Leadership Spotlight

Leading At-Risk Employees: Law Enforcement and the Addiction Crisis

Stock image of a man sitting down with an alcoholic drink on a table.

Most people who enter a career in law enforcement are unaware of the toxic effects the profession can have on them physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Unfortunately, the damage resulting from stress and long, unpredictable hours can cause many employees to turn to behaviors that, ultimately, may be deadly if not addressed. Addiction is a pandemic in our profession, as well as society as a whole. Many employees want to avoid the subject, although almost everyone is affected directly or indirectly by addiction. This disease leads to destroyed lives, careers, and families. Sadly, law enforcement agencies conduct little serious training regarding this important topic.

At the FBI National Academy, I have taught hundreds of law enforcement executives. A couple of years ago, I began asking them several questions in my classes. “How much of your day is spent on personnel issues?” A majority responded with, “Most of my day.” “How much of your day is spent dealing with disciplinary issues?” Again, “Much, if not most, of my day.” “How many disciplinary issues were related to alcohol abuse or another addiction?” The response: “Most of them.” Finally, “How many of you have received substantive training on addiction?” None of these executives had received such training.

How can this be? We are committed to becoming effective officers. We learn how to interview, arrest, handcuff, and shoot. However, when we move into leadership and management positions, we receive little or no training for this transition. We often do not learn how to deal with our most important asset—our people. Sometimes, those employees who pose problems have an addiction issue, and agencies seem to offer little, if any, training in this area. Our only response is to either discipline or fire the employee. Short of these options, most managers do not know what to do.

Law enforcement leaders need to consider serious, comprehensive, and effective training on addiction and how the disease impacts our profession. They should assess their agency’s training programs and do everything they can to address the issue early in an officer’s career. Additionally, officers should know about their agency’s resources in case issues arise. They should know that there are solutions for nearly every situation they may face. Further, they should understand that seeking help for the disease is not a sign of weakness—it is a sign of strength. The alternative to not seeking help could be death.

Comprehensive addiction training helps all law enforcement professionals become more productive in their day-to-day duties. Many members of the public will interact with officers as a direct result of their own addictions. If these situations arise, a thorough knowledge of the disease would help officers more effectively deal with the public, as well as their colleagues. Leaders should determine now what they can do to provide at-risk employees with the support and resources they need to deal with their addictions.

Supervisory Special Agent Michael VanMeter, an instructor in the Leadership and Communications Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.