Are Cops on Steroids a Contributing Factor in Excessive Force Cases?

Does the potential for excessive force negate any benefit the officers might experience in terms of satisfying their duty to the public?
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Does the potential for excessive force negate any benefit the officers might experience in terms of satisfying their duty to the public?
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It kind of makes sense, in a twisted sort of way. If your life was on the line every time you stepped foot into your office, and if there was a regimen of drugs you could take to intimidate or perhaps overpower those who were trying to kill you, wouldn't you be tempted to take those drugs? Honestly, I'd probably have to think about it for a second before quitting the job altogether. Either way, this appears to be the rationale behind a troubling upswing in the use of anabolic steroids in American police departments. Unlike professional sports and bodybuilding where steroids are commonly used to enhance performance in pursuit of more entertainment-oriented endeavors, police officers have been turning to testosterone, human growth hormone and other steroids in order to appear more physically imposing, and also, more importantly, to have a better shot at subduing a criminal suspect.

Back in 2008, Police Chief Magazine, published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, wrote:

Although the traditional reason for the use of AASs [anabolic-androgenic steroids] is to improve athletic performance, AASs also appeal to officers wanting a tactical edge or an intimidating appearance. Unlike with other forms of drug abuse, steroid users do not take their drug recreationally; on the contrary, some state they need these drugs in order to do their job effectively or improve their “job performance.” From street officers who consider themselves vulnerable to bigger, more aggressive criminals to special-assignment officers who are regularly tested for their physical abilities, officers are turning to performance-enhancing drugs such as AASs and HGH as a shortcut to improved performance.

Of course, there are not insignificant problems here, beginning with the fact that steroids are controlled substances (HGH isn't a controlled substance, but it often included in the chemical cocktail) and, since the passage of the Steroid Control Act of 1990, the possession of such drugs is a felony. That's probably the most clearly defined problem with illegal steroid possession -- the law. While there are legitimate and beneficial medical uses for testosterone replacement and steroid use, they're notoriously acquired abused in order to enhance physical strength far beyond mortal men.

What's not so clear, however, are the effects the drugs have on men in high-stress careers where life and death are on the line during nearly every shift.

When Lance Armstrong reportedly experienced "roid rage" as a side-effect of apparent testosterone supplementation he was said to have marched up and down his team bus, punching the seats and shouting obscenities (this allegedly happened during the 2003 Tour de France following the harrowing climb to Luz Ardiden). When a police officer, on the other hand, experiences roid rage, the consequences are far more serious.

To be absolutely clear: there's no evidence whatsoever that the police officers involved with the recent excessive force cases in Staten Island and Ferguson were using steroids in any way shape or form, but imagine for a moment if they had been. Add steroids to the toxic perfect storm of racial profiling and the militarization of the police, and there's no telling how many horrendous arrest scandals have occurred, resulting in countless violations of civil liberties, much less the law itself.

There's no way to adequately distinguish whether a particularly intense bust had anything to do with "roid rage" or simple adrenaline combined with solid physical training and personal intensity. Is any particular case of excessive force due to bad police work and bad police work alone, or is it the "roid rage?" There are, in fact, steroid users who claim to not experience the heightened sense of aggression and short-fuses that are common, predictable side-effects of off-the-scale, artificially enhanced testosterone levels. The only way to weed out the roid rage is to vigorously screen for steroids and T-levels concurrent with other narcotics and alcohol testing, and then to employ the law of averages. In other words, if an officer is hammered-drunk, then slams his patrol car into a family of five crossing the street, then it's safe to assume it was the liquor. It doesn't require a huge leap to conclude that where there are roids there is rage. We'll circle back to this.

So, where are the roids?

Last month, a man was arrested in Augusta, GA and admitted to investigators that he had supplied steroids to perhaps dozens of law enforcement officers dating back to 2004.

The steroid case in Augusta began last week when Richmond County sheriff’s narcotics investigators issued a search warrant at Brandon Paquette’s Pennsylvania Avenue home and discovered 46 vials of anabolic steroids.

For a few days Paquette, 32, provided only empty threats that he could supply names of Richmond County officers who were “juicing up.” It wasn’t until after his arrest and the arrest of his brother Ryan that he handed over the information which included names of officers.

In October, an investigation uncovered officers in Dallas, TX using anabolic steroids:

A police officer and a security officer resigned following the investigation, according to a district email on Wednesday. Two other police officers were recommended for termination and another for a three-day suspension.

“The investigation found that an officer sold what was alleged to be an illegal steroid to another officer who, along with several other officers, failed to report this information to supervisors,” the email states.

But perhaps the most breathtaking cops-on-steroids ring was uncovered in New Jersey in 2010. Three years earlier, a doctor named Joseph Colao was found dead of a heart attack at his home in Jersey City. Following Coloa's death, an investigative report by The Star-Ledgerrevealed that Colao was supplying hundreds of police officers and firefighters throughout New Jersey with HGH and steroids. 248 officers from 53 departments to be precise.

And what about roid rage?

Six of those patients — four police officers and two corrections officers — were named in lawsuits alleging excessive force or civil rights violations around the time they received drugs from him or shortly afterward.

A separate story out of Trenton, NJ showed that some officers had been billing the state government for the drugs, costing taxpayers upwards of $1,100 per month per officer, totaling in the millions. Likewise:

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."

Men's Health magazine detailed the following uses of steroid-enabled force in an article titled "Cops on Steroids" way back in 2005:

Officer Jimmy (not his real name) knew his steroid use was paying off when, one day, the Ohio policeman needed to wrestle a suspect to the ground--and the guy crumpled like a piece of wet cardboard. "It took no effort at all," Jimmy marvels. For Kevin, a military policeman, his steroid epiphany came as he was throwing a rowdy patron out of a Southern California bar: Kevin grabbed the guy by his belt and yanked him right out of his chair. "He landed about 2 feet behind me," he remembers.

The article goes on to quote one anonymous officer who said, at the time, that 20-25 percent of the officers he knew were taking steroids. "Most of the police officers I've known who have used these drugs consider them a tool of the trade," Charles Yesalis, Sc.D., told the magazine.

Perhaps these and so many other officers are outliers who can miraculously handle the emotional impact of high levels of testosterone and other "gear," while most mortals on steroids can barely resist ramming their fists through sheetrock over an annoying telemarketing phone call. But the odds are very, very slim, especially when these men are using enough steroids to rival professional IBF bodybuilders, capable of crushing other men like "wet cardboard." That requires a lot of gear.

The question then remains whether it's safe for these officers to do what they're doing, not only in terms of their own safety due to the harsh effects on the liver, kidneys and heart, but more importantly the safety of the public. It's the same question that comes up when debating the aforementioned militarization of the police: is there an accompanying temptation to use these weapons and equipment (in this case, upper body and arms) just because they're there? And if so, is this really benefiting the public, or does the danger far outweigh the benefits of officers who sincerely believe that steroids make them more capable of protecting and serving? Does the potential for excessive force negate any benefit the officers might experience in terms of satisfying their duty to the public?

Yes, absolutely.

While I've been ambivalent about steroid use in sports, and have expressed my views repeatedly in The Daily Banter, steroid use by cops is a recipe for disaster -- and we've seen too many disasters in the news lately to disagree. Police officers should have sufficient latitude to protect themselves and us, but not to the point of physically nuclear capacity where they're endangering those who they're sanctioned to protect. There's nothing wrong with stronger cops, or better-trained cops, or cops with thicker body armor. Indeed, they're highly desirable for obvious reasons, especially the scores of honorable and law-abiding cops. But this escalation has to end at your windpipe. Accordingly, as public servants, the more cops who lose their badge over illegal steroid use, the safer you'll be, both physically and in terms of your liberties.