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Why Police Officers Need to Understand Addiction

Mike Bosse, Assistant Police Chief for the Lexington Division of Police, describes how the understanding of drug addiction and behaviors associated with addiction are critical to an officer’s development, and the innovative trainings offered to new recruits.

The Lexington Division of Police operates one of the four police training academies in Kentucky and provides certified instruction, as set by the Kentucky Law Enforcement Council.  Our recruits receive the same instruction as other recruits concerning narcotics identification and investigation (certified); however, we offer additional training we feel is critical to an officer’s development – the understanding of drug addiction and the behaviors associated with addiction.  We believe having this basic understanding helps the officers make practical policing decisions when dealing with this population.

For the past 14 years, the Lexington Division of Police has had a full time Drug Court Liaison Officer.  This position and our relationship with our local Drug Courts is critical to the Lexington community’s understanding that the Lexington Division of Police takes a truly comprehensive approach to addressing illegal drug use in our community.  While we maintain aggressive enforcement of drug laws we also have a real commitment to the treatment of those individuals who qualify for our Drug Court programs and want help to change their life.  

Our Drug Court Liaison Officer conducts four hours (non-certified) of instruction to our new recruits outlining the role of our agency in working with drug courts and the results of that relationship.  It describes the Liaison Officer’s responsibilities of conducting periodic home visits and the importance of law enforcement involvement in the Drug Court process.  In addition, the officers speak to Drug Court graduates and current participants and learn about the life changing experiences of those who successfully complete the programs and the very real challenges that current participants face in treatment. Accompanied by their counselors and our Liaison Officer, the participants speak to their particular addiction and how it affected their life. 

Also included in this instruction is a four-hour block on the chemistry of addiction – what is happening in the brain of the drug user and why that translates into specific kinds of behaviors including criminal behavior. Developed with the help of the Drug Court treatment professionals, the course provides a basic understanding as to why an individual may display a particular kind of behavior.   For instance, it is beneficial for our officers to understand why a drug dependent individual will have difficulty following multiple step instruction especially if they are asked to perform the task the following day.  The officers learn that this particular individual is not, at this time in their life, able to resolve even minor conflicts that we take for granted.  The portion of the class that seems to garnish the most interest is walking the recruits through what happens emotionally with the addict based on the chemical changes occurring in the brain.  This benefits the Division because the officers come to recognize that if they do not take an active role in assisting the individual in resolving the issue, it is likely they will be returning to that location for subsequent calls for service. 

In this class, we use actual criminal investigations of crimes to demonstrate many of the principles discussed.  I find that by tying this information directly to what officers experience on the streets makes the material more relevant. They begin to understand how this information will assist them in doing a better job as officers and for the community.

When we don’t understand someone’s behavior, we have a tendency to resort to making moral judgments.  Judgments concerning the behaviors of those dealing with addiction only hamper an officer’s interaction and clouds the practical decisions police officers must make on a daily basis.  In my 29 years of law enforcement I have noticed a significant difference in officers who have a basic understanding of addiction and the behaviors associated with it.  These officers tend to be less judgmental, more patient and ultimately more efficient than officers who don’t have this training and tend to see the addict more as a problem rather than a person.  Officers who don’t have this type of understanding tend to resort to arrest rather than committing to resolving the problem that brought them to the addict.  While both scenarios take time, assisting the addict with resolving the problem when it is practical to do so prevents call backs.  Always settling the issue with arrest uses resources we don’t have and is only a temporary solution since the problem still exists.

Mike Bosse is Assistant Police Chief of the Lexington Division of Police