January 27, 2012

A Cop Battles Addiction

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Editor’s Note: Sean Riley will be on KCTS 9 Connects with Enrique Cerna tonight to talk about prescription drug abuse. Watch the Preview.

Sean Riley, a 20-year homicide cop, was working an elder abuse case in 1999 in Kirkland, when he discovered one of the “perks” of his investigation.

“I’d been having a tough year,” he said. He’d gone through a divorce and had started drinking heavily. Then a gym injury led to a prescription for Vicodin. He started bumming prescriptions off doctors at the institutions where he was doing his investigations.

One pill led to another, and before long he was popping 20 to 30 a day. “I learned to chew pills to get the drug into my system faster,” he said.

By 2005, Riley was also taking increasing amounts of Percoset, morphine and Oxycontin. Eventually, a drug test busted him, and his own police chief turned him in to authorities.

Riley still figured he could beat the charges. “I know how to build cases,” he said. He shrugs now at his own arrogance. “As a police officer, you have to have an ego, be confident,” he said. “It’s how you stay safe.”

It also makes them their own worst enemies when it comes to admitting a take-down by addiction.

But shame worked.

“My dad – a guy who’d worked for 40 years, who had never had the opportunities I’d had, he looked at me and asked, ‘At what point in life do you take responsibility for your actions?’ ”Riley said. “That was it. I was done.”

He went to treatment, pleaded guilty and received three years probation.

But with a felony conviction on his record, his career as a police officer was done.  He turned instead to helping people like himself.

He knew there were others on the force, and among the ranks of other public safety officers tasked with keeping the citizenry safe –firefighters, paramedics, corrections officers – who were afraid to come forward for help with their addictions.

There’s a huge deterrent to seeking help, he said. “It’s a career-ender.”

Like police, these groups have a culture of being strong for others.

“We fix everyone else’s problems,” he said. “But not our own.”

Many turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate for the stress and trauma of the job.

Of public safety workers diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, more than half will become substance abusers, he said.

Most people who witness a high-profile killing will develop some form of PTSD, he said. “For fire and police—it’s a way of life.”

In April 2009, he helped convince the Legislature to pass a bill that provided a confidential “safe-call” system for public safety employees who want help with addiction issues without jeopardizing their jobs.  Safe Call Now, among the first services of its kind in the country, provides referrals and treatment while protecting the patient’s employment. So far, 171 public safety workers have sought help – the vast majority of them people with more than 10 years experience on the force.

Riley says now that he would have come clean much sooner had he been able to talk to a fellow officer who had similar experiences.

Still, he said he’s not sorry he landed in court for his drug use. “The federal government saved my life.”

This story is part of an ongoing collaboration between InvestigateWest and public broadcast station KCTS 9. If you want to support our work, please consider becoming a member for just $5 a month.

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