‘Roid Rage: Are steroids behind the worst police brutality cases?
In 2004, the growing menace of steroid abuse by American police officers prompted the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to warn of the “possible psychological disturbances” of juiced-up cops.
The DEA said symptoms included:
- Mood swings (including manic-like symptoms leading to violence)
- Impaired judgment (stemming from feelings of invincibility)
- Extreme irritability
- Hostility and aggression
Four years later, the influential International Association of Chiefs of Police, with 16,000 members around the globe, approved a resolution that “calls upon state and local law enforcement entities to establish a model policy prohibiting the use of illegally obtained steroids” by officers.
That hasn’t happened. Today, there still is no standardized policy for steroid testing of cops, and evidence suggests there is less random testing now than a decade ago, under an ever-changing hodge-podge of local directives hammered out through collective bargaining.
Many who follow the issue closely were surprised last month when the 4,000-member Phoenix Police Department, which became the standard-bearer for aggressive testing after a local steroids scandal involving cops and firefighters in 2007, publicly admitted it had stopped random testing of officers.
Kim Humphrey, the Phoenix police commander who oversaw the testing, has an international reputation as a steroid-test advocate. In 2008, Humphrey co-authored a persuasive article in Police Chief magazine about the need for a coherent and comprehensive strategy against officer abuse of steroids.
“What law enforcement is finding is there’s a whole lot more people [police officers] who are going to test positive for this than for cocaine or anything else,” Humphrey told a reporter in 2011. “You don’t want anyone carrying a gun — having a rage or a mood problem or a depression problem — [while] taking a drug they shouldn’t be taking.”
So what changed between 2011 and 2014?
Like many police departments, Phoenix decided random testing was too expensive and ineffective, in part because police officers had grown adept at masking steroid use.
“This is one of the dirty little secrets of American law enforcement,” says Gregory Gilbertson, a former Atlanta cop who teaches criminal justice in the Seattle area and works as a legal expert on police standards and practices. “Steroid testing is declining, and I think there’s an attitude in all these agencies of ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ because they don’t want to know about it. Because if they know about it, then they have to address it.”
The Black Hole of Police Data
Many police agencies now focus on testing individual officers identified as possible juicers under “reasonable suspicion” or “for cause” guidelines.
I asked James Pasco, director of legislative advocacy for the 325,000-member Fraternal Order of Police, how many of the nation’s 18,000 agencies currently test officers for steroids.
“I have no idea,” he replied.
It seems nobody does. Since there is no systematic national data collection on testing and results, the number of officers disciplined each year for steroids is unknowable—a potentially important criminal justice data point that is lost down an information black hole.
But the stunning succession of recent front-page examples of police officers who exhibit rage, aggression and/or poor judgment (all symptoms of possible steroid abuse) in confrontations with citizens should ring alarm bells, experts say. They include:
- The death of Eric Garner last July 17 on Staten Island, N.Y., after a buff cop named Daniel Pantaleo applied a chokehold. Pantaleo was among the officers named in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Garner’s family. New York City settled the case for $5.9 million in July.
- The shooting death last Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., of Michael Brown, 18, by Officer Darren Wilson.
- The April death in Baltimore of Freddie Gray, who was trussed and bundled into the back of a police van, where he suffered fatal injuries from the police “rough ride.”
- The gun-waving aggression of Officer Eric Casebolt on June 6 when dealing with swim-suited teenagers outside a pool in McKinney, Texas.
- The apparent suicide in a Texas jail of Sandra Bland, arrested near Houston on July 10 after a routine police stop escalated into a confrontation with Trooper Brian Encinia, who threatened the woman with a Taser, screaming, “Get out of the car! I will light you up!”
- The “purposeful killing” of Samuel DuBose in Ohio during a routine traffic stop on July 19, by Ray Tensing, a University of Cincinnati police officer who has been charged with murder.
- The shooting death on Aug. 7 at an Arlington, Texas, car dealership of the unarmed Christian Taylor, 19, by Officer Brad Miller, who was fired.
In each case, the citizens involved were black, and the officer (or officers) used or threatened force when a more reasoned approach might have been to pull back and lower the temperature as the confrontations escalated. (This must have crossed Texas Trooper Encinia’s mind; in a phone call to a supervisor after the arrest, he said, “I tried to de-escalate her and it wasn’t getting anywhere at all.”)
No one has alleged that Encinia or the others were on steroids, though if they were tested after the incidents, the results have not been made public. But the pattern raises questions.
“I keep seeing all of these cases where the level of anger and violence shown by officers makes no sense,” Gilbertson says. “And when things don’t make sense, they don’t make sense for a reason…Maybe steroid rage is a reason so many police officers seem so angry and aggressive.”
‘The Invincibility Mentality’
Why do cops use steroids? For the same reason athletes do: muscle power.
“They’re looking for physical superiority and the intimidation factor, like Robocop,” says Gilbertson.
Or as the DEA puts it, “The idea of enhanced physical strength and endurance provides one with ‘the invincible mentality’ when performing law enforcement duties.”
Anabolic steroids include a broad group of synthetic hormones, typically derived from testosterone, that promote the growth of lean muscle. Steroids became a controlled substance under federal law in 1990, after “roid rage” began making headlines in the late ‘80s. They are available by prescription as hormone-replacement therapy for those (generally over the age of 30) who show a decline in testosterone.
Avid abusers will inject several forms of steroids directly into muscles, often in cycles that last up to several months. There are hundreds of varieties of steroids and alternative forms of muscle-builders. Some of the popular brands include Anadrol, Clenbuterol, Dianabol, Durabolin, Equipoise, Nolvadex, Oxandrolone, Trenbolone and Winstrol. Vitamin stores peddle many alternative forms of putative muscle-builders, and juicers school themselves in the various substances that are believed to mask the use of illegal steroids.
This confounding multiplicity makes steroid testing ever more complicated for police departments, and officers are well aware of that. Tips for steroid work-arounds are common in cop message boards on the Internet. This note was posted not long ago by “Andrewd2013”:
Any 1 that can help with NYPD drug screening please look
Hello, I was just curious if the NYPD test(s) for AAS (anabolic-androgenic steroids).
I heard yes, then I heard no.
Will Clenbuterol show up?
I know they take hair, and it test(s) back for 3 months, I just find it hard to believe how AAS will show up.
Way too expensive etc.
I wanted to start some Clen, but not sure if it will show.
If it does, can I just say it’s from my Albuterol pump, asthma pump?
Any help would be appreciated. Thank you
Testing Complicated, Costly
Andrewd2013 was right that steroid testing is costly.
Police departments generally pay less than $20 each for a urine test for narcotics, including cocaine, marijuana, meth and opiates. A prevalent type of steroid testing can cost up to $200, using a chemical analysis that involves expensive chromatography and spectrometry equipment.
But even those tests have become muddled and legally debatable by the endless smorgasbord of steroids and related steroid-like supplements. Questions of which are legal and which are not can bog down the testing process — a factor in Phoenix’s decision to end random tests in favor of “reasonable suspicion” targeting of certain cops. But even that route is fraught with loopholes and ambiguities.
In 2012, a Chicago police officer, Anthony Nowakowski, was fired after his urine sample was found to contain several forms of anabolic steroids, including Drostanolone, Nandrolone and Trenbolone.
The test had been ordered by an Internal Affairs Division supervisor acting on an anonymous tip that Nowakowski’s “behavior was indicative of a person using steroids” and that “he had grown extremely large in size.”
With his union’s backing, Nowakowski appealed to the city’s police board, which invalidated the steroid test and reversed the firing order because the anonymous information was deemed insufficient cause to warrant reasonable suspicion that the cop was juicing—even though the test confirmed that he was.
Cases like these mystify police watchdogs.
“Institutional momentum makes it very hard for police departments to change,” says Dan Handelman, a founding member of Portland Copwatch, a police accountability group in the Oregon city. “And then you factor in the power of unions in collective bargaining…Sometimes it seems like the unions are not merely negotiating wages and other issues for their members. They’re really setting public policy.”
The Fraternal Order of Police has been a legal advocate for officers involved in a number of the foundational cases concerning the limits of police drug testing. But Pasco, FOP’s chief lobbyist, insists the union stands firm against steroids.
“Obviously, we oppose the illegal use of any drugs by anyone, whether prescription or contraband or otherwise. We just have a blanket opposition,” he says. “We don’t believe in separate rules necessarily for police and the public with respect to violations of law.”
He adds that while he has no statistics about steroid abuse by law enforcers, “I have no reason to believe that it’s a huge problem.”
Many Examples of Juicer Cops
Anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. These are some of the cases that have made news in the past year, though there likely are others that have not been revealed publicly:
- In June, a Jeffersonville, Ind., cop, Anthony Mills, resigned after pleading guilty to possession of steroids. His attorney told the media that Mills did not consider steroids to be illegal drugs.
- In May, a federal grand jury indicted Steven Santucci, a former Newtown, Conn., police sergeant, as part of a broad steroids investigation, Operation Juice Box. Santucci is the accused kingpin of a ring of traffickers in steroids and prescription drugs from China. Others arrested include a marshal and a police dispatcher.
- This spring, authorities in Edmonton, Alberta, revealed that a handful of police officers had been involved in the use or distribution of Stanozolol, the steroid commonly sold as Winstrol. More than 30 officers in Edmonton have been implicated in steroid use in the past few years, according to press reports there.
- In January, a Portland, Ore., cop who faced firing for a positive steroid test was allowed to resign.
- Last fall, a scandal rocked police in the Augusta, Ga., area when a man arrested for steroids possession gave authorities a list of steroid users among local law enforcement officers. At least one deputy resigned; authorities denied that the list included as many 30 others.
- Also last fall, the Miami New Times revealed that Miami-Dade police officers had been customers of Biogenesis, a South Florida steroid clinic at the heart of professional baseball’s ongoing doping scandal.
In the more distant past, broader steroid scandals have erupted in a number of places, including New Jersey, where the Newark Star-Ledger reported in 2010 that some 250 cops and firefighters had been implicated, and in Boston, where 11 officers were disciplined in 2009.
Miami, Albuquerque Add Testing
A handful of police departments are going against the trend by adding random steroids testing. They include Miami, in response to the Biogenesis allegations. Police in Albuquerque, N.M., beset by a string of violent misconduct by officers, revealed in June that it too would begin random testing — several years after a former chief suggested steroid abuse was a problem.
But if they follow a well-worn pattern, those departments are likely to quickly—and quietly—back away from widespread random testing, just as New York City, Seattle and many other locales have.
Meanwhile, police accountability advocates wonder over the lack of a national standard—a so-called best-practices model—to identify and measure the scope of steroid abuse among law enforcers, a quarter-century after the FBI called police steroid abuse “a serious problem that merits greater awareness.”
FOP’s Pasco is dismissive of the idea.
“Why are there no standard practices? Because there is no national police force,” Pasco says. “States—and for that matter cities and township and counties and so on—all develop their own laws and policies and procedures. That’s just the way it is…It’s no different from school boards and city councils.”
But Handelman, of Portland Copwatch, suggests that law enforcement could begin building a meaningful database by conducting steroid tests on officers involved in violent acts under “reasonable suspicion” guidelines.
“Reasonable suspicion should be raised if they shoot somebody or beat the living daylights out of somebody,” he told me. “In some of these recent cases, the officers seemed to be pumped up and were not necessarily working in a calm and level-headed manner. We wonder how much of this was coming from natural adrenalin and how much coming from other substances.”