LEBANON, Ohio — Police officers in some local communities can strap on a gun and issue tickets for drivers who are more sober than they are, according to an investigation from WCPO news partner Journal-News.
The newspaper reviewed union contracts for local public safety offices, including the Ohio State Highway Patrol, and found that some officers and firefighters are protected from discipline when they have alcohol in their system while on the job.
These rules are often enforced by union contracts.
In Lebanon, officers and firefighters can work with a .04 blood alcohol level, according to the Journal-News.
Lebanon Police Chief Jeff Mitchell said he’s actively pursued more stringent alcohol rules to be written into the city’s union contracts.
Mitchell, who’s been in charge for nearly two years, told the Journal-News he negotiated his first union contract this past summer. He got the unions to remove a clause that allowed officers to suck on a breath mint before they were tested for alcohol, but couldn’t get union representatives to reduce the .04 limit to zero.
Mitchell said he’s never had to discipline an officer for using alcohol on the job and he believes the alcohol provision was added to the contract decades ago.
“My thought process is, ‘How does that look if the public looks at this and sees our contract?’”
Ohio State Highway Patrol officers and Cincinnati police are among many members of law enforcement who can’t be disciplined if they have a blood-alcohol content below .04 at work.
That rule, enforced by some union contracts, has raised concerns among groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.
“If I’m a law enforcement officer, I would be the last person in the world who would want to have alcohol on my breath when I pull someone over,” Executive Director for MADD in Ohio Doug Scoles told the Journal-News.
Attorney Patrick Mulligan, who handles drunk driving cases across southwest Ohio, told the Journal-News that drivers under age 21 can be cited for drunk driving with a blood alcohol content above .02.
This means an officer could issue a ticket to someone more sober than he or she is.
“It’s an interesting double standard,” he said. “I don’t think it’s one the general public would appreciate.”
Sgt. Jeff Gebhart, who represents Butler County’s detectives, supervisors and deputies in contract negotiations, said he believes the county’s alcohol policy has just stayed in the contract, as is, for several years because it’s never come up as an issue in the office.
He said in the 24 years he’s worked in the office, he’s never seen a deputy tested for being impaired on the job.
“It’s not something that we’ve really bargained hard for,” Gebhart told the Journal-News of the contract’s alcohol provision. “It’s just always been in the contract and some language remains the same in contracts for years. I wouldn’t want to be the officer that comes to the office that had alcohol impairment; the sheriff has about a zero tolerance.”
According to the Journal-News investigation, one fire department in Liberty Twp. north of Columbus did bargain for its firefighters to be permitted to work on the job until they’re legally drunk, with a blood alcohol level of .08. The township’s administrator said he agreed to the provision in order to get the union to agree to a drug and alcohol policy.
Officers working in cities such as Hamilton, Middletown and Mason work under the zero-tolerance policies.
In Mason, if an officer is suspected of having alcohol in their system while on duty, that officer can be put on administrative leave for up to three days, Mason Police Chief Ron Ferrell told the Journal-News.
In some instances, undercover cops might consume alcohol while on duty, but otherwise cops working in Middletown aren’t allowed to have a little buzz on the job.
To read the full investigation from the Journal-News, click here.
Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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