Police work attracts many candidates because of its excitement and the diversity of duties. The benefits and job security many jurisdictions offer are also powerful inducements. Yet public service is a public trust, as a famous 19th-century politician stated. Citizens need to know that their law officers are men and women of integrity. Where, then, do we draw the lines as to who can serve and who should not? For example, can you be a police officer with a DUI?
What Is a DUI?
DUI stands for “driving under the influence.” Of alcohol, usually, that is. Often, the designation is DWI – driving while intoxicated. The federal, state and local governments in the U.S. compile mountains of statistics implicating alcohol and other substances in car accidents where lives ore lost and limbs are severely damaged. Many survivors never completely recover from their injuries. This is why penalties for DUI are harsh in most states.
DUI or DWI convictees receive two-fold punishment. Administrative penalties are imposed by a state department of motor vehicles. These include suspension or loss of driver’s license; numerous surcharges before being eligible again to drive; and mandated substance abuse education. There are also criminal sanctions for drunk drivers. Costly fines, community service or jail time are all possible depending on the number of offenses. Quite apart from official discipline, the driver’s insurance rates will soar when privileges are resumed.
A Conviction Follows You
The pain does not end there. A DUI conviction follows you well after you pay your debt to society. Background searches are commonplace among American businesses. Corporate recruiters and headhunters almost guarantee that, if a DUI is on the record, potential employers will see it. As a criminal offense, a DUI is sure to appear front and center on any such report. It will most definitely count as a negative against any applicant.
Still, private enterprise is not the same as public service. A job seeker who can successfully sell his or her skills and achievements to a hiring manager might – and often does – offset the DUI or DWI. This is especially true if the conviction is a one-time offense. After all, companies are in business to make money. However, this fact begs the question: can you be a police officer with a DUI? Police officers are paid through taxation and are subject to political authority.
Not All Police Departments Are Equal
Before we can answer the question, “can you be a police officer with a DUI?” we have to answer a few other questions. The first is: where? There are law enforcement organiazations at the local, county, state and federal levels. Thus there are thousands upon thousands of paces at which to apply. Some of these police agencies may have more trouble recruiting than others, and must consequently lower their standards.
Obviously, it is cumbersome to do a PD by PD survey of who will hire whom. On the other hand, federal law enforcement takes a dim view of alcohol abuse, especiallyt since security clearances might be germain. That said, a first-time DUI is only dubbed “potentially disqualifying” for FBI hopefuls. What, then, about the many police forces at other levels of government?
As a rule with exceptions, a felony DUI will preclude service as a police officer whereas a misemeanor DUI does not…necessarily. What keeps a DUI in the misdemeanor class is:
- No prior felony DUI convictions.
- A sympathetic judge.
- No injuries caused by the convicted.
- No deaths related to the DUI.
With one misdemeanor DUI, an officer candidate stands a fighting chance to get into the police academy if his or her record is otherwise clean and commendable.
What Does the Profession Say?
Aside from the laws and administrative criteria of any given jurisdiction, what do police officers as a profession say about their peers with DUIs in their pasts? The International Association of Chiefs of Police holds to a Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, which states in part: “I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all and will behave in a manner that does not bring discredit to me or to my agency.” Also present in this document is a resolve to “develop self restraint.” Clearly, a DUI conflicts with these values…but to what degree?
Likewise, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) espouses character, excellence and competence among constables in its mission statement. Like the FOP, the International Union of Police Associations speaks more to employment benefits and protection as opposed to standards of conduct, leaving such matters to individual PDs. Critics of law enforcement culture cite instances when officers will protect off-duty brethren who are pulled over for possible DUI. Nevertheless, these occurrences relate to active police officers and not to applicants.
County and local PDs differ in terms of leadership. Some prefer an officer from the ranks to serve as chief of police. Others desire a civilian to run things in the role of police director. Each choice has its pros and cons but the options also affect what sort of people are recruited to the force.
Having risen through the department, a police chief – perhaps – has an instinctive feel for what traits makes a good officer. A chief of police, therefore, might take a tough position on one DUI convict and a more lenient stance toward another. A director, by contrast, could adopt a by-the-book strategy or look to political superiors for hiring guidance.
In brief, a DUI (or DWI) conviction hurts your prospects but – in many cases – does not destroy them. While this legal stigma represents a lack of self-control and good judgment, an isolated episode can also be weighed against other factors that attest to your better angels. So, can you be a police officer with a DUI? It is certainly possible, though never guaranteed. If it is your sole indiscretion relative to drunk driving, you still have a sporting chance.