A Better Government Association/NBC 5 investigation in 2013 revealed how some Chicago-area police departments allow on-duty officers to have significant levels of alcohol in their system. Now, a major state enforcement agency is seeking to correct that potential public safety problem.
The Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, the state agency that sets professional standards for police officers, is recommending a policy that says no on-duty officer be allowed to work if testing reveals a greater than .02 percent blood-alcohol content.
The BGA/NBC 5 reports found that in extreme cases, some police department union contracts allowed on-duty officers to work with nearly .08 blood-alcohol content (BAC) - considered the state's legal definition of drunk. In many cases, departments hovered around .04 BAC -- a measure that still concerned many police chiefs.
The BGA policy team worked with Secretary of State Jesse White to correct the high blood-alcohol levels, which for decades has been included as accepted benchmarks in many police department contracts.
"The BGA/NBC5 investigation uncovered a serious problem and from there our policy team worked with Secretary White toward finding a solution," said Andy Shaw, President and CEO of the BGA. "We applaud the task force's efforts and believe this recommendation is a 'best practice' that will help protect the public."
Secretary White called the task force's recommendation a step in the right direction, but he indicated he still believed the allowable limit should be zero.
"I just don't believe a person who is a law enforcement officer or a first responder should have any alcohol in their system," he said. "I'd like for them to go back, but if they can't, I guess the art of compromise is alive and well in Springfield."
During session, the Illinois Senate passed a resolution directing the police training and standards board to form a task force of union officials and other law enforcement experts to create a standardized BAC policy.
The eight-member team, which met twice, included representatives from police unions and other industry groups, including the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the Illinois Sheriffs' Association. The Illinois State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor and the Illinois chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness also participated.
"The task force reviewed several different agencies' policies and there was a wide variety of what is acceptable," said Kevin McClain, executive director of the board and chairman of the task force. "We were looking for a consensus that the different affected groups could leave with."
The recommendation, which was sent to Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael J. Madigan on Dec. 30, will likely be taken seriously by professionals in the field, according to several law enforcement officials contacted by the BGA.
Among its duties, the board establishes training requirements and certifies police officers in Illinois. It is also currently working on training officers in relation to the new concealed carry law.
A .02 level is the equivalent to a glass of wine or beer, say health care professionals. Anything higher can affect a person's ability to drive or interfere with motor skills, they add.
Police union representatives contend it would be unreasonable to penalize officers who, for example, take cough syrup or had a glass of wine or beer and then were unexpectedly called into service.
Law enforcement also stressed that no officers are allowed on duty if impaired or under the influence of alcohol and that officer BAC levels have not been a major law enforcement concern or contract issue.
Better Government Association's Senior Investigator Patrick Rehkamp contributed to this article.