(Canadian Press) – Vancouver, B.C. – The numbers are staggering.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving says 75,000 people are arrested annually in Canada for drinking and driving.
There are an additional 100,000 to 150,000 24-hour suspensions handed out each year by police, said MADD chief executive officer Andy Murie.
Sometimes the people who make those arrests, the front-line police officers who try to get the drunks off the road become – albeit rarely – part of the statistics.
“You might find 10 to 15 incidents a year involving police officers,” said Murie in a recent interview from his Oakville, Ont., office.
“The thing is that with the 10 to 15, because they are police officers and they get charged with a crime, it’s news.”
Often front-page news, most recently in British Columbia.
In recent weeks, the public learned that three B.C. police officers are facing drunk-driving charges – two members of the RCMP and a third from the New Westminster police department.
One of the off-duty RCMP members was arrested for drunk driving after a Jeep collided with a motorcycle, killing a 21-year-old man in Delta, B.C.
Other high-profile cases this year across the country include an Edmonton police officer facing one count of driving with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit and five counts each of impaired driving causing bodily harm and dangerous driving causing bodily harm.
In Saskatoon, a judge will decide the fate later this month of a senior member of the Saskatoon police service charged with impaired driving.
At his trial, two arresting officers testified that Insp. Al Stickney got behind the wheel after they observed him drunkenly staggering across the street.
“This year there’s been about 10 (arrests),” said Murie. “That’s pretty normal for a year.”
While the number of police officers caught drinking and driving is a tiny percentage of the total, Murie realizes the damage in terms of public perception is much higher.
“They know the risks. They see the consequences. It’s embarrassing for them and fellow officers.”
It also hurts MADD.
“People lose faith every time one of these stories is reported and they don’t see the other side of how much time and energy goes into policing,” Murie said.
Benedikt Fischer, a criminologist at the faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, said police officers are recruited “from the human race and despite the fact we expect so, human behaviour doesn’t stop on-or off-duty.”
Fischer also believes the number of police officers who drive drunk is probably higher than the arrest statistics indicate.
Being a cop is part of a “professional or police culture” dominated by machismo and camaraderie where police officers spend a lot of time socializing with each other, said Fischer, and often it involves alcohol.
“Drinking among police officers is often quite extensive and excessive, probably more so than in other professions,” he said.
When an RCMP member in B.C. is identified as having a drinking problem, he or she gets to know Dr. Ian MacDonald, the regional health services officer for RCMP in B.C.
After an assessment, they might be referred outside the force to an independent addiction specialist.
Whether it’s determined they have a drinking problem or not, all RCMP members arrested for drinking and driving come to MacDonald’s attention and must have an assessment.
MacDonald also thinks that MADD’s numbers are low and that the number of police officers arrested for drunk driving is higher than 10 to 15.
“That strikes me as low. If you look at B.C., we might have two or three charges a year. And if B.C. is 10 per cent of the population, that would be 20 to 30 across Canada.”
Mark Berber, a lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Toronto and an assistant professor at Queen’s University, is also skeptical of the MADD figures.
“It’s surprisingly low considering the stress these guys and gals are under.”
Studies, he said, have suggested that police officers have one of the most stressful jobs and “unfortunately a small number may seek to reduce their anxiety and stress by having a drink.”
He has counselled police officers in his private practice.
“They have spoken about seeking relief from stress and through medication and also drinking,” Berber said.
RCMP members who get caught drinking and driving, in addition to the court process, must endure an internal code of conduct investigation, said RCMP spokeswoman Const. Annie Linteau.
Members appear before an adjudication board and the result could be dismissal, she said.