WESTCHESTER, Ill. | Police officers in various Chicago-area communities have contracts that allow them to have a few drinks before they hop into their squad cars and patrol the streets, according to a new report.
An analysis by WMAQ-TV in Chicago and the Better Government Association found that some police contracts have provisions allowing officers to have some alcohol in their systems when they come to work. The blood-alcohol concentrations ranged up to 0.08, or the legal threshold at which drivers in Illinois are considered too intoxicated to drive.
But, according to the report, the departments say that even if they cannot discipline an officer who comes to work after drinking, they would not allow the officer to hit the streets.
"If those test results came in anything greater than zero, we are not going to put that officer on the street," Paul Volpe, Elmwood Park's village manager, told the TV station. He said such an officer would likely be allowed only to work behind a desk.
Westchester Mayor Sam Pulia, who opposed the community's police department contract that allows discipline against officers at .05 alcohol levels, said there was no reason officers should be allowed to drink before coming to work.
"I worry about it every day," Pulia said.
The community's police chief agreed, saying an officer who had been drinking would not be allowed behind the wheel of a squad car.
"We would follow policy and procedure, and that employee would be removed from duty," Chief April Padilik said.
The report said many police departments believe a low level of alcohol should be allowed so officers can have a glass of wine with dinner or take cough medicine.
The Illinois State Police and the Cook County Sheriff's Police prohibit their officers from having any alcohol in their bloodstream.
Experts say such bans are wise, given studies showing that even a small amount of alcohol impairs motor skills.
"There have been literally hundreds of studies since the 1950s," said Dr. David Zich, of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "Even after low levels you cannot reliably perform without impairment."
James Fell, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute of Research in Calverton, Md., said "impairment, and especially impairment for driving, starts at the first drink."
One concern is the liability a city might face if one of its officers got into an accident or was involved in an incident with alcohol in his or her system. In Chicago, where the police department sets its blood alcohol level limit at 0.02, the City Council agreed to settle for $4.1 million with the family of a man who was shot to death by an officer who, according to the WMAQ-TV story, "had reportedly been drinking prior to his shift."