On the Job and on Drugs: Police Officers Who Struggle with Addiction

By Brian Whitney 06/20/19

A police officer who is using opioids illegally is breaking the very laws that he or she has sworn to uphold. This makes it even more difficult to reach out and get help for an addiction that may be spinning out of control.

close up of a police officer in uniform
If you talk to your peers about how traumatized you are, you’re seen as weak. The pressure can be intense.

No one ever said being a police officer was easy. The job alternates between crushing boredom, bizarre situations, and unimaginable danger. When you’re a cop, much of the population that you’re paid to protect is afraid of you. You’re always being judged, whether it’s in the media or when you go to the corner store. Your hours are usually pretty awful, which means you don’t get to spend as much time with loved ones as you want to. You see things, horrible things, that mess up your head. If you talk to your peers about how traumatized you are, you’re seen as weak. The pressure can be intense.

Police officers are human, so they seek ways to cope with the stress. Sometimes they find relief in opioids. And sometimes they become addicted.

Two recent deaths of police officers due to drug overdose are stark reminders that no one is immune to addiction. In fact, police officers may be more at risk than others.

Under Pressure and Self-Medicating

Dr. Michael Genovese, a clinical psychiatrist and chief medical officer at Acadia Healthcare, told The Fix, “Not only are law enforcement officers not immune to addiction, but they are also more susceptible to addiction because the stress of their jobs renders them so. Police officers to whom I have spoken, who suffer from addiction, are not generally using drugs to get high or have fun; they are using them to numb emotions they find painful. Every day, police officers witness things that are outside the scope of normal human experience, and the frequency and intensity of traumatic events are overwhelming to the officer’s brain, even if he or she thinks they’re not.”

While outsiders don’t think of Lewiston, Maine, as a hotbed of crime and drug use, locals know the old mill town has long been a place where heroin and crack are bought and sold. Officer Nicholas Meserve was attempting to stop the flow of drugs into this small Maine city, until he died of an accidental overdose.

When announcing Meserve’s death by fentanyl overdose, Lewiston's police chief Brian O’Malley said,“I hope it’s a reminder that the opioid epidemic touches the lives of many in the community, regardless of their wealth, race, religion or profession.”

In Baltimore, Officer Joseph Banks Jr. died at a local motel after overdosing on heroin. His girlfriend, who was with him when he died, told police the two had been hanging out at the motel, using drugs throughout the day. Banks was suspended from the police force at his time of death. A police spokesman refused to state the reason for his suspension.

Vernon Herron, who runs safety and wellness programs for the Baltimore Police Department, said, “Like a lot of police officers, sometimes we are so hyper-vigilant that we medicate ourselves. I’m not talking specifically about him [Banks], but I see officers over-medicate themselves to deal with the stresses of police work.”

Michael Koch was a police officer for 15 years, 10 of them as an undercover narcotics detective. Over time, he started using heroin and became addicted, eventually to such a degree that he was arrested after taking heroin from an evidence room.

Finding Relief in Opioids

Koch told The Fix, “Drinking was always a part of my life. It was an unhealthy coping mechanism, but it’s what I did. At one point, I hurt my knee badly and I got a scrip for Vicodin. As soon as I took that drug the reaction in my body was amazing, like it was sent from heaven. So then my drinking dropped off and I got more into the pills. I was part of the SWAT team and evidence team, and kept getting injured at work and when I did I would go to the doctor and get more pills. So then I started using it recreationally; instead of drinking, I took pills.”

Koch’s addiction continued to progress. As he told me, “I was dealing with immense pressure at work. We would see things the average person wouldn’t see. Bodies cut open, heads on the ground, all of that stuff just stacks up. I might have looked like I had it together at some of these scenes but inside I was dying. So I started using more and more pills and became dependent on them.”

Koch kept sinking deeper into his addiction and he felt like he had no place to turn. Letting your fellow officers know that you might have a problem is just not how it’s done. A police officer never wants to appear weak amongst his or her peers.

It got worse. As Koch relates, “In 2010 a lot of heroin was on the streets and we were doing a lot of busts where we confiscated heroin, and also things like Oxys. I crossed the line and started taking things out of evidence for my personal use. I justified it by saying it was going to be thrown out anyway, but by that time I’m an addict and living a double life as a well-respected undercover cop and also as someone that was smoking a ton of heroin. Eventually, I got caught taking drugs out of evidence.”

He was charged with second-degree burglary, which was pled down to a misdemeanor and he was placed on probation. He now works as an addiction counselor at True North Recovery Services and has been clean and sober for years. He also has a podcast where he and guests discuss issues of addiction and mental health that affect first responders.

He told The Fix, “It was devastating being found out but I was relieved that this secret hell was done. In the first six months of sobriety I went to rehab, lost my career, went through criminal charges, got divorced, went through bankruptcy, lost my reputation and friends and stayed sober. I have five and a half years of sobriety thanks to the support of 12-step recovery.”

Other officers were not as lucky as Koch. They lost their lives to addiction before they could get clean.

Overcoming Stigma and Acknowledging Vulnerability 

Police officers are often thought of as brave protectors who work tirelessly to keep us safe, putting themselves at risk in the process. While true, police officers are also regular people who have the same amount of everyday stress in their lives as the rest of us, who at the same time are experiencing and processing traumatic experiences that most people couldn’t dream of. For some, death and violence are part of a day’s work. They spend less time with their loved ones and in other traditional support systems because they often work irregular hours, leaving them even more isolated.

And then, of course, there is the issue of the drugs being illegal. A police officer who is using opioids illegally is breaking the very laws that he or she has sworn to uphold. This makes it even more difficult to reach out and get help for an addiction that may be spinning out of control.

Even legally, police officers have fewer barriers to drug use. Mark Restivo was an NYPD officer who was forced to retire because of a severe injury to his knee after he was thrown down a flight of stairs and badly beaten while attempting to stop a thief from stealing a woman’s purse. He quickly became addicted to opioids. He told The Fix, “There is a sense of inherent trust in officers; while dealing with my injuries, I firmly believe that I was prescribed so many prescription painkillers because of my status as former NYPD officer.” After a stint in a First Responder rehab, Restivo has been sober for almost six years. He credits his sobriety to 12-step programs and Vivitrol.

Police officers might sometimes seem intimidating, and like they always have a situation well under control. But addiction affects everyone, sometimes with tragic results.

Changes are on the horizon. There are numerous treatment centers and recovery programs focused on helping police officers, whether they’re a first responder or not, and many police organizations are working to develop programs to locate and help cops who might be struggling with addiction.

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Brian Whitney has been a prisoner advocate, a landscaper, and a homeless outreach worker. He has written or coauthored numerous books in addition to writing for AlterNetTheFixPacific Standard MagazinePaste Magazine, and many other publications. He has appeared or been featured in Inside Edition, Fox News, People.com, Cracked.com, True Murder, Savage Love and True Crime Garage. He is appearing at CrimeCon in 2019. You can find Brian on Facebook or at Brianwhitneyauthor.com.