OCEAN CITY — After weeks of debate, the safest number concerning alcohol, guns and off-duty public safety officials in the eyes of the Police Commission is apparently zero.
The Police Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday to instill a zero-tolerance policy to the final section of the new Ocean City Police Department General Order guidelines (200-B2), which will simply mean that off-duty officers will not be permitted to carry a weapon if they have any trace of alcohol in their system.
In recent weeks, the department had proposed establishing a .04 blood alcohol content (BAC) rule, which is half the legal limit, in order to enable off-duty officers to intervene in potential situations if they were, for instance, out to dinner and enjoying a glass of wine or beer when a situation arose.
Police officials assured the commission that the .04 rule was not making drinking rules for officers more liberal, but rather would lay out a strict policy that would be easy to define and enforce.
Chief Bernadette DiPino told The Dispatch that despite the public uproar over the potential change, she was adamant in her belief that the .04 was a “realistic and responsible” rule for the officers, whom she argued have undergone vast amounts of training and whose duties are to keep the citizens and residents of Ocean City safe 24 hours a day.
Still, the debate had sparked so much reaction from the public that many of the councilmen who sit on the commission shifted their stance on the issue to the side of Councilman Doug Cymek, who had been calling for zero tolerance since the conversation began.
“For me, I think it should be zero tolerance for alcohol,” said Councilman Jim Hall. “Two percent, four percent, six percent, one beer, two beers, or three beers, we just can’t get into all of that, it’s got to be zero for me.”
Much of the debate, however, had to do with hypothetical situations involving Quick Response Teams, and what would happen if an officer was called into work and had consumed a few drinks while off-duty.
DiPino had hinted that a zero-tolerance policy could create staffing problems if an incident occurred, which she claimed could create great concern in the name of public safety.
The compromise seemed to come when the commission voted to remove the specific length of time (eight hours) in which an off-duty officer had to be free of alcohol before strapping on their firearm, after DiPino called the eight-hour rule “unreasonable.”
As a result, the commission voted to allow an already in place discretionary rule for supervisors to determine whether or not an officer who is called in for duty is fit to perform.
“We don’t care how long it has been, two hours, eight hours, or 50 hours, as long as there is no alcohol in their system when they start carrying that gun,” said Hall.
Police officials pointed to General Order 200 B-1, which addresses departure in policy or a commonsensical loophole, which states that, “a supervisor can use common sense and practicality in analysis of what an officer tells him and what he sees in that particular officer.”
Simply put, it will be up to the supervisor to determine if an officer who is called in for duty has had enough time go by since their last drink before being put into action.
“There’s a one-on-one, a conversation, and if needed, a breath test can be administered, and if a breath test comes back at zero, we can determine with great certainty that this person has no alcohol in their system at the time that they have to work,” said Lieutenant Greg Guiton.
Police officials pointed out that the rule for scheduled police officers will still stay the same, meaning that if they are scheduled to work, they should have their last sip of alcohol at least eight hours before that shift begins.
“This is not only carrying a firearm but also about off-duty officers getting involved in activities, so as to make a division of being a private citizens and what their responsibilities as an officer even when they are off duty,” said Guiton.
Public perception may have driven this seemingly commonsensical issue into a greater debate, but at the end of the Wednesday’s meeting, the commission stressed that the final decision is extremely cut and dry.
“All this says is that if an officer is planning on going to Salisbury with the boys and they are going to be drinking, they better leave their guns at home,” said Hall.
DiPino said that she was relieved that the discussion has finally come to a close and despite not necessarily getting her preference in the final policy, she was completely content with the result.
“I think that it was a reasonable resolution to the discussion and they voted to take a commonsense approach to the rule, especially with the eight-hour rule,” said DiPino. “Anytime that you can put new guidelines in place that protects the officers, the public and the town it is a good thing.”