Zero-tolerance alcohol policy for on-duty police emerges

2013-05-11T19:30:00Z 2013-05-11T22:41:04Z Zero-tolerance alcohol policy for on-duty police emergesHannah Douglas Lee Springfield Bureau nwitimes.com
May 11, 2013 7:30 pm  • 

SPRINGFIELD | Illinois lawmakers are pushing for a zero-tolerance alcohol policy for on-duty police officers, yet recent findings could slow negotiations.

This effort comes amid a Better Government Association investigation that showed there weren’t consistent alcohol standards for law enforcement officials in Illinois counties and municipalities.

The rules range from a zero tolerance for alcohol in the bloodstream to just below .08 blood-alcohol content, which is the legal limit for drunk driving in Illinois.

In Decatur, for example, officers can show up to work with a blood alcohol content of less than .08, with .08 being considered impaired, per their union contract. This includes the understanding that the BAC level drops by .01 each hour, according to the BGA.

Secretary of State Jesse White, who is pushing for the legislation, said the findings from the Chicago-based watchdog group were surprising, and there should be consistency in alcohol tolerance across the state.

“I’m steadfast in my opposition to police officers being able to have alcohol in their system,” White said in an interview. “I do think that they really put themselves in a terrible situation when they come to work impaired.”

In Normal, Police Chief Rick Bleichner said it is not acceptable for officers of his organization to have any alcohol in their system, as per policy. If there is reason to believe an officer had been drinking, a breath test would be used, and it could result in disciplinary action, he said.

“Officers who are responding to back other officers up, who are operating vehicles, who are charged with determining levels of force necessary in stressful situations … It’s simply not acceptable for us to have any level of alcohol in our system,” Bleichner said.

In Normal, the alcohol tolerance level is up to .02 while on duty. However, Bleichner said any alcohol level that is less than .02 is still unacceptable unless it’s part of a work assignment, such as for undercover operations.

“Outside of that, we say no alcohol in the blood while on duty is acceptable,” he said.

The legislative proposal would allow for exceptions to zero tolerance in cases such as undercover work and for other training purposes.

The measure has received House approval and awaits action in the Senate.

In other areas, such as Rock Island, .08 is considered the level of impairment. In Charleston, it’s .04, according to the BGA’s findings.

Yet negotiations are still underway, and sponsor state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D- East Moline, said he doesn’t like the timing of the BGA's release.

“I’m really perturbed I guess right now that the BGA has gone out with this story right at a crucial time when we’re trying to negotiate this bill,” Jacobs said. “I just find it really disingenuous on their part, and I’m a little disappointed.”

He said although he thinks the BGA’s findings put the police in a bad light, he will continue to work on negotiations.

“The (report’s) impression was that the cops were all drunk,” Jacobs said. “I don’t think that’s true.”

Tamara Cummings, general counsel for Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Council, said cases such as when off-duty officers are called in to work and have been drinking should be taken into consideration. The main issue should be over whether an officer is impaired or not, she added.

“Cops aren’t coming to work drunk,” Cummings said. “It’s just not happening. If you’re testing people that are not impaired and by happenstance they have some trace alcohol in their system … you’re subjecting them to being terminated when there’s really no basis for it.”

The legislation is House Bill 3035.

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