Do police drink too much because they are police, or does trauma play a role?

It seems widely assumed that alcoholism is a work related risk factor in policing.  I have understood this assumption to be true for years. In fact, consistent with social acceptance theory I may have accepted a higher amount of drinking because it was presumed rather than the assumed “need” related to stress.   I found an article in Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management that turns all of that on its head.

Work in the 70’s and 80’s established that police officers were heavy drinkers. We adopt expertise from studies which support a confirmation bias which “helps us influence people and social structures so that they come to match our beliefs about them (Peters, 2022, p. 1351).  In that way when we see results that we like, we do not question them as we would ones we do not like (Allen, 2011). However, in review the word “established” comes into question.  The studies cited only sampled very few police services or took the opinion of police administrators (Lindsay, et. al., 2008).  Their opinions, much like mine, may have not been based on any real findings.  In research this would be called a sampling error. In life it is simply noticing one person more often than the other people who don’t have the same exceptionality.  Finding one drunk in an office someone worked in a few years ago is not reflective of a problem, but is certainly a memory that stands out. This is the first problem. We expand out the idea that all police are alcoholics because of an erroneous sample which confirms the research.

There is also the idea of a police subculture. Imagining all police are the same is tantamount to any other –ism.  All blacks are…  All Jews are…   All police are…   John Cochran and Max Bromley discovered that there is no “police subculture” which would be reflective of the assumption.  Rather, there are groups within the profession where like-minded people cluster (2003).  So, the first sampling error being broadcast out to the profession can be understood when it is inaccurately believed that all police are the same.  This is the second problem in believing there is widespread alcoholism in policing because all police are the same.

Then comes the stress of the job. Workplace conditions can be broken down into work alienation and work stress.  Work alienation is reflective of work where employees are not enriched, or feel their work is not of value. Work stress is related to dangerous conditions, conflict with supervisors, or low pay (Frone, 1999).  In this model policing is certainly a stressful job. However, the link between stress and drinking is “highly debatable, and research has consistently demonstrated that tress can have both positive and negative effects on human beings” (Lindsay, et. al., 2008, p. 598.).   The same paper goes on to say that there is no evidence that policing is more stressful than other lines of work (p. 598).  This is the third problem with the belief.  Perhaps a misunderstanding of what police do causes an assumption of unimaginable stress.

When we see that there is a link between ACE scores and alcoholism (Van Der Kolk, 2014) I consider whether alcohol use increases due to trauma.  Police are more susceptible to experience a critical incident than the population (Rousseau, 2023).  So, there may be a link here in the prevalence of officers who have A) experienced a critical incident, and B) adopted alcohol use as an unhealthy coping mechanism.  If we add to that the ideas of fitting in discussed in Ordinary Men (Browning, 2017) we may have coexisting risk factors.  However, Owen Gallupe found that fitting in was related to low level alcohol use, while coping with depression was related to high level use (2012).

All of that to say that it appears alcoholism as a norm in policing is a myth. Lindsay et. al. describe the link between police work and alcohol use with words like, “very tenuous”, “utterly rejected”, and “no reason to think that alcohol abuse correlates with such work” (p.598).  Once we are able reject the link between the JOB and alcoholism we may be able to move towards linking TRAUMA to alcohol use and move towards caring for trauma exposed individuals.




Allen, M. (2011) Theory‐led confirmation bias and experimental persona. Research in Science & Technological Education, 29:1, 107-127, DOI: 10.1080/02635143.2010.539973

Browning, C. (2014). Ordinary Men: Reserve Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. HarperCollins.

Cochran, J.K. and Bromley, M.L. (2003), The myth(?) of the police sub‐culture, Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 26 No. 1, pp. 88-117.

Frone M.R. Work stress and alcohol use. Alcohol Res Health. 1999;23(4):284-91. PMID: 10890825; PMCID: PMC6760381.

Gallupe, O. (2014) Social status versus coping as motivation for alcohol use. Journal of Youth Studies, 17:1, 79-91, DOI: 10.1080/13676261.2013.793792

Lindsay, V., Taylor, W., & Shelley, K. (2008). Alcohol and the police: an empirical examination of widely-held assumption. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 31(4), 596-609.

Peters, U. (2022).  What Is the Function of Confirmation Bias?. Erkenn 87, 1351–1376.

Rousseau, D. (2023). Trauma and Crisis Intervention Module 6. Retrieved November 30, 2023, from Blackboard [url].

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Viking. 

View all posts