06/02/2006

N.Y. police tighten limits on drinking

Copyright 2006 The Hearst Corporation

Ban on consumption of alcohol within eight hours of shift follows detective's fatal crash
 
By BRENDAN J. LYONS
The Times Union (Albany, New York)

ALBANY, N.Y. — Albany police officers will be prohibited from consuming alcohol within eight hours of reporting for duty under a new policy that is being enacted after the recent fatal crash of an on-duty detective. The new measure, which stands as one of the strictest in the state for a local police force, will replace an arguably vague policy that allowed officers to come to work with alcohol in their system, as long as they were not impaired or intoxicated to the extent that it left them "unfit for duty."

Chief James W. Tuffey pledged to change the department's policy following the April 26 death of Detective Kenneth P. Wilcox. The highly decorated, 39-year-old detective, who was not intoxicated or impaired at the time of the crash, died when his unmarked cruiser struck a guardrail, careened across three lanes of Interstate 90 and slammed into a concrete barrier.

The crash took place at about 2:38 a.m., roughly 100 minutes after Wilcox was scheduled to report for work.

Wilcox, who had spent several hours at a downtown bar that night, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.03 percent at the time of his death, according to police officials. In New York state, a person is considered legally intoxicated if he has a BAC of 0.08 percent or above, and 0.05 to 0.07 percent is considered impaired.

Tuffey confirmed the policy change late Wednesday and said it would take effect this weekend. He declined further comment, saying the measure was still being distributed to officers on the 340-member force and that he would talk more today about the reasons for the policy change.

The policy will still include a provision that prohibits officers from becoming intoxicated while off-duty to the point that they would cause embarrassment to the department. In the past two years, two city officers have pleaded guilty to drunken-driving charges in connection with off-duty crashes, including one that set fire to an apartment building.

Christian Mesley, president of the Albany Police Officers Union, stated publicly recently that his union's leadership will no longer speak to the Times Union. The alcohol policy is part of the department's standard operating procedure and is not subject to collective bargaining.

The policy change comes as department officials continue piecing together the circumstances of the crash that killed Wilcox and his activities before work that night. Tuffey said he will issue a final report when the internal investigation is complete.

Wilcox was not wearing a seat belt and suffered a fractured skull as his car drifted into a guardrail while traveling an estimated 70 mph. State law exempts on-duty police officers from having to wear a seat belt, but they are required to wear one under departmental policy.

Wilcox, who joined the department in 1988, was one of the agency's most valued homicide detectives. His funeral on May 1 drew thousands of mourners and hundreds of police officers.

Police officials have not disclosed whether they know where Wilcox was going when the crash took place. His westbound cruiser crashed just west of Everett Road, near the city line, as he was headed in the general direction of his home in Colonie.

Former Colonie Police Chief John Grebert, who is executive director of the state Association of Chiefs of Police, said the public's attitude toward alcohol consumption has changed and that police departments should consider updating policies that are vague.

"I would applaud Albany for what they're doing," he said. "I think the public's attitude toward it has changed. ... There are so many problems associated with alcohol use and abuse that I would really encourage all departments to take a look at Albany's policy and see if they could follow suit."

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