December 26, 2010
The badge and a steroid-filled syringe -- it's not the typical image most have for the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs. But as more within law enforcement get nabbed in steroid investigations nationwide, observers say that usage levels among police officers could rival the seediest patches of the pro sports landscape.
"It's a big problem, and from the number of cases, it's something we shouldn't ignore," Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Lawrence Payne told AOL News. "It's not that we set out to target cops, but when we're in the middle of an active investigation into steroids, there have been quite a few cases that have led back to police officers."
The pace of investigations into steroid use in the police ranks has picked up in recent months:
- A former police officer in Canby, Ore., who allegedly took delivery of some steroids while on duty pleaded guilty in February to purchasing steroids.
- An officer in South Bend, Ind., pleaded no contest in March to selling steroids.
- A Cleveland police officer was sentenced to a year in prison and five years of supervised release in April after he was found guilty of illegally purchasing steroids.
- A dealer Paw Paw, Mich., allegedly told authorities that he supplied "several police officers" with steroids, which led one Kalamazoo officer to resign in May.
Victor Conte, founder of the now-defunct lab known as Bay Area Lab Co-Operative that supplied numerous athletes with steroids and other banned substances, said it wouldn't surprise him if as many as a quarter of police officers were using some kind of performance-enhancing drug.
Seem high? While there are no empirical studies on the prevalence of steroids in law enforcement, the recent revelations that 248 police officers and firefighters from 53 agencies were tied to a Jersey City, N.J., physician gives some credence to Conte's estimate. The monthslong investigation by The Star-Ledger of Newark also found that taxpayers often footed the bill for the drugs since many were prescribed.
There's debate as to what dangers doped-up officers pose to the public. South Bend police Capt. Phil Trent, for one, would rather not take a chance. Tony Macik, once a well-respected member of the South Bend police force, was arrested for assault years before a steroids investigation led to a 300-day jail sentence earlier this year.
"First we have an officer who is a drug dealer," Trent said. "Second, you always hear about the bizarre size effects (of steroid use). If they are taking these drugs and it turns them into a raving lunatic, that's something we should be concerned about in law enforcement."
Conte said the psychological effects of steroids -- including mood swings and so-called "'roid rage" -- are often overblown and can depend on how much of the drug is used. The same is true for the other side effects such as liver damage, depression and high blood pressure.
"I think overall, it's kind of like alcohol," Conte said. "If you're a jerk when you're sober, you're going to be more of a jerk when you're using."
Joseph Santiago, a former police director in Trenton, N.J., told The Star-Ledger that Trenton had a "significant amount" of excessive force complaints.
"When you looked at these records, you start to see where there might be a correlation," Santiago told the newspaper. "Is it absolutely clear? No. Would a complaint have been there regardless of steroids? Those are issues that need to be addressed."
A lawyer for an 84-year-old Florida man who had his neck broken in September when he was thrown to the ground sought to get the Orlando police officer involved in the incident tested for steroids . The request was denied by the department, which claimed the test would violate the officer's rights.
Testing in law enforcement -- much the way it is in professional sports -- is a touchy subject. Like pro ballplayers, officers are usually protected by unions, and drug testing is often used as a bargaining chip. A majority of departments have random testing for street drugs like cocaine and heroin, but few also test regularly for steroids.
"Obviously, we have zero tolerance for any kind of drug use," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, an organization that has about 350,000 members spread across some 2,100 chapters. "But just like anybody else, we believe officers have a right to due process, and we want to safeguard them from any (unnecessary) investigations."
Law enforcement officials also cite the cost of testing for steroids as another reason such screenings aren't universal.
Larry Gaines, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at California State San Bernardino, authored the first major paper on steroid use in law enforcement two decades ago. He said the rise in usage in steroids among the ranks coincided with a change of culture as many departments began to stress physical fitness.
Some officers, however, appear to have taken that to an extreme.
"This has become a great competition among officers," Gaines said. "They want to be the biggest, strongest."
Conte said that carries over into regional and national police sports competitions that feature weightlifting, among other activities. "I've known people in those competitions who were using that stuff," Conte said.
Professional athletes get called to testify before Congress, and some like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are indicted after federal investigations. So where's the outcry over juiced officers on the street?
Gaines said that because there are no athletic records to protect, and kids usually don't idolize police officers with posters on their bedroom walls, there's little to keep the subject in the public consciousness.
"I don't know what would have to happen to make this a major issue," Gaines said. "Essentially, this has become commonplace."