Metro Vancouver residents reacted with shock, sadness and outrage this week at the news that two Lower Mainland police officers crashed while allegedly driving drunk – one of them tragically striking and killing a much-loved 21 year old motorcyclist from Delta and the other hitting a road sign on the Upper Levels highway.

The RCMP member involved in the Delta incident was identified as Corporal Benjamin Montgomery Robinson, a 38 year old currently assigned to the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit (ISU). It was quickly disclosed that Robinson was one of four RCMP members present – and the supervisor in charge – when Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died at Vancouver International Airport after receiving jolts from a police taser in October 2007.

The question on many minds is this: why was this man, who remains under investigation for and will quite possibly be charged criminally in Dziekanski’s death, showing such a reckless and wanton disregard for public, his own, and possibly his children’s safety? Details from the incident seem to indicate Robinson had two or three children with him in the Jeep he was driving when it struck victim Orion Hutchinson and that Robinson handed his driver’s license to a witness at the scene and ran off carrying the children in his arms, claiming the scene was inappropriate for them – gee, do you think? – and he would return.

Anyone – like a police officer or a criminal defence lawyer – who deals with impaired driving cases knows that unaccounted-for time between when the accident occurred and when dealing with police provides the accused with an excellent defense to impaired driving because he can claim, honestly or otherwise, that he was so rattled by what just transpired that he ran home with the kids, belted back a few stiff ones to calm down, then ran back to the scene to face the music. The court will not be able to ascertain whether Robinson was drunk before the accident or began drinking immediately afterwards unless witnesses are found who can put him drinking somewhere in the time leading up to the accident. Assuming he may have been drinking with work pals, good luck getting any of them to testify to this and if it’s a local cop watering hole, there won’t be too many waitresses willing to put their necks out, either.

So, he could walk, which will be extremely difficult for the family, but there is a bigger picture. As long as there have been police, there have been those that believe they are above the law. More alarmingly, though, is the number of police that don’t believe they are above the law, but do fall prey to a police culture that tells them they are special people on the one hand and on the other, tries to reinforce to officers that they are just regular people like the rest of us. Police officers languish in this no-man’s-land and many can’t hold up to the pressure of this higher standard.

Added to this is the problem inherent in the very nature of police work: the emotional demands of policing and the stress police officers work under every day erodes their ability to make accurate judgments about ethics and what it means to be held to this higher standard, because most police officers are merely trying to survive the job itself and the emotional fallout it brings.

Society rightly has a higher expectation of its police officers; we expect if they are out arresting us for impaired driving they aren’t going home loaded themselves, but unfortunately, for too many, this isn’t the case. Police people don’t drive drunk any more than any other group of people, but they certainly don’t do it any less and because society reinforces to them constantly how capable and competent they are and how they do things the rest of us can’t even imagine, these super heroes of our society begin to believe they can drive drunk and they’re “okay” to do it because they have so many special skills and abilities. But, they can’t – they’re human just like everyone else. And when they do get caught and there’s no accident or injury, many get a break from on-duty “friends”, perhaps a ride home or no charges, sparing them the “humiliation” of a lesson that might ultimately save their life or the life of someone else.

Clearly, these officers made bad choices and – as is likely in the case of Robinson and New Westminster Constable Tomi Hammer, described as a well-respected school liaison officer – were dealing with various stressors, as most people do every day. The responsibility is on the individual to hold themselves to a higher standard but also on police managers and human resource professionals to do more than ask members like Robinson, who have been involved in a critical incident, if they are doing okay and leave it to them to ask for help if they need it – few police officers will admit they need anything. They may take counseling for marital problems or vague complaints, but very few will acknowledge that the day to day seemingly mundane demands of policing are wearing them down and rendering them incapable. Even the notion that they have to have been involved in a “critical” incident detracts from the reality that many types of seemingly innocuous events haunt many police people.

This is not to say that police aren’t responsible for their actions or can be excused because the job is tough, but we must understand the toll their job takes on them and avail them of the kind of help they really need, before they end up hurting anyone, rather than after.