Debate Over Cops Carrying Guns, Drinking Divides Council

OCEAN CITY — City Council members and police officials are still divided on whether off-duty cops can carry a weapon while having a drink or if they should just simply leave their guns at home.

The Police Commission meeting looked like a chess match that had reached a stalemate on Tuesday, as the two sides continued the debate about off-duty cops having drinks while carrying their guns.

Although it should be noted that the this issue is the lone section of the newly amended General Order for Police Officers that is still up for discussion, police officials argued that the section clearly states that officers are not encouraged to carry a weapon if they intend to consume alcohol.

Essentially, any debate, controversy, or discussion over the past few weeks has been based on hypothetical “what if” situations, that perhaps could be deemed unlikely to happen, but still must be written into the section to protect the agency, the town and the public.

“I understand where they are coming from, and that they should be allowed to go out and have a drink and have private lives,” said Councilman Doug Cymek, who took a zero-tolerance stance in the discussion. “I just feel like if they are off duty and they involve themselves in a situation and they have any sort of alcohol on their breath, it puts us at risk of liability, and poor perception from the public.”

The tripping point in the conversation seems to be about the limit of alcohol one would be permitted to have in their system and still be allowed to take police action.  Chief Bernadette DiPino took a liberal approach by proposing that it would be allowable to have up to a .04 Blood-Alcohol Concentration (half of the legal limit and allegedly two drinks per hour) and still be allowed to take police action.

“I’m not much of a drinker, but I’ve had my life threatened before in my earlier life as an officer, and I’m the type of police officer that if a situation arises while I’m out and having a glass of wine at dinner, I’m going to take action,” said DiPino. “I think this protects the officer by saying they can intervene, and it still protects the town and the agency, which is always our concern.”

Police Commission Chairman and Councilman Lloyd Martin made it apparent that a .04 limit was more than acceptable in his opinion and leaned toward the department’s wishes.

“All I know is that a shot of NyQuil is almost as much alcohol as one drink, so if they have a cold and they get called on into the field, they aren’t going to be allowed to do their job,” said Martin. “That seems like it’s a bit much for me.”

Martin also argued that officers have gone through copious amounts of training and two beers would not cloud their judgment.

“I grew up in a house that had guns in clear view in the corner of the living room, but we were taught to respect them and not to touch them,” said Martin. “Our officers are highly trained and are expected to make good decisions that will keep the public safe.”

Mayor Rick Meehan’s attempts at compromise by offering up .02 as a limit (which is essentially one drink) toward the end of the discussion were a bit different than his tone at the beginning of the conversation, which mirrored Cymek’s zero-tolerance policy.

“I think that it should be zero drinks if a weapon is present,” said Meehan. “There’s lots of instances and things in the general order that outline ways an officer can respond to a situation without using their weapon.”

Still, Meehan seemed to be the voice of compromise in the discussion citing that if it does in fact go to .02 as the allowable level, it would give the officer a feeling of still being able to have a drink on their own time, while still being able to essentially protect and serve the public should an unfortunate situation arise.

“If you say one drink, then that is pretty clear and simple,” said Meehan. “It’s easier to stop after one drink than it is to stop after two.”

Senior police officials conceded that the majority of this discussion had more to do with the Quick Response Teams that could get called into the field at any hour of the day or night, than it does with the large majority of the department.

“I never take my gun with me if I think that I’m going to have something to drink and if I’m at a niteclub or a restaurant I would never take it in with me, it would be locked in the car,” said Captain Victor Bunting. “My personal feeling is that if I have something to drink I’m not putting my livelihood working 35 years on the line for someone to take away from me, and from the town as well, so I just don’t think it’s worth it.”

Cymek points out, however, that other town policies, such as the rules and regulations for town employees and beach patrol members, have stricter rules than what the department is proposing.

“It’s not sitting well with the public about police officers drinking and having guns, because guns and alcohol don’t mix,” said Cymek. “Even though I let it slip publicly that I would probably be able to live with a .02, if I had to vote today, my feeling is probably leaning towards zero tolerance.”

Police officers are not supposed to drink alcohol eight hours prior to a scheduled shift, and the town’s substance abuse policy, for beach patrol workers for instance, clearly states that if an employee has a alcohol concentration of “more than .02 but less than .04 when reporting for duty, they would be required to be removed from the safety sensitive position for 24 hours.”

“How can the town’s policy be more strict for lifeguards and alcohol than it is for police officers and alcohol,” queried Cymek. “The lifeguards aren’t the ones with the guns.”