When a New York police officer allegedly "had a few beers" before he ran over and killed a pregnant woman, her toddler son, and her sister last weekend, the tabloid headlines were filled with outrage. More than a thousand people marched on the precinct in Brooklyn to demand accountability.
But the severity of the tragedy masks a larger story behind the blue wall. Over the past 20 years, there has been a marked increase in sobriety and sensitivity to substance abuse within the ranks of the nation's 17,000 police departments.
That's due in part not only to changes in overall attitudes about alcohol use and abuse, but also to concerted efforts on behalf of police management and unions to provide confidential help to officers in one of the most stressful jobs in the country.
"When I first started policing as a young cop in Harlem, there was a total unawareness that alcohol was a drug. We used to sit around getting smashed on beer, cussing the junkies who made our lives so difficult," says James McNamara, a former police officer who's now a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute in California.
"It's much less of a problem now, because the police are subjected to much greater scrutiny and criticism, but it's still a problem," he adds.
Indeed, investigators found that last Saturday morning, after officer Joseph Gray got off the night shift at the 72nd Precinct, he and several colleagues sat in a van in a parking lot near the station house and drank beer.
Several hours later, he was seen with colleagues at an off-limits topless bar. When the accident occurred around 9 p.m. that night, he had a blood alcohol level that was far above the legal limit. He's now facing multiple counts of manslaughter, and 17 other officers have been disciplined.
Such drinking behavior is clearly an aberration among New York City's 41,000 police officers. But experts say the high levels of stress, a "macho culture," and the odd working hours make police more vulnerable to alcohol and drug problems than many other professions. While data are scarce, studies estimate that rates of alcoholism among police officers are as high as 25 percent. For the general population, the rate of alcoholism is about 7.5 percent.
"I don't want to minimize the terrible, terrible devastation that was caused here at all. But if we just deal with this event alone and not with the broader problem, we're in trouble," says Bill Genet, director of the Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA), a union-organized program that provides confidential help to New York police.
Mr. Genet believes that the overall rates of alcohol use are down in the department from a decade ago, but he's concerned that reports he's heard from the field since the accident indicate there could be some "backsliding."
"That kind of parking lot drinking was passé just a few years ago," he says. "But levels of stress of police have increased, and there could be a whole generation of young officers coming up that are less aware. I am concerned."
One sergeant, who asked that his real name not be used, said that when he started 20 years ago, drinking on the job was common in radio cars, foot posts, and in some station houses. But that changed in 1985, when a police car was involved in a hit-and-run accident that killed an elderly man and injured another.
Still, heavy drinking after work remained part of his job until eight years ago. "I realized I had a drinking problem and found a way to get to AA," he says.
But like many other officers, he did not go to the department. In fact, he was frightened about anyone there finding out, because it could jeopardize his future. Officers with alcohol problems often lose their guns, their hopes of promotion, and sometimes, even their jobs.
"It's a very sensitive issue to deal with," says James Fyfe, a former police officer and professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. "If someone has a drinking problem, you have to decide whether you try to rehabilitate them or fire them because they're a risk to the public."
Officers themselves are also reluctant to report colleagues they believe have a problem. It's still perceived as ratting, or turning someone else in, particularly because the stakes are so high.
"There's still this false perception that there's no safe avenue to get help," says Genet. "We have to change the culture."
A former officer, who also asked that his name not be used, says there is still distrust in the ranks. "There's too long a history of departments violating the confidences," he says.
The New York Police Department now has an extensive employee-assistance program. But Genet says only the most extreme cases, those for whom alcohol interfered with their duties, end up in the program. That's why in 1996, the union started POPPA. It's completely anonymous and is separate from the department. Other cops who've had similar problems help the officers get help.
While alcohol remains a problem for the men in blue, many experts caution against drawing conclusions about all police from this tragedy.
"The lesson to be learned in this case is not just for police officers, it's for everybody," says Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. "People should not get behind the wheel of a car if they've had a drink. Otherwise, something like this can happen."