasn’t been a problem.
Some experts were surprised by the permissiveness of such alcohol policies.
"I’ve never heard of this," said Sam Walker, a professor of criminal justice for the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "I think I keep hammering away at the potential liability. Risk to the public. Traffic is the most obvious one. There’s a lot to work with there."