Could contracts leave the door open to impaired policing?

CHAMPAIGN -- It's clearly wrong for police officers to be drunk on duty, but what about one or two drinks before clocking in? Even that's off limits. But a WCIA-3 News/Better Government Association Investigation found their union contracts may leave the door open.

When an officer reports for duty, he or she is expected to be ready to go, free of drugs and alcohol. But, their union contracts made us ask, what about one drink?

In Champaign, the union contract says rank-and-file officers test positive for alcohol at a blood alcohol concentration of .04, Urbana is .03 and Decatur is .08, the legal limit for drunk driving in Illinois.

But that number drops every hour officers are at work. The BGA argues, even one drink before work is too many.

The BGA's Emily Miller says, "They're going to be driving their squad cars. They're going to be potentially in dangerous situations where they have to make snap judgements about whether to use their firearm, and it's really important they have all their faculties about them."

But Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly says, "It's never been an issue in the past."

He says their contract does not give an officer the okay to come to work with alcohol in their system.

He points out, "In addition to what the contract says, we have department directives and we have supervisors who are responsible for ensuring the safety of the public and the people so I think there are checks and balances in place."

Departmental policy allows a supervisor to pull anyone from duty. The directive says serious and major infractions include, "being under the influence of, while on duty, any alcoholic beverage...impairing the employee's ability." Connolly says the contract's wording has never been an issue in the 17-years it's been there. 

The chief in Champaign agrees. Anthony Cobb says his officers come to work ready to serve and alcohol has not been a problem. In Danville, the city takes a different approach. Its police and fire contracts don't make reference to specific blood alcohol concentrations. Instead there's a zero-tolerance policy. "It's certainly something demanded by the community."

Public safety director Larry Thomason says his officers suggested zero-tolerance more than ten years ago, so their contract mirrors department policy. He says it's the way to go.

"We are held to a higher standard. Our expectations are we will be held to a higher standard."

WCIA-3 News stresses there is not any evidence officers were on duty when they should not have been, but the question is, should zero-tolerance be department policy or written into those union contracts? Police say some consideration should be given to undercover officers who may have to have a drink to "blend" in during an investigation, or an case of an emergency when it's "all hands on deck."

More Information - Click here for a link to the story published by the Better Government Association.

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