Sexual Harassment Liability in Public Safety

The national media has placed a keen focus on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace over the past several weeks.  Media and political figures are accused of sexual misconduct and, possibly even more importantly, a multitude of men and women in positions of power are found to have been aware of misconduct to some extent but did little to prevent or report it.

As disturbing as these well-known cases are, the steady flow of accusations against some in public safety are, in many respects, more concerning.  Not because police officers or firefighters are routinely engaging in some of the types of misconduct reported out of Hollywood, but because the men and women of public safety are expected to uphold higher standards than celebrities and media moguls

First responders are the people we call in our moments of greatest need.  They enter private homes.  They are placed in the position to care for some of society’s most vulnerable individuals, including children, the elderly and countless victims of crime or medical emergency.

A working knowledge of their responsibilities in the area of harassment allegations is too often missing from the “tool box” of new supervisors as well as seasoned public safety leaders.  There are a few key items for agency leaders to keep in mind.

(1) Utilize common sense rules of thumb. Does an individual have a widely-known nickname that indicates a tendency to engage in harassing behavior?  Is a questionable activity in the agency widely-known by a nickname?  Is the only possible defense to what happened fall along the lines of: she initiated it, she was laughing as hard as anybody, he smiled through the whole thing?

All of these aforementioned examples illustrate that the activity is not a secret and is known to supervisors.  As a result, the agency is in no position to deny that they were alerted of the issue.  Behavior that would rightly embarrass the agency is known to the public does not need to be reported if the chief, captain or sergeant is already aware of it.

(2) Prohibit retaliatory acts in the wake of complaints. Leaders in public safety, through policy and training, need to emphasize to all supervisors the importance of avoiding retaliatory acts when harassment allegations are lodged.  It is vital that a person does not see shift or work assignments affected in any negative way due to simply lodging a complaint.  Even the appearance of retaliation, when some negative employment action is taken following closely behind a complaint, can often be the most costly part of a sexual harassment lawsuit in terms of finances and time.

(3) Reserve judgment when conducting the internal investigation. This is challenging in any internal investigation but particularly so as allegations become more egregious and personal—as in the case of sexual harassment cases.  Keep in mind that just because the accuser is not someone who you hold in high regard—personally or professionally—does not mean that the allegation is necessarily false.  Furthermore, just because the accused is someone you believe to be a great professional who you would never suspect of engaging in wrongdoing does not necessarily mean that they did not engage in the alleged behavior. 

Allowing preconceived notions about agency “superstars” or agency “trouble-makers” to impact the internal investigation can be disastrous
in that it stands to compromise the integrity of the investigation and puts the agency at substantial risk of liability stemming from the original complaint and/or allegations of subsequent retaliation.

(4) Demonstrate a willingness to take disciplinary action when allegations are shown to be demonstrably false. This is vitally important if agencies are going to gain genuine buy-in throughout the agency.  If there are allegations of sexual harassment in the agency—that should fundamentally trouble agency leaders for obvious reasons.  Those leaders should be equally bothered by false accusations against agency members.  For an employee to essentially “weaponize” laws created to protect workers in order to attack a fellow member of the department is unacceptable and it should prove a violation of agency policies prohibiting false reporting on fellow employees.

When investigating and evaluating harassment allegations, “never mind” from the complainant is never a reason to close the investigation.  If the investigation reveals that someone engaged in harassing behavior, that must result in serious disciplinary action.  The same is true if the investigation reveals that someone is falsifying allegations, regardless of the motive.  It is both possible and vital to agency operations that leaders treat harassing behavior and demonstrably false allegations of harassment with similar severity.

Contrary to their apparent belief, most Americans do not look to Hollywood or to Washington, D.C. for models of ethical conduct.  Many do, however, hold their local public safety professionals to high ethical standards.  This higher standard is reasonable and should be viewed as a public trust to be protected.

Sexual harassment liability poses a substantial risk to public safety agencies in terms of financial costs, organizational disruption and public trust.  It is vital to agency operations that all employees—and particularly supervisors—are familiar with their fundamental responsibilities under the law when it comes to sexual harassment.

Not in Our House? Substance Abuse among Police and Firefighters

It is not something we like to think about, but the evidence reveals that many law enforcement officers and firefighters struggle with abuse of alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescription drugs. Public safety professionals experience unusually high levels of stress related to potential dangers to their physical safety and the effects of experiencing a multitude of gruesome events. Some, as a result, turn to alcohol and/or drugs as a coping mechanism. The prevalence of drug and alcohol use among police officers and firefighters may be higher than you think.

Prevalence in Law Enforcement

One national study of law enforcement officers found that 20% abused alcohol on a regular basis, and, when compared to the general population, law enforcement officers were 200% more likely to abuse alcohol than the average citizen.[1] Furthermore, while men drink more than women in the general population, studies of law enforcement officers have revealed male and female officers abuse alcohol at equal rates.[2] Across three decades, a total of 2,119 New York City police officers were terminated for criminal charges they acquired while off duty. The majority of these officers had been drinking at the time of their arrest, and 13% were arrested specifically for an alcohol-related violation of the law, such as drunken driving.[3] A survey of 1,410 officers from Austin, Dallas, and El Paso, revealed that approximately 70% consumed between zero and 10 alcoholic beverages weekly, but 30% reported regularly drinking more than 10 alcoholic beverages every week.[4]

In a survey of 980 police officers in Baltimore, 38% reported that in the last year their alcohol consumption resulted in such problems as family arguments and drinking to unconsciousness.[5] Another study involved a nationwide study of news stories over a five-year period. It revealed 221 arrests of law enforcement officers on drug charges, and 782 arrests of officers for drunken driving. Of the drug arrests, 64% of the officers were using illegal drugs on duty. Of the drunken driving arrests, 14% of the officers were driving drunk while on duty.[6] The problem of substance abuse in law enforcement has also been detected my law enforcement executives. In a survey of police chiefs, these chiefs estimated as many as 25% of their officers abuse alcohol.[7]

Prevalence in Firefighting

The fire service faces similar struggles. A survey of 1,481 firefighters in New York City revealed that the majority consumed alcohol regularly, and 30% abused alcohol often.[8] Another survey of 112 firefighters with one urban fire department in the Northeast revealed 58% admitted to binge drinking at least once in the last 12 months, and 14% admitted to having driven drunk during that time.[9] A Pacific Northwest study of 188 firefighters, and another study of 408 firefighters from three cities across the nation, showed similar levels of alcohol consumption, and also revealed that binge-drinking behavior tended to remain stable across a firefighter’s career unless they received intervention or treatment.[10]    

Furthermore, opioid addiction is becoming a growing social problem across the nation with a large proportion of illegal heroin users being those who were initially proscribed opioids for pain from physical injuries. A very large national study of several thousand patients suffering from back pain revealed that 24% became addicted to the painkillers and routinely used the drugs more often than was proscribed.[11] Since lower back pain is one of the most common physical maladies of law enforcement officers, paramedics, and firefighters, the fact that 1 in 4 persons prescribed opioids for lower back pain become addicted to the drugs is extremely troubling for the public safety profession.[12]

Consequences of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse by public safety personnel poses many significant negative consequences. While most public safety personnel who abuse alcohol or drugs do so as a stress management strategy, the use of alcohol and drugs actually exacerbates the symptoms of stress and posttraumatic disorder. It increases depression and risk of suicide or other violent behaviors. It contributes to divorce and other family strife, and could cost the individual his or her career due to work-related misconduct.[13]

Beyond the effects substance abuse has on the individual, that individual’s substance abuse has negative repercussions on the organization. The addicted individual’s poor job performance hurts the entire team’s performance, and may put peers in danger. Having a team member who cannot concentrate, or displays volatile emotions, can cause someone to get hurt or at the very last create unnecessary conflict in the ranks. Any accidents or acts of poor judgement by the addicted individual can impact negatively on the reputation of the entire organization, not to mention the public scandal if the media learns of the employee’s addiction–especially through that individual’s arrest.

The public is also at great risk if a law enforcement officer is patrolling the streets under the influence of drugs or alcohol. These substances will likely impact the officer’s judgement in choice of words with a citizen or use of force. The public is at great risk when firefighters are responding to calls in a 20-ton fire apparatus while under the influence. Paramedics place the public at great risk when trying to render medical treatment while being cognitively impaired by drugs or alcohol. Therefore, it is crucial that public safety leaders and municipal human resources officials address this issue.


The evidence suggests that substance abuse by public safety professionals is a serious issue that appears to involve a quarter to a third of law enforcement officers and firefighters. This substance abuse is damaging the lives of employees, their families, their peers, and the communities they are supposed to protect. Luckily, substance abuse treatment can be very effective in improving the lives of individuals who wish to change. Therefore, if public safety and municipal leaders can identify their substance-abusing employees, help them get access to treatment, and hold them accountable, then they can improve the lives of the public safety officials, protect their agencies, and keep their communities safe.

Upcoming Training

We offer training that can help your agency avoid the cost of impairment. Learn more about our Detecting Substance Abuse in the Workplace classes today.





[1] Violanti, J. M. (1999). Alcohol abuse in policing: prevention strategies. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 68(1), 16-18.

[2] Farmer, R. (1990). Clinical and managerial implications of stress research on the police. Journal of Police Science and Administration, 17(3), 205-218; Pendergrass, V., & Ostrove, N. (1986). Correlates of alcohol use by police personnel. In Reese, J. & Goldstein, H. (Eds.). Psychological Services for Law Enforcement. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

[3] Stin, P. M., Liederbach, J., & Freiburger, T. L. (2012). Off-duty and under arrest: a study of crimes perpetrated by off-duty police. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 23(2), 139-163.

[4] Bishopp, S. A., & Boots, D. P. (2014). General strain theory, exposure to violence, and suicide ideation among police officers: a gendered approach. Journal of Criminal Justice, 42, 538-548.

[5] Swatt, M. L., Gibson, C. L., & Piquero, N. L. (2007). Exploring the utility of general strain theory in explaining problematic alcohol consumption by police officers. Journal of Criminal Justice, 35, 596-611.

[6] Stinson, P. M., Liederbach, J., Brewer, S., Schmalzried, H., Mathna, B., & Long, K. (2013). A study of drug-related police corruption arrests. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 36(3), 491-511; Stinson, P. M., Liederbach, J., Brewer, S., & Todak, N. (2014). Drink, drive, go to jail? A study of police officers arrested for drunk driving. Journal of Crime and Justice, 37(3), 356-376.

[7] Paton, D., Violanti, J. M., Burke, K., & Gehrke, A. (2009). Traumatic Stress in Police Officers. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Press.

[8] Bacharach, S. B., Bamberger, P. A., & Doveh, E. (2008). Firefighters, critical incidents, and drinking to cope: the adequacy of unit-level performance resources as a source of vulnerability and protection. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 155-169.

[9] Carey, M. G., Al-Zaiti, S. S., Dean, G. E., Sessanna, L., & Finnell, D. S. (2011). Sleep problems, depression, substance use, social bonding, and quality of life in professional firefighters. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 53(8), 928-933.

[10] Kimbrel, N., Steffen, L., Knight, A., Zimering, R. Meyer, E., Kruse, M., & Gulliver, S. (2011). A revised measure of occupational stress for firefighters: psychometric properties and relationship to posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and substance abuse. Psychological Services, 8(4), 294-306; Murphy, S. A., Beaton, R. D., Pike, K. C., & Johnson, L. C. (1999). Occupational stressors, stress responses, and alcohol consumption among professional firefighters: a prospective, longitudinal analysis. International Journal of Stress Management, 6(3), 179-196.

[11] Martell, B., O’Connor, P., Kerns, R., Becker, W., Morales, K., Kosten, T., & Fiellin, D. (2007). Systematic review: opioid treatment for chronic back pain: prevalence, efficacy, and association with addiction. Annals of Internal Medicine, 146, 116-127.

[12] Cady, L., Bischoff, D., O’Connell, E., Thomas, P., & Allan, J. (1979). Strength and fitness and subsequent back injuries in firefighters. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 21, 269-272; Nabeel, I., Baker, B., McGrail, M., & Flottemesch, T. (2007). Correlation between physical activity, fitness, and musculoskeletal injuries in police officers. Minnesota Medicine, 90(9), 40-43; Reichard, A., & Jackson, L. (2010). Occupational injuries among emergency responders. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 53, 1-11; Poplin, G., Harris, R., Pollack, K., Peate, W., & Burgess, J. (2011). Beyond the fireground: injuries in the fire service. Injury Prevention, 18(4), 228–233.

[13] Blum, L. N. (2000). Force Under Pressure. New York, NY: Lantern Books; Kimbrel et al. (2011); Paton et al. (2009).